On returning home after a year hiding in the mountains, Ahmed Hussein Hamad had braced himself for the worst.
ISIS had occupied his village and appropriated his house after a lightning summer surge in 2014. Neighbors warned that their district—in an isolated agricultural swathe of northern Iraq—had been badly battered as Kurdish forces later fought to drive the jihadists (also known as ISIL or the Islamic State) out of the area.
What he hadn’t anticipated, though, was the complete evisceration of the family chicken farm, through which he and several generations before him had supplied surrounding villages with eggs and fowl.
Both barns—each half the size of a football field—had been robbed of their equipment and riddled with gunshots. Truck-size holes had been punched through the walls. Only the familiar stench of chicken droppings, still noticeable among the rank petrol fumes, betrayed the farm buildings’ original purpose.
“My livelihood is wrecked, destroyed,” Hamad says, his voice cracking with emotion, as a fixer and I probe the ruins of his farm on a drizzly February day. “The generators are gone. The feeding apparatus is probably in Mosul [a large city under ISIS control], and they ate my chickens. How are we supposed to feed people now?”
The war in Iraq and Syria has played havoc with agriculture. Distribution networks have been disrupted and fields burned as warring bands of fighters rove across tracts of countryside. In the regions most devastated by conflict, few silos, seed banks, and greenhouses have emerged unscathed.
But no food facilities, it seems, have been quite as badly caught up in the chaos as chicken farms, whose large size and bevy of expensive machinery have made them extra vulnerable to damage and looting.
All 24 megacoops in the Sinjar and Sunoni areas of northern Iraq were affected by the jihadists’ yearlong occupation, including five that have been blown up, leaving only twisted piles of corrugated iron and mangled breeze blocks. Those that survived airstrikes—targeted at the vehicles ISIS fighters supposedly concealed in the large, hangar-like coops—have found themselves in no position to renew operations.
“The value of what was stolen or destroyed is astronomical,” says Barakat Eissa Aizer, the director of Sunoni’s agricultural office, when we meet in the small village near Dohuk in the Kurdish-controlled northeast of Iraq. Aizer fled here after ISIS’s emergence. “It’s $70 million at least, and where can we get that kind of money? There’s a financial crisis.”
For the few thousand villagers who’ve trickled back to the Sinjar area and are now deprived of local sources, chicken has become something of a luxury foodstuff. Once sold locally for about 1,500 Iraqi dinars ($1.35) per kilo before the war, it now goes for 3,500 dinars ($3.15) or more—out of reach, financially, for many. In the market at Rabia, an hour’s drive away, the lone chicken vendor has resigned himself to continued slow trade.
“There are no salaries, no [local] agriculture, so no one can afford this,” says Ibrahim Khalil, who had driven his stock up from Zakho, near Dohuk.
Some NGOs are working hard to boost farmers, who had previously accounted for around 90 percent of economic activity in the far north of Iraq. Yazda, an American charity, recently distributed 2,500 egg-producing chickens to 500 families in the Sinjar area. They see it as a means of mixing aid with sustainable development. Other groups have mooted similar schemes in the Kirkuk governorate, a few hours southeast, where ISIS assaults have also terrorized the poultry and meat industries.
But for Ahmed Hussein Hamad, it’s too little too late. As a Yazidi, an ancient ethno-religious group native to northern Iraq that’s been viciously targeted by ISIS, life was tough enough in the first place. The recent discovery of a mass grave containing 34 men, women, and children of his faith—possibly including some of his former employees—in the field next door to his gutted coops seems for him the final straw.
“If I still had my farm and my chickens, perhaps I’d stay,” he says. “But there’s nothing for our people in Iraq anymore.”
Peter Schwartzstein is a Cairo-based journalist. He focuses on food, water, energy and refugee issues, and his work regularly appears in National Geographic News, among other news outlets. You can find him on Twitter @pschwartzstein.