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In rebel Syria, makeshift refineries process precious crude
[MAARAT-AL-NAASAN, Syria] In a rebel-held town in Syria's northwest, streams of crude oil are piped into a cylindrical tank to be primitively refined, capping a weeks-long odyssey from fields further east.
Over the past two years, nearly 100 makeshift refineries have cropped up around olive groves in Maarat al-Naasan, now a hub for processing precious "black gold" in Idlib province.
Bringing consumer products into the Islamist-controlled province is notoriously difficult, as it has been almost entirely cut off from government areas since Syria's war erupted six years ago.
And smuggling goods across the closed border from rebel-backer Turkey is very expensive.
To keep cars, bakeries and heating units running in the province, Idlib residents-turned-oilmen are trucking in crude from Syria's northeast to refine it and distribute it to the population.
"We can't bring fuel from regime areas or from another country, so we're forced to refine it here," says Jamil al-Nimr, the bearded 34-year-old owner of one refinery.
The primitive process yields "gasoline, kerosene, and diesel, which is then distributed to the local markets", says Nimr.
But it first begins hundreds of miles to the east in Syria's Hasakeh, a mostly Kurdish-controlled province dotted with oil and gas fields - an arduous and expensive journey.
Barrels of crude are purchased from the Hasakeh fields for US$47 each and an army of truck drivers then begins the weeks-long trip back west.
"The journey takes between 20 days to a month," says Abu al-Omarein, a 41-year-old truck driver.
Along the 400-kilometre (248 miles) route that cuts through Syria's fractious war-ravaged north, they pass through numerous checkpoints manned by Kurdish and rebel factions.
At each checkpoint they must pay a toll and by the time they reach Maarat al-Naasan, they will have paid the equivalent of US$17 per barrel in fees.
Abu al-Omarein said he and fellow truck drivers used to bring crude from fields controlled by the Islamic State group in Syria's oil-rich eastern Deir Ezzor province, but not anymore.
The jihadists now hold just a sliver of the province after losing out to twin offensives by Russian-backed regime forces and US-supported fighters.
On a recent day Abu al-Omarein sat on the ground at the entrance to Maarat al-Naasan, sipping a warm cup of tea and chatting with fellow drivers as the crude oil barrels were unloaded from the trucks.
The crude is funnelled into a large metal cylinder where it is heated and separated into gasoline, kerosene and diesel.
The liquids then pass along metal pipes through a basin of water, which cools them down so they can be collected in plastic containers for sale.
The processing costs US$24, leaving consumers paying an average of US$95 per barrel.
Malek Haj Hamdan says he relies on these primitively refined oil products to run his bakery because they are more affordable than those provided, irregularly, by the Syrian government.
The oil refined in Maarat al-Naasan is 30 percent cheaper than what arrives from regime areas, he says, adding that this ultimately means that he can sell his bread at a lower cost.
But this oil also contains many "impurities" that damage his baking equipment, says Mr Hamdan.
The rudimentary refining process has also taken a toll on the health of residents, according to Fahed al-Abd, a specialist in internal and cardiac medicine at Maarat al-Naasan's medical centre.
Around 2,000 patients a year, mostly children under 15, suffer from complications from "the organic materials spread in the air as a result of the refineries and the primitive processing of crude petroleum products," says Dr Abd.
Six-year-old Abdel Nasser was one of those affected in Maarat al-Naasan.
Around a year ago, dark spots began appearing in a thick diagonal line across his cheeks, his father Abu Yahya says.
"There were a lot of refineries around town putting out a tonne of smoke and gases and causing uncontrollable damage," he says. "The biggest proof of this is my son." "Thank goodness, we are treating him now, but the doctor told me that the marks will be there for the rest of his life." The medical centre blames "gases and unclean air" emanating from the refineries for Abdel Nasser's condition.
To scale back the environmental damage and adverse health effects, rebel authorities have set up strict schedules during which refineries can operate.
"In the past, the 100 refineries in Maarat al-Nasaan used to operate every day, all at the same time," says refinery owner Riad Haydar, 37.
"But today, they take turns... so around 20 or 25 operate each day."