Small Wars Journal

1991: When The Oil Fields Burned

1991: When The Oil Fields Burned by Sebastiao Salgado, New York Times Interactive

Twenty-five years ago, as the United States-led coalition started driving out Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Saddam Hussein’s troops responded by setting ablaze hundreds of oil wells, creating one of the worst environmental disasters in recent memory.

By the time I reached southeastern Kuwait in April 1991, on assignment for The New York Times Magazine, the war had ended but the smoke from the arson in the Greater Burgan oil fields continued to obliterate the sun and the flames lit up the desert horizon. Oil-well firefighters from dozens of countries had begun working in unbelievably difficult circumstances to try to extinguish the inferno.

For me, these men are the true heroes of the war. Covered head to foot in oil, they moved like phantoms through the gloom. The roar of the flames forced them to communicate by shouting into one another’s ears.

I remember that the heat warped one of my lenses and my jaws ached from the sheer tension of being exposed for hours to scalding temperatures, noise and stench and to the unabating fear of a major explosion. Going from one burning or belching well to another, I quickly understood that I needed special equipment if I was to photograph the workers and their operation close up. By good fortune, I found supplies — strong boots and protective clothing — left behind in the desert by the Iraqi Army.

It took billions of dollars and years of work to clean up the mess of Saddam Hussein’s failed scorched earth policy. Twenty-five years later, wars are raging in much of the Middle East, and oil fields have already been set aflame. We must remember that in the brutality of battle another such apocalypse is always just around the corner…

Read on.