Homemade Oil Refineries On an ISIL Frontline in Syria

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February 26, 2014
Msheirfeh, Qamishli, Syria

Desperate conditions in northeastern Syria have caused some residents to turn to the dangerous practice of homemade, roadside oil-refining in the hope of earning enough to survive. The village of Msheirfeh is located on a volatile frontline between ISIL and and an alliance of Kurdish and Christian militias. Everyday, self-made oilmen risk their lives to refine raw crude oil, facing warfare and precarious working conditions. The oil refining process produces an uncontrollable amount of poisonous and explosive fumes and the unregulated working conditions have led to accidents with exploding refineries and poison-related amputations. Despite this, many young men see this kind of work as their only chance of earning a living, with schools and universities closed due to the civil war.

Interviews with workers:

First Interview (no name given):
''These are three barrels. We fill up three and we get from it one; gas, fuel and diesel. First we get the fuel. The bigger the fire, the more the product, this is the process.''

Second Interview (no name given):
''First we get the oil here; there’s water with it. We burn it for around 12 hours. First we get the fuel, after 4 or 5 hours. By then the water will be gone. Then we start getting gas and then diesel at the end. The barrel gets us 3000 liras, the gas 7 or 7 and a half, and the diesel 45 or 50. We’re not really making any money from it. We don’t want to do this anymore.”

Q: How long have you been working here and how does this effect on your health?

“It has been a month that I have worked here, there is nothing else to do. We make around 5000 Syrian Pounds ($33) on every barrel, sometimes 4000 ($26). Sometimes we only break even because the oil is expensive. In terms of side effects, your lungs get clogged. Some people are getting sick, major headaches. It is death, slow death. Sometimes there are explosions. Up until now we witnessed 5 explosions. One guy got cut in half. It doesn’t usually happen, but when you re-heat gasoline it often explodes. Someone did it and died. However this one here, if anything goes wrong, is not supposed to explode. We don’t trust the media, they’re bias. You guys might be here to stop us from work, but this is where we get our livelihood.
I don’t want to give my name because you might shut us down and I don’t have another way to make money. Find us another job and we will shut down the refineries. I am 18 years old, I was in college studying law but I stopped."

Q: Why did you come here? What were the circumstances for you leaving college?

"I was in law school, first year. I couldn’t sustain myself, I was begging for bread. So I came here, started working and started to make a little bit of money. Eventually I left college for good. We hope things go back to the way they were so I can move on with my life. Before it was much better, we were able to travel to Damascus and Lebanon. Now we can’t because of the stealing and killing that happens on the road. So I started working in these refineries, as you can see there’s nothing else. No more studies. Even the kids are working here. We hope things get back to normal and oil prices go down, because we’re barely making it.''

General talking:
First person: “Come and see the fuel coming up.”
Second Person: “This is oil with gas.”

Second Interview (no name given):
''There is a bit of water here with the fuel. Sometimes we get better oil that’s water-free, but nowadays we’re mostly getting oil mixed with water from the wells. We can’t tell where the problem is from, if it’s from the wells or the transporter. Oil prices are soaring, we get the oil for 3200 Syrian Pounds ($21) and pay an extra 500 ($3.30) to the guy. So in all you pay 3700 Syrian Pounds ($24), sometimes you break even, sometimes you lose 1000 ($6.6) or 1500 Syrian Pounds ($10).''

Third Interview - Maher Hussein:
“I scratched my hand on metal scrap from the barrels and I got oil on it. Now it’s been numb for a few weeks. Someone else got oil in his wounds so he went to a clinic and they cut off his hand. I’ve been working here for two months. I stopped working around a month ago, because of my hand."

Q: Are you scared they might cut off your hand as well?

“Of course I am afraid. I’ve been going to the doctor and getting some medicine but my hand’s not getting any better.”

Q: What did you do before working in the fields?

“I used to study and now I even stopped working here because of my hand and without oil there is no work.”

Fourth Interview – Ahmad Hamdosh:
“Before I was a schoolteacher, now I stopped school and I’m working here in the fields. We’re not sleeping at night because of the coughing. We were comfortable and happy working at the school. Now we work in oil and it’s full of sicknesses. Some guy got cancer working here. God knows what’s going to happen to my hand. There’s one guy they cut off three of his fingers because of a small scratch that he got oil on it. If they hadn’t cut them off, his whole hand would’ve been infected and they would have had cut it all off. Before you used to get compensation, now no one gives you anything and you can’t even work.

Most importantly, from the bottom of my heart I wish for security to come back. Security is the most important thing, security and affordable prices. I wish even it’d be half of what it was before. The barrels are getting here for 3500 Syrian Pounds ($23), which is almost nothing, and I’m still making sure it’s the exact amount on the scale. Now they’re charging us on the milliliter, before people used to make millions in the oil business.

My name is Ahmad and I’m 22 years old. You open this here and put in the oil, and then you turn on the fire under it. The smoke fills the upper half of the barrel, and then it goes into the tube and the pipe goes through the water and you get the fuel on the other side. After the fuel you get the gas, after the gas you get the diesel. At the end we open it here to take out the waste. We call it ‘zero’ and we keep it to fuel the fire for the barrels. A teapot, we’re heating water for tea here. We’re already getting all the smoke in our lungs; it is not going to make a difference if we boil the tea here.”

Fifth interview – Mehdi Darwish:
“I’m a business graduate. There’s nothing else to do around here. There’s no work in Hassake other then this. Working in oil is all right but the prices per barrel are getting higher and higher and the oil is coming mixed with water. We’re working hard through sweat and blood and we’re exhausting ourselves. We put in place a new oil refinery to enhance the production. The smoke goes through the tube, through the water, to cool it down and we get fuel, diesel and gas. There has to be two people working, one on the burner and the other one has to fill the tank. Out of three oil barrels we get one barrel of diesel and around 150(?) fuel and gas.”

Interview 6 – Awad Al Jasim:
“I used to work as a mechanic. I am 18 years old. I came here to work in the burners and I also have heart problems. Thank you!”

Interview 7 – Mohamed Monther:
“They [ISIL] throw the oil on the ground and take the cars and say that it is theirs now. They take the car sell it, or use it in car-bomb operations. We have nothing here we are barely getting by. They come from Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan looking for Nymphs (female sex jihadists) here. We don’t have any Nymphs here. Look at the state the Syrian people are in. This is no way to live.”

Interview 8 – No Name Given:
“Once they [ISIL] say ‘Allah Akbar’, they cut the person's head off. Is that halal? Are we chickens?”

Shot List: (Description of various shots in the video)

The rest of shots are wide shots of the refineries spread all over the main road and shots of the interviewees working, walking and talking with each other while on the makeshift refineries. The shots show the daily routine of life at the refineries.