Investigated by: Mohamed Namous and Foad Pasbous
Muhanad is a young man in his 20s from Maraat Al-Nasaan, Idlib. He built his dreams around earning a living by working in the oil refineries in the countryside of this governorate. But he lost his life, when he was suffocated by poisoned gas from primitive oil refineries.
Muhanad’s father says his son used to work, at an earlier stage, in selling fuel products on the road. Then, in cooperation with a friend, he set up an oil refinery.
He would stay away from home for two or three days at a stretch, because of work pressure. One day, an employee from the Health Unit came home to tell the father that his son died due to suffocation from gases.
Everything turned black in the father’s eyes. The color of smoke produced by refineries, each run by six workers on average. Muhanad became a mere name in a long list of the primitive refineries’ victims, that spread their poison in the atmosphere of the town, around 35 km to the northeast of Idlib city. Hundreds of people in the region caught respiratory diseases, while others lost their lives.
Pollution still reigns, besieging Maraat Al-Nasaan, populated by around 10,000 people. Hundreds of those people each month seek out healthcare because of respiratory diseases, at the small clinic in town, according to the clinic’s statistics. There are hundreds of refineries sprinkled across Idlib governorate, the largest governorate controlled by Syrian opposition factions for at least three years. Refineries there flourished to cater for the demand of local population for fuel and oil products, after the conventional refining stations stalled due to war. This led to hundreds of cases of respiratory diseases, according to doctors from the region, with the absence of the authorities’ ability to impose rule of law, given the crisis in the country.
Raw oil tanks come to Idlib from the oil wells in Al-Hasaka, northeastern Syria, or from Deir Al-Zour, in eastern Syria. Refining relies on burning fires under the crude tanks. The crude then breaks down to various products: fuel, petrol, and fuel oil, sold in Idlib markets to storeowners, bakeries, car owners, etc.
Muhanad’s fate comes frequently to Ahmed’s mind (a young man in his 20s), who started working in primitive refineries in Idlib three years ago. He’s now an authority in this field, and his body carries its diseases. Fuel spots can be seen sprinkled across Ahmed’s body, but he’s got used to work, which became an integral part of his daily life.
“Oil refining is the best work available in Idlib”, he said, after years of the ongoing crisis in Syria.
“We produce around 400 barrels a month, of various products: fuel oil, petrol. Each month we do around 10 refining processes. Each process needs fire under the tanks for at least 16 hours”, added Ahmed.
Ahmed’s tasks include moving the crude from tanks it comes in to tanks at the refinery. He lets the fire underneath them, using fuel oil. After initiating the process of getting the derivatives, petrol, gas, and fuel oil, Ahmed moves on to packaging. The young man who watches over the refining process is paid 6000 SYP (around 11.5 USD), for each refining process.
Coughing became part of Ahmed’s life, because of “many diseases, that included symptoms like difficulty in breathing and bronchitis”, he added, “I got these symptoms from the gases I inhale during the refining process”.
“I would get medical care then return to work. What I face the most is suffocation due to inhaling these gases”. Each time he feels suffocated he sees before his eyes images and names of young people from his town who lost their lives for inhaling gases from the refineries.
More than 30 patients each day
The population of Maraat Al-Nasaan in Idlib countryside does not exceed 10,000 people. It has a small clinic visited each day by dozens of children and elderly persons who complain from respiratory symptoms, because their homes or workplaces are close to the oil refineries. Muhanad used to visit the clinic occasionally. Ahmed is still visiting it whenever his symptoms become severe.
The doctor at Maraat Al-Nasaan’s clinic in Idlib countryside, Fahd Al-Abd said, “Visits to internal medicine unit at the clinic are around 35 patients per day, including at least 10 persons who come with respiratory symptoms due to the oil refineries. Symptoms include Bronchitis and pneumonia”.
He added that, “If the patient keeps on suffering from these symptoms for two or three months, it might turn to bronchial asthma. This is a chronic disease that stays with the person till the day he dies”.
At the pediatric unit in the clinic there are currently around 60 sick children who come on daily basis. They include 20 to 25 cases carrying the side effects of oil refineries.
“The situation reaches the level of asthma or cancer in case these symptoms are not dealt with early on”, said Al-Abd, who thinks it is likely that clinic visitors coming with respiratory symptoms will increase if business goes as usual in the refineries.
Al-Abd said that he witnessed three deaths due to suffocation from refinery gases in town. However, the refineries are still working.
