“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.
Protests still take place in Daraa, mostly at night and on side streets. Protesters here and elsewhere in the country are calling for international intervention: a U.N. Security Council resolution, a no-fly zone, safe areas on the borders.
Syrian authorities have blamed much of the unrest on armed gangs and extremists. Gen. Mohamed Asaad, the head of police in Daraa province, told Reuters last month that the city was under state control and that “what is left is a few armed men who are bandits.”
But the armed civilians and defectors known as the Free Syrian Army are not found in Daraa, according to observers from the Arab League who recently visited the city. Instead, they operate in groups of between 50 and 200 in small, rural towns nearby.
The reason, said Col. Afifi Abdul Latif, a monitor with the Arab League, is that Daraa is surrounded by soldiers. But in the smaller towns, said Abdul Latif and residents of the area, the fighters can flee and hide in the countryside if necessary.
‘Living in a panic’
In one such area, residents asked that the name of the town not be revealed for fear of reprisals for having spoken to journalists. On a potholed road into town, motorists passed through more checkpoints than at the entrance to Daraa. The shops were shuttered, and cellphone reception had been cut off.
“We are living in a panic,” said one woman who would not give her name, cuddling her grandchildren in her home. “The security forces come to houses, they search the smallest place, they search mattresses, every inch.” She said there were frequent clashes between security forces and the Free Syrian Army, whose members had fled that day in anticipation of operations by busloads of security forces who had been seen in the area.
A woman in a house nearby said her son, a 30-year-old political activist, had been killed two days before when about 100 security forces and two tanks had surrounded the house at dawn. Gunmen burst in and shot him. She pointed out broken windows and bullet holes in the walls.
“He was a leader of the protests,” said one of the dead man’s friends, also an activist. “With one word, he could gather all the people.”
Even in the more openly rebellious rural area, protests now take place on side streets, hurriedly filmed and uploaded to YouTube. Here and in Daraa, there is little obvious anti-government graffiti.
But in Daraa, where children’s scrawlings were the spark that lit the fire now engulfing the country, children regularly attend the nighttime protests, according to the Arab League observers. On one afternoon last week, a group of boys about 10 years old raised their voices in public.
“Syria, Syria, Syria!” they cried in broad daylight in the center of Daraa. “Against the Syrian security!”