First it was guns, now Syrians must escape deadly makeshift oil refineries

Since war broke out in Syria in 2011, hundreds of makeshift oil refineries have been built. Hisham Arafat and Khabat Abbas talk to the people of Qamishli and find the toxic legacy of conflict can be just as deadly as battlefield violence

Monday 18 October 2021 21:30
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<p>‘We know that working here is deadly, but whoever does not die of disease will starve to death’: workers clean a makeshift oil refinery in Qahtaniya, east of Qamishli city</p>

‘We know that working here is deadly, but whoever does not die of disease will starve to death’: workers clean a makeshift oil refinery in Qahtaniya, east of Qamishli city

We never heard about cancer except in magazines and on TV when Angelina Jolie had it a few years ago – we thought it was an animal, like rats attacking humans – but now we see cancer everywhere around us and realise it’s a serious illness,” says Mohammad, a 33-year-old oil refinery worker in the countryside outside Qamishli in northeast Syria.

After war broke out in 2011, makeshift oil refineries emerged in this region, a triangle of about 65,000 sq km, containing the provinces of Hassakeh, Deir Ezzor and Raqqa. After the withdrawal of Syrian government forces from the northeast in July 2012, military groups took over and the oil companies were replaced by patched-together oil refineries scattered among villages from Qamishli city eastwards to the Iraqi and Turkish borders.

The conflict made it impossible for the standard oil companies to operate in the region, which was controlled by various military groups including the Free Syrian Army, the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, Isis, and Kurdish forces. In 2015, the US-led global coalition against Isis supported the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and seized the entire country’s northeast from Isis in a series of battles that ended in 2019.

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