For residents of besieged Douma, the daily struggle to survive involves not just avoiding the violence that has ravaged the Syrian town, but labouring to obtain scarce basic commodities. Facing a shortage of fuel to run generators and machinery due to the siege, former construction worker Abu Kassem set up a makeshift refinery to extract fuel from plastic waste through a process of burning it and condensing the released gas.
It is a gruelling process.
"There is no pleasure in our work. It is very dangerous and requires a lot of caution. When I see that the equipment is stable, I can take a little rest and smoke the hookah," said Abu Fahad, 28, one of Abu Kassem's sons.
The workshop – which employs Kassem's three sons and other relatives – has operated for three and a half years, since government forces began their siege of rebel-held eastern Ghouta, a district on the outskirts of the Syrian capital where Douma is located.
As the siege intensified, severe fuel shortages began to hamper agriculture, transport and other activities, so Abu Kassem began searching for a way around the problem. Using methods learned from instructional videos posted on the internet, the family takes plastic bottles, rubble from damaged buildings, plastic from cooking utensils, water and even sewage pipes to produce liquid and gas fuels.
The liquid is refined into gasoline, diesel and benzene fuels, and the gasses obtained are sold for domestic and commercial use in place of natural gas. The fuels are then sold to customers, including bakeries and farmers, who need fuel to power water pumps, and consumers for use in cars and motorcycles. For those who toil in the workshop, the environment leaves much to be desired. Smoke billows from fires and generators, and the fumes from burning plastic hang ever-present in the air.
"Working here is very tiring, but we feel that we are providing a great service to people. I have been working here for a short time and have begun to adapt to the atmosphere here," said Abu Ahmed, 28, another of the workers.
The workshop operates 15 hours a day, six days a week, and workers' only protection against the effects of inhaling the polluted air caused by burning plastic is advice from some to drink two cups of milk a day to try to offset the effects. The efficacy of the treatment is uncertain.
A day's work will see 800 kg to 1,000 kg of plastic used in the workshop, where 100 kg of plastic makes approximately 85 litres of fuel. A litre of benzene fuel sells for 2,200 Syrian pound ($4.70), and a litre of diesel for 2,000 Syrian pounds.
Local residents are grateful. "When the siege began on eastern Ghouta at the end of 2013 fuel prices rose madly and we were no longer able to water crops," Abu Firas, 33, an agricultural worker in the district told Reuters. "When we started producing local fuel, and that water engines could be powered by this fuel local fuel, life returned to agricultural land."
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