This is an extended edit of a documentary project on oil refining in northeastern Syria. The original project was named a finalist in the LensCulture Visual Storytelling Awards 2015. Discover more inspiring work from all of the winners and finalists.

I created this work in October 2014, in the northeastern region of Syria, between the Kurdish frontline and the so-called Islamic State’s frontiers.

In this area ruined by war, villagers are only able to live from subsistence farming and handmade oil refineries. But working there, you will find evidence of a prior way of life: there are former teachers, laborers, nurses and other skilled people. Of course, there are also children under 10, just doing what they can to help themselves and their families survive.

The toxic smoke from the refineries is brutal, negatively affecting the health of everyone around. This includes the nearby villages, which have nothing to do with the refining process. In short, it’s an ecological disaster. People are starting to develop cancers, lung diseases and skin ailments. But they don’t have much of a choice: will they die of hunger right away or stave off death, slowly, by working in the refineries.

Petrol is brought from Kurdish areas to here and bought by the local businessmen who own the refineries. They hire workers for $10 a day or less to work them. Then they sell the mazout, benzine or gas to Kurdish areas, regime areas, sometimes even to the jihadists or abroad in Iraq.

This is one example of the lucrative business that war can create—and of the resulting exploitation of human beings.

—Yann Renoult