ALEPPO, Syria — Abu Salem used to sell lunchtime sandwiches to office workers in Syria’s commercial capital. Since a rebel offensive turned Aleppo into a warzone last July, he has been buying up their heirlooms.
In Syria’s northern metropolis, as across the Middle East, those who can afford to have traditionally invested in jewellery for their womenfolk, especially gold, to ward against a rainy day.
As daily clashes between troops and rebels fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad have brought a devastating halt to all normal economic activity, the trade in precious metals has boomed as people struggle to make ends meet.
It was the loss of electricity to power his refrigerators that was the last straw for Abu Salem’s sandwich stall.
The 40-year-old turned to the most lucrative alternative business available, braving the daily threat of robbery by the myriad of armed groups active in the many Aleppo neighbourhoods beyond the control of Assad’s security forces.
“Many jewellers have fled the fighting. They had enough money to flee the country,” he told AFP.
“I buy and sell gold in order to feed my five children.
A few steps away, another gold dealer has set up his scales.
“Every day, people come and sell me 10 or 20 grams (310 or 620 troy ounces) of gold,” Abu Ahmed told AFP.
“Once, a customer came to sell me earrings and bracelets that weighed 200 grams. He was selling off his wife’s jewels.”
Umm Mohammed, 50, is among those looking to sell off their portable wealth.
“I have a gold necklace to sell. How much would you pay for it?” the mother of four asks.
For five grams of gold, Abu Salem offers 24,000 Syrian pounds ($240).
Umm Mohammed goes to his shop every day to weigh her family’s jewellery and check his prices.
“I’ve only got one necklace left now. It’s my son’s gold chain. It won’t be long before I sell it, because we need to buy food and clothes for the children,” she said.
Umm Mohammed’s husband used to work in a factory, but lost his job several months ago when the power supply was cut. Her family has only been able to get by thanks to the jewellery they owned.
Buyers are not hard to come by. Two years of devastating conflict have sent the Syrian pound into freefall and, for those with any money, gold is a popular refuge to maintain the value of their savings.
Before the uprising against Assad’s rule broke out in March 2011, a gram of gold sold for 3,200 Syrian pounds, and the Syrian pound traded at 65 to the dollar.
Today, one gram of gold sells for 4,900 pounds, and the pound trades at 113 to the dollar.
“Those who want to safeguard their wealth are converting their cash into gold,” Abu Ahmed said.
But there are big risks, fellow gold trader Abu Khaldoun underlines.
“Armed men come to steal from us. Some of them are members of the (mainstream rebel) Free Syrian Army,” the 49-year-old said.
“Nowhere is safe, and we are real targets for thieves. Some people are hiding their gold and money in holes in the ground.”
Abu Ibrahim, 45, has been in the jewellery trade nearly all his working life. He says he refuses to take sides in this conflict as his business frequently requires him to cross the frontlines.
He tells of a fellow trader who lost all his stock to an armed robbery.
“He had 12 kilos of gold in his shop. He lost 60 million Syrian pounds last week when armed men broke into his shop and stole the lot.”