Thick black columns of smoke rise from the Syrian villages along the Syrian-Iraqi border in the east of Syria. Anyone seeing the smoke might think that the villages are being shelled or that they’re on fire. But in fact, this smoke is coming out of the home-made refineries that the people of this area have built so that they can have the fuel that’s essential for cars and generators. They have also built them so they can have jobs.
This area – including the provinces of Deir Ezzor and Hasakah - has been free of Syrian government troops for over two years now. It is known for oil production and facilities were taken over by rebel groups, many of whom were affiliated with the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front. Some of the oil was given back to the local population and some of it was sold off for profit – but the overall result in local terms was a shortage of oil and rising prices.
So locals started setting up their own miniature refineries – both for themselves and in order to make money from the business. Now under each column of thick, black, polluting smoke there’s a family refining oil; the practice has become widespread through the two provinces and a popular way to make money.
Young Syrian man, Saeed al-Shammari, gets up early to start his “job”, driving his own tanker truck around 60 kilometres to the Ali Agha or Karhouk wells. He lines up in a long queue of tankers and cars and trucks carrying tanks. When he gets his share from the well he returns to the town of Khosa, about 40 kilometres away from the Yaarabiya border crossing into Iraq.
Al-Shamari confirms that most of the gunmen controlling the oil wells are members of the Al Nusra Front but that there are also wells controlled by less effective, local tribal militias.
“The Al Nusra militants control the Hasakah refineries and they sell crude oil to locals,” al-Shammari says. “The militants themselves determine what prices they will sell the oil at and the prices range from between US$8 to US$11 per barrel depending on who is guarding the fields and selling the oil. That’s why we always try to stay on friendly terms with them - to get the lowest prices,” he remarked.
Once back home al-Shammari is joined by his brother, who recently brought a water tank made of galvanized steel that has thicker walls than usual. The brothers connect the water tuck with a pipe around 15 centimetres in diameter that’s partially buried in the dirt. The other half of the pipe is covered in water to cool it. The same set-up is duplicated all over the two provinces.
A chemistry teacher at one of the local schools is happy to explain how the amateur refineries work.
“A fire is set underneath the tanks,” teacher Mahmoud Mulhem notes. “The heat leads to a chemical reaction. When the crude oil’s temperature reaches a certain level, the different parts of the crude separate. The compounds with a high boiling point stay at the bottom of the tank and those with a lower boiling point rise to the top – these are then removed,” he concludes.
The fuel that families like the al-Shammaris produce is sold for around double the price that fuel used to be sold for in this area, before the Syrian conflict started. Heating fuel – kerosene – sells for up to SYP100 (US$75 cents) per litter, gasoline costs around SYP150 (US$1.12) and diesel reaches around SYP50 (US$0.32).
However many drivers don’t complain about the prices as much as they complain about the quality of the fuel they are buying. “It’s very bad quality," says Samir Emar, who has to clean his car’s petrol filter more often now. “It has actually damaged a lot of the cars around here. Although the diesel is fine, you can use that and it doesn’t do so much damage.”
Teacher Mulhem says that usually fuels are treated to rid them of impurities but in these primitive refineries that’s not possible. “The oil makers can only differentiate between their different products by smell,” he notes.
The other big problem with the home-made refineries is the environmental damage they do. One woman tells NIQASH that she now wears a large black veil all the time to prevent what she calls the “black poison” from entering her lungs. She advises her children to do the same but, she says, she can’t stop the smoke from entering her house.
Protests like this from locals saw the Al Nusra Front, who are in charge of security in the area, ban oil refining at night, from 5pm until 7am; the ban came into effect about a month ago.