20% of the population are at risk
We counted 467 refineries in Idlib governorate. Our team of seven members reached out to civil society activists in various towns across Idlib countryside. They counted the refineries in their areas. And to avoid counting any refinery twice, our team documented each zone separately. The team documented refineries in each zone and documented their geographical positions, and did field visits to make sure that documented refineries are there on the ground.
We got an official document from the municipality of Maraat Al-Nasaan, which confirmed the numbers we documented in Maraat. The document stated the presence of 126 refineries in Maraat Al-Nasaan town.
The refineries in the village cause more than 700 cases of respiratory diseases per month, according to data from “Maraat Al-Nasaan Health Center”, most of which are children and newborns.
The data indicated the occurrence of around 25 respiratory cases per day, meaning that there is a respiratory case occurring each hour in this small town. The age of sick workers running the refineries ranges between 15 and 40 years old.
According to the Damascus government’s census concluded in 2009, the population of Idlib governorate is 1.9 million people. Idlib city, however, hosted displaced persons from various regions in Syria, since the eruption of the crisis.
According to a recent statistical record issued by the Health Authorities there, the population of the city hovers around 3 million people, 21% of which are under the risk of poisonous gases coming out of the oil refineries.
Abu Faris owns a refinery in Maraat Al-Nasaan. He confirmed that no parties whatsoever inspect the refineries. He said that work there flows nicely, without obstacles imposed by factions or governmental authorities controlling the region.
He added, “we receive the crude oil from eastern wells in Al-Hasaka. We burn it and sell it according to the market price. There are complaints, and damages. Even our workers lose conscious sometimes. But we cannot cut our income with our own hands. And we cannot make do without these materials, neither us or our families”.
Agricultural engineer Eid Al-Aissa said that the waste produced by refineries runs off to the fields, carried by the rain.
“There are compressed gases that can be noticed when opening the tanks before the refining process. Most of these gases are harmful to the environment and people”, he added.
He stated that environmental deterioration becomes more intense the closer you get to a refinery. Even the sheep wool became darker. Also, a drop in productivity of olive trees was noticed in areas close to refineries, a drop of around 70%, and the olive density in trees drops the more you get closer to the refineries. He said, “zones with oil refineries are not agriculturally usable anymore. What is even more grave is the waste running off with the rain. It seeps into the water wells we rely on for drinking water”.
He stated that lead, poisonous gases and many harmful materials coming with crude oil, are generally harmful. He said that this problem carries risks that will manifest themselves in the region in the future.
Complaining to deaf ears
Complaining about the situation wasn’t enough to save Muhanad’s life. No one is handling the complains seriously. The people got united in voicing their concerns. They formed committees to follow up on the health problems appearing due to refineries in Maraat Al-Nasaan. They submitted complaints to many security authorities, like the Al-Sham Liberation Committee, the provisional government, and the salvation/emergency government. Representatives of more than 67 families signed a petition submitted from the people to Maraat Al-Nasaan’s health center, and to the Health Authority of Idlib governorate, in May 2017. The complaints didn’t lead to anything more than recommendations to close the refineries or moving them away from population centers.
Bassam is a Syrian citizen who was damaged due to the refining activities, over 4 years ago. His suffering increases over time. “Our children health deteriorated because of the refining stations. Some of them even ceased to improve when taking their medicine”, he said.
“we got many promises from the health authority at Idlib city. They assured us that these stations will be removed, or moved to other places. On the contrary, primitive refineries are increasing recently”, added Bassam.
Almost a year ago, Bassam and his colleagues decided to submit a complain to the municipality at Maraat Al-Nasaan. They called on the municipality to impose setting up filters to clean the smoke coming out of the refineries, and to filter out sulfur and methane gases coming out of the refineries. The municipality and health authority officials’ promises, however, remain so far mere ink on paper.
The lost link
In spite of the health problems due to the primitive refining of oil, the Free Health Authority in Idlib, that reports to the provisional government, didn’t manage to do anything.
Dr. Mustapha Al-Aido, deputy director of Idlib Health Authority said, “The health authority got many complaints demanding the removal of refining stations or moving them somewhere else. We formed a technical committee to process the complaints. We went there and visited more than one primitive oil refinery. Of course this thing is violating the rules, and it is generally harming the environment, but we cannot do anything”. He added, “the lost link is that the Free Health Authority in Idlib cannot do anything to stop the setup of refineries. All we can do is to issue a recommendation to close down these refineries or move them somewhere more adequate”.
In such a context, the relatives of victims can only seek to find solace somehow and accept the hardship.
Muhanad’s father browsed through his son’s photographs on his cell phone, saying, “Our adversity is huge. But those who accept it will get justice served from God. For whom we can turn to complain anyway? We can only leave it to God”.