DEIR EL ZOUR, Syria -- With colorful bandannas covering their faces to protect against the noxious smoke, displaced Syrians have been flocking to the country’s oil-producing east to scratch out a living by operating primitive refineries in a setting that seems straight out of purgatory.
The pumps are running at the former state oil wells that dot the landscape, but since the area about a year ago came under the control of rebels who are battling to topple the government of President Bashar Assad, the pipeline has been shut down. Arab tribes in the region grabbed the land and now pocket the proceeds.
Usama Idris, 40, is one of the entrepreneurs who buy the crude, at 1,000 Syrian pounds – roughly $4.65 – a barrel. He then refines it into diesel fuel by a primitive and dangerous method – boiling it in vats over an open fire.
Many of the “refiners” are from the Deir el Zour area, but Idris is from Homs, some 180 miles southeast of here, and his story is typical of Syria’s internally displaced, of which there are some 4.5 million, according to U.N. estimates. He’s had to move five times in 18 months, forced each time from his temporary lodgings by government advances or food running out. By training, he’s an Arabic-language teacher for elementary and middle schools but there’s almost nowhere now to teach, with the schools here housing thousands of displaced people, Idris and his family included.
So he risks his life and his lungs daily as an oil refiner. “I have no other income,” he told a McClatchy reporter.
Still, the $8 to $12 he earns each day isn’t enough to sustain his wife and four children. His 15-year-old daughter is about to marry a man who’s 23. Idris is not happy about the betrothal and seems embarrassed. “But it is an inescapable evil,” he said. “We have to.”
Others earn still less, among them several of his neighbors from the Karm al Zeitoun district of Homs, who help him operate the primitive, smoke-belching refinery. “I make about $2 a day,” said Khalid, 18, who asked to be identified only by his first name for security reasons.
Idris isn’t the only one who’s had to make unthinkable compromises to keep going. At the natural gas-processing plant nearby, which opened in 2000 and once was operated by ConocoPhillips, gas continues to flow through the Arab line – to the Syrian government.
“The gas plant still sends gas to the regime,” said Fadel Abdullah, 31, a former army officer who commands the rebels’ Al Qadisiya brigade that has charge of Deir el Zour. “If it didn’t, the regime would bomb the plant.”
In Jandar, south of Homs, the government burns the natural gas to generate electricity. The gas is sent for free, but the government pays the salaries of some 400 technical and white-collar staff who keep the plant going, plant employees say.
The only exception to this is bottled gas, which generally used in Syria for cooking. That concession belongs to the Nusra Front, the al Qaida-affiliated group that’s been at the forefront of many of the anti-Assad forces victories. Natural gas, drawn from the pipeline, is sold close to cost and then resold in other parts of Syria at a substantial markup.
Deir el Zour supplies about 10 percent of Syria’s natural gas needs, local experts said, making it a vital factor in the country’s energy supplies. When the pipeline shut down in mid-July – apparently because of a squabble between rebels from the more moderate Free Syrian Army and Nusra – the lights went off in Damascus.