Bursts of gunfire crackled close to al-Omari mosque in Deraa, sending some of the frantic crowd scattering while others clung on to the UN peace monitors’ convoy.
As the cars edged forward through the massed residents of the birthplace of Syria’s bloody uprising, one man yelled a chilling running commentary about his presumed fate.
“You will see the firing on us – at the trigger point where the revolution started,” he cried. “You will see me on the television as a martyr. You will recognise me. I will say farewell to you. We need international protection.”
Then he and the other diehard protesters peeled away, freeing the vehicles to pass through a checkpoint set up by the Syrian army. A soldier rolled a rock away to let the convoy pass to the other side, where passers-by made faceless by the gathering darkness called out: “God is Great!” – the universal signifier of the fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
This disturbing journey to the heart of Syria’s tragedy told of despair, defiance and a situation far from the two-week-old truce demanded by the UN Security Council and brokered by Kofi Annan, the former UN head.
Mr Annan’s truce plan is a last-ditch international effort to stop the bloodshed, struck after months of disagreements between the Syrian regime’s supporters in Moscow and Beijing and the western and Gulf capitals that want to force Mr Assad from power. Members of the 15-strong UN monitor team so far deployed have seen chaos and desperation in some places, raising fears that the 300-strong mission proposed by Mr Annan will not be enough to contain the bloodshed.
Opposition activists say loyalists killed more than 30 people in one day in the central city of Hama this week, while Syrian state television said 10 people died in a suicide bombing in central Damascus on Friday.
“Is this the ceasefire?” shouted another Deraa resident jammed against the UN convoy. “We will continue with this revolution. This is the challenge for you, the international community: to protect the civilians.”
Deraa is the southern city where the arrests of a group of children for scrawling anti-government graffiti in March last year triggered popular protests, a brutal government response and then an anti-regime uprising that has turned the country into a patchwork of revolution.
The UN estimates that more than 9,000 civilians have been killed since then, while the Syrian regime – which maintains it is the victim of a plot backed by foreign interests – says more than 2,000 security force members have died. Activists say a 10-year-old boy was killed in shooting in Deraa on Thursday.
While independent rights groups say Syrian government forces are responsible for the vast majority of the violence, the initially peaceful opposition has taken on a more militarised aspect as army defectors, community defenders and other enemies of Mr Assad have rallied to the anti-regime cause.
The monitor patrol that ended in Deraa had begun earlier on Thursday in Douma, a Damascus suburb where poverty and politics drive revolutionary fervour.
People there denounced the UN team, saying government forces had attacked the area with heavy weapons and snipers after observers visited earlier in the week, part of a broader alleged pattern of reprisals against communities the monitors patrol.
One man scrawled “no watch” in the dust of the windows of one of the UN team’s white four-wheel-drive vehicles, while another jeered: “Screw their sisters!”
Heading south from Damascus, the observers visited Sweida, a pro-regime city heavily populated by Druze – a religious minority group with members who see Mr Assad as their protector against dominance by Syria’s majority Sunni Muslim population.
Many Sweidans have relatives in the junior ranks of army, some of whom have been killed during this crisis. “It’s unfortunate for these young men,” said Om Yasser, a housewife, whose cousin, a soldier, had died. “They are falling like apricots.”
After an incongruous lunch with the provincial governor at a swish hillside restaurant, it was time to move between Syria’s parallel worlds again.
Outside the town of al-Msaifra near Deraa, a soldier at a checkpoint warned that armed gangs had been carrying out robberies in the area. On the main street, a hundreds-strong rally chanted: “God bless the Free Syrian Army!” – in honour of the military wing of the opposition, whose young members mingled in the crowd with their rifles.
Abu Hafez, a student, said FSA troops protected the town from threats evident in battle-damaged buildings and a road covered with wide white tracks that locals said were made by government tanks. “We like the FSA. We love them and we have given them ourselves,” Abu Hafez said.
Many FSA soldiers said they were army defectors, including a former special forces member named Abu Wahid who had a long clip of ammunition curled around his neck and down to his waist.
Some said they had fled the military because they had been ordered to kill demonstrators. Others accused government forces of murdering people and then putting them in army uniforms to serve the official narrative that the opposition were a terrorist force.
“The terrorist is Bashar al-Assad,” declared Abu Imad, a resident of al-Msaifra, adding that a third of the town’s 15,000 people had fled and dozens more had been “martyred”. “He’s the killer.”
In Deraa itself, the empty plinth from where some of the first protesters had toppled a statue of Mr Assad’s father and predecessor as president, Hafez, signified a rupture felt across the country. In a square of destroyed buildings, an old woman in a black abaya addressed the monitors mournfully: “We are dead, we are dead. Where are you?”
Up near al-Omari mosque, young men climbed on the UN convoy, while a man planted two opposition flags on a pile of sandbags where protesters said a government sniper often hid.
An educated and eloquent man named Amir begged through a car window for something he well knew these visitors could not deliver. “Freedom, please – anything for freedom. Now, or after. We want freedom,” he pleaded, before adding a final gambit that showed how far he felt from his goal: “For my children, freedom.”
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