Free Syrian Army fighters hold their weapons as they take position inside a damaged shop in a Damascus suburb on Sunday.
March was the bloodiest month yet in Syria’s two-year conflict, with more than 6,000 people killed, a third of them civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday.
The group opposes President Bashar al-Assad but has monitored human rights violations on both sides of a revolt that began as peaceful protests but is now a brutal war between forces loyal to Assad and an array of rebel militias.
The Britain-based Observatory, which has a network of sources across Syria, has documented 62,554 dead in the conflict, said Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the group.
“But we know the number is much, much higher,” he said by telephone. “We estimate it is actually around 120,000 people. Many death tolls are more difficult to document so we are not officially including them yet.”
As in previous months, around a third of those killed in March were civilians, the Observatory said. Almost 300 children died, taking the number killed in the conflict to around 4,390.
The UN says more than 70,000 people have died in Syria. Abdel-Rahman said both sides have found ways to minimise their dead to keep morale high among their followers.
“There are some groups where it took us longer to get access to sources. For example we started counting deaths much later among the shabbiha,” said Abdel-Rahman, referring to pro-Assad militias that have fought alongside security forces.
His group has a rough count of 12,000 dead shabbiha fighters but has yet to include those in its toll.
Also unknown is the number of dead among the tens of thousands jailed by Assad’s forces since the conflict began. There was also no way to count the number of Syrian soldiers killed after being captured by rebels. Activists believe those are also likely to number in the thousands.
Some 2,250 dead opposition fighters are unknown, and the Observatory said it believed most of those are fighters from abroad who joined the rebels in Syria, which has become a site for jihad, or “holy war”, to many Islamic militant groups.
Disunity among the opposition in exile and the armed factions on the ground has hindered the struggle against Assad and contributed to Western reluctance to intervene.
Abdel-Rahman called on foreign powers to take action to help ease Syria’s crisis as violence continues to rise.
“It seems that Bashar al-Assad is satisfied killing as much as needed to keep his throne. But it also seems that Syrian blood is of no value to Arab or Western powers who have been making promise after promise, while Syrians are led to slaughter,” he said.
l Fresh battles broke out in a flashpoint district of Aleppo yesterday, while violence raged on the road linking the city to its international airport, the Observatory said.
“Fierce clashes raged between troops and rebels in the east of Sheikh Maqsud district,” said the Observatory, a day after a major rebel advance in the predominantly Kurdish neighbourhood.
Regime tanks fired shells at other parts of the neighbourhood, whose residents fled the area in large numbers for a second straight day.
Southeast of Aleppo, fresh clashes broke out near the city’s international airport, said the Observatory. The airport has been closed since January.
Aleppo city has been the scene of some of Syria’s fiercest violence since battles first broke out in the northern city in July last year.
Much of the city has since been destroyed, and residents suffer constant power cuts and frequent water shortages.
Gold trade thrives in war
but there’s danger lurking
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 said.
“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 20g of gold,” Abu Ahmed said.
“Once, a customer came to sell me earrings and bracelets that weighed 200g. He was selling off his wife’s jewels.”
Umm Mohamed, 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).
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 60mn Syrian pounds last week when armed men broke into his shop and stole the lot.”