“The regime will be toppled, and the people will live freely and democratically,” said one of a group of men who asked not to be named because he feared for his safety, speaking in his home in a middle-class residential area of Daraa. His son was killed by a soldier, he said, on April 25, when military tanks rolled into the city for the first time, seeking to crush the unrest that began after a group of schoolchildren were arrested for writing anti-regime graffiti on walls.
The story of the children’s detention, their alleged ill-treatment, and the demonstrations that began with their families has now passed into legend. Versions of it are told across Syria and recalled in the chants of pro-democracy protesters all over the Arab world.
Although the focus of the increasingly violent opposition has moved to the north, including Friday’s military assault on the anti-government neighborhoods of Homs, those first small protests in Daraa marked a turning point.
In Syria, the opposition historically had been largely imprisoned or tamed under the rule of Assad and his father, with the help of a formidable array of security forces and secret police.
“Before the events, no one could have raised his voice to say a word. They had political security who were controlled by military security, so they thought nothing would happen,” said a man who said his name was Abu Akal and who said he has attended demonstrations since they began. “I was not surprised when people spoke out, because I knew how much pressure they were under.”
In the months that followed, the protests grew larger and the death toll higher. The men said that three families on the small street where they live have lost sons. They estimated that 2,000 people from the city had died or disappeared. It was not possible to confirm the figure, although the United Nations estimates that well over 5,400 people have died in the uprising nationwide.
‘People cannot go back’
Gradually, the security forces regained the upper hand, and today, Daraa looks like a place under long-term but functional occupation. Shops and schools are open, and people step briskly past government security forces guarding public buildings. Drivers stop at frequent military checkpoints.
Walls formerly covered in anti-government graffiti have been crudely painted over. The Omari mosque, once a rallying point, is surrounded by razor wire and sandbags in a neighborhood where every house is spattered with bullet holes.
But the opposition will persist, Abu Akal said. “The people cannot go back, because they have lost so many martyrs,” he said, adding that he fears that if the government does not fall, thousands will be killed or detained as punishment for calling for the end of Assad’s rule.