Mohamed Ahmed wipes his forehead with his flat, gloved hand. Leaving black trails that emphasize the blue of his eyes and the large bright pink patches that cover his left cheek and cheekbone, his nasal wing and a part of her chin. Half of Mohamed Ahmed’s face is blackish and the other is burned. “It’s nothing,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. A back draft of flames. I was too close. “Cursed well” he sighed, ‘‘It cheated us once more today. It won again’’. Behind him, several hundred yards away, an enormous orange flame is turning towards the sky. It is several storeys high, wide as a building. It snores and grunts, rises and lowers like a monstrous breath. It spits thick black smoke that blinds the sun, and scrolls that swallow the whole sky. It boils at its base, expelling bubbles which are as big as balloons and black drops in sheaves. The air is pungent and thick. Small silhouettes are moving at the edge of the flame, black against the orange of the fire. Their gestures are like hampered, their feet like stuck to the dark and shiny floor. The closer one gets, the warmer the heat is. The breath of air becomes burning, pulls the skin, pricks the nostrils, the throat and the eyes, breathing gets jerky. Men’s faces are hardly covered by scarves or work site masks, their skulls protected by helmets. They are wearing heavy boots, red suits and yellow wax jackets stained with black drops. They are firefighters. Not just any firemen: they work for the Iraqi oil company Naft Shamal (“Petroleum of the North” in Arabic). They are specialists. Few men dare to do their job: getting as close as possible to oil and gas fires in order to coax, control and extinguish them. Here, for the past three weeks, hour after hour, day after day, they face the monstrous beast that the well 77 on fire represents. In front of it, qualifiers are missing. It might be described as dantesque or coming from the underworld, the burning jaws of a subterranean monster, that one would not succeed in rendering this force of oil burning as it gushes uncontrollably. The men of Well 77 fight with their skill, their courage, their tenacity much more than with derisory technical means. Taming such a flashover requires patience, obstinacy and a certain amount of unconsciousness as well as technicality. Men also need to be united, to know so well that… a simple gesture of the hand says as much as a long explanation, that they know their limits and those of their companions. Fire’s raging breath covers all words, its movements are vicious, it only takes a moment of exhaustion or inattention to take you and consume you. The ambulance parked away from the furnace, alongside transport minibuses, red fire engines and tank trucks will not do anything for you. Sixty kilometers away, Iraqi anti-terrorist forces, the famous Golden Division, ripping – street after street – the city of Mosul from the fighters of the Islamic state. They were driven out by August 25, 2016. They had held this village of Qayyarah, 15,000 souls at most, for two years and two months. They had confiscated the banks of the Tigris where the inhabitants liked to take a breath of fresh air in the summer and the children liked to plunge into the river. Above all, they had taken away the low, peeled hills that contain an estimated Iraqi oil reserve of one billion barrels, and nearly 80 wells. When the men of Daesh arrived, most of them were no longer in use: the deposit, explored by the British Oil Company in 1927, produces a very heavy crude oil difficult to harness. In 2010, the Angolan company Sonangol, in joint venture with the Iraqi company Naft Shamal, produced 10,000 barrels per day, a drop compared to domestic production of 4.1 million barrels in 2015. But for the Islamic state, Qayyarah was good to take: it supplied the diesel of electric generators of Mosul, kerosene and diesel, admittedly of poor quality, but indeed used for transport. So the operation had resumed, even if the refinery of the village and its old facilities were still unused. “Beside each well, they had dug ponds in which they stocked the crude. Tank trucks came to pump it. Some of which were without a license plate, others with Iraqi and Syrian ones,” Nazar Jallal, head of Naft Shamal media, explains at a safe distance from the fire. “The barrel was sold between $ 12 and $ 15,” he says. At the edge of the trails that run through the huge desolate expanse of the oil field, burnt truck carcasses testify to the coalition’s bombings. The war halted in Qayyarah. Before fleeing to the Iraqi army supported by an uprising of a part of the population, Daesh technicians blew up the wellheads and mined the surrounding area. They also opened the valves. « 18 caught fire,” says Ayad al-Jobouri, a company engineer. We managed to turn out the fire of ten. “This slender fifty-year-old can only distinguishes himself from firefighters through his jumpsuit that is green as opposed to red. His face is just as smeared as that of the others, his skin constellated with black drops. While his men change shifts – 10 days on the spot, 20 days at home – , he refuses to leave the site. “I’m from Qayyarah,” he says. I fled when the Islamic state came to power, because in my family we are all officers or state officials and we were in danger of death. And then I wanted to put my children, especially my daughters, somewhere safe ». He came to see the damage as soon as the Iraqi army got into the village:” There was still fighting, and I saw the wells burning. It split my heart. It is a part of the wealth of the country that goes up in smoke. Five months later, the outskirts of the village still look like a black and shiny, oil swamp. Its sky is clogged, dark and stinking. And Well 77 spits out its enormous flame and volutes of tar. “We have seen others,” smiled Mohamed Ahmed’s half-burned face, with his 18 years of experience. In 2004 and 2005, near Kirkuk, there was an oil pipeline that al-Qaeda was constantly blowing up. We would extinguish it under the mortar fire, and it would start again. In spite of everything, this well is a stubborn beast. For the last three weeks they have been fighting against it, men are approaching it with cunning. They know that taking it head-on would be useless. So they nibble away at its reserves, cut off its food. They tinkered sheet metal huts closed on only three sides and pierced by a window. Every morning the bulldozer, which is as black as the ground pushes them towards the fire. The firemen protect themselves inside and, through the opening, pass their lances to the jet which are so powerful that they must be several to hold it: “the earth is cooled around the well,” explains Satar Abduljabbar, 25 years of craft. And then we get rid of it with the shovel, we put it aside. And we advance like that, towards the wellhead properly called. It took two and a half weeks for the men at Well 77 to reach the heart. They are a few meters from the valve. “The temperature reaches 700° at least,” says Satar Abduljabbar, a cigarette in one hand, a bottle of water in the other. « Here, it’s complicated, the explosion of the mines has twisted its head. It is difficult to inject the product to extinguish it sufficiently deeply. A strange crawler approached. It is heavy, black, shiny, the smallest bolt is covered with a thick layer of oil that makes it look like a shell. At the end of its arm, there seems to be an enormous syringe destined to prick the artery of the animal to inject the mixture of salt water and cement that will kill it. Behind it, stretch pipes connected to the taps of a tanker truck that seems to date from the fifties. Around him, firemen, clinging to their fire hoses, water it to cool it. The driver, in the cabin, is removed every 10 minutes. Here, no nitroglycerin is used like in The Wages of Fear by Clouzot. Tension, exhaustion, as well as excitement, can be read on the whole body of men who lead a hand-to-hand combat for hours. The flame suddenly sinks. Under the black cloud, the temperature drops. The firemen relax a little. Turning their backs to the brazier so that it appears behind them on the selfies. Sitting down, lighting cigarettes in the shelter of the iron huts. Because we never know. And suddenly the beast starts breathing again. First slowly and then very quickly, with unmatched power. Its breath leaps up to the orange and burning sky. The arm of the machine raises the syringe, leaving the brazier. The men have already retreated. They have failed. They surrender the weapons for today, returning with the minibuses to their base at the edge of the deposit. From their prefabricated buildings, they have a view of the refinery that is partly destroyed by bombings and of the burning wells. The number 77 is the most powerful of all.