Aleppo's scattered business owners have yet to return home
* Syrian recovery depends on return of businesses
* At Aleppo's Khan Khair Bek, only two of 41 shops have
* Owners have gone abroad or to other parts of Syria
By Angus McDowall
ALEPPO, Syria, June 17 (Reuters) - In the old khan, a stone
courtyard off Aleppo's medieval souk, most of the 41 cloth shops
are deserted. Many of the owners moved elsewhere or went abroad
to escape fighting in the historic Syrian city, a major economic
centre before the war.
"Some started new work outside Syria and won't return. Some
who stayed opened new shops in other parts of the country," said
Mohammed Abu Zeid, one of two cloth merchants still operating.
Syria's economy has been upturned by eight years of war that
partitioned the country between rival forces and displaced
millions of people. Hundreds of thousands of workers were
conscripted into the army or joined rebel groups and Western
powers have imposed sweeping sanctions.
Any recovery will largely depend on whether people return
home, including local business owners. The empty stores in Khan
Khair Bek show that most have stayed away and it may be some
time before business resumes.
Although parts of western Aleppo, which was held by the
government through the war, still have busy shopping areas, the
city's factories and wholesale trading businesses have been
devastated by war damage and the departure of traders.
Textiles were a mainstay of Aleppo business until the start
of the war in 2011. The khan in the Souk al-Zarb section of the
battered Old City was a textile hub. Merchants kept their wares
and conducted wholesale business in the shops.
When Reuters first visited in early 2017, weeks after the
fighting ended, the khan was closed and the domed entranceway
was waist-deep in debris including bullet casings and the tail
fin of a mortar bomb.
Thirteen shop owners moved abroad, mostly to Egypt or
Turkey. Of those still in Syria, six moved to Damascus or other
cities, and started new businesses. Another seven who remained
in Aleppo have also stopped dealing in cloth, Abu Zeid said.
Ten others are working in the cloth trade from market stalls
or rented shops in other parts of Aleppo. Just two, Abu Zeid and
Zakariya Azizeh, reopened in the khan earlier this year. They
did not know the whereabouts of several other neighbours.
About half Syria's pre-war population of 22 million were
uprooted during the conflict, with more than 5 million seeking
Some refugees have started returning, but most are unwilling
to go back yet, citing a fear of reprisals, the danger of
renewed conflict, economic hardship and problems with paperwork.
Azizeh said he was trying to persuade his former neighbours
to come back.
"We cannot export and we have banking problems from
sanctions. The system depends on credit, but I haven't any
money," he said.
President Bashar al-Assad said Syria now faces an economic
war waged through Western sanctions. They make any movement of
money in or out of Syria very difficult, paralysing trade even
with close allies such as Russia and Iran and making any return
to Syria less attractive for business owners.
Abu Zeid believes most of the those who left the khan will
eventually return. Many still own their premises.
"This is the best khan for import-export. The others, they
tell us 'one month, two months, we will come back'," he said.
His cousin, Ahmed Abu Zeid, 63, a cousin of Mohammed Abu
Zeid, has continued doing some business from home as it would
cost several thousand dollars to replace stock and repair his
war-damaged shop, near a mulberry tree.
"We all worked here from when we were children. I used to
climb this tree and so did my son," he said. He hopes his
grandson Ahmed, 8, will one day work there too.
The two main centres of Aleppan business - the Old City souk
and the industrial zones on the city's outskirts - were on the
front lines and suffered from heavy shellfire and looting.
Shops and warehouses were stripped of their inventories,
factories and workshops of their equipment and machinery. Many
are pocked with bullet or shell holes and filled with rubble.
Aleppo's power plant was destroyed and electricity supplies
from other parts of government-held Syria are limited. Water
provision is patchy. One of the main industrial zones,
Belleramoun, is near a front line and has been repeatedly
shelled by rebels.
In the souk outside the khan, a group had gathered to chat
on plastic chairs. They recited lists of friends and neighbours
who had left.
"Some of them have come back to see what the situation is
like. When they see it, they go away again," said Mohammed
Fadel, dressed in a suit and waving a lit cigarette as he spoke.
He had two shops in the souk, both now closed, and a textile
workshop with four machines and 400 workers running round the
clock and exporting across the Middle East, Fadel said.
He now plans to leave Syria and go to live in the
Netherlands, where his son is.
"What can I do? I sit here all day doing nothing," he said.
(Editing by Anna Willard)
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