DERAA, Syria (Reuters) - In the birthplace of Syria’s 10-month-old revolt, the army leaves no doubt who is now in charge: checkpoints surround the city, posters of the president plaster the walls and security officers patrol.
But on streets filled with shoppers and traffic, fear and anger simmer beneath the surface.
Girls standing outside a schoolyard shout “freedom, freedom!” as Reuters journalists walk past.
Black paint smeared on walls fails to fully hide graffiti messages beneath. Scrawled countless times is the word “leave” - a common refrain across the Arab world since protests erupted last year, toppling rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and inspiring Syria’s revolt.
Reuters visited Deraa, an impoverished city near the Syrian-Jordanian border, on a state-sponsored trip accompanied by a government minder.
Syria has been rocked by unrest as government forces struggle to quell protests against President Bashar al-Assad that have fuelled an armed insurgency.
The government says it is fighting foreign-backed militants trying to destabilize this strategic country, which straddles the faultlines of many Middle East conflicts.
More than 5,000 people have died in the crackdown, according to the United Nations. Syria says it has lost 2,000 of its security forces to terrorists.
Deraa, on Syria’s southern plain, was the heartland of a rebellion that began in March. Enraged protesters took to the streets after police arrested and tortured a group of teenagers who wrote anti-government slogans on city walls.
The army crushed Deraa’s rebellion several months later, but revolt spread to Syria’s central cities and into the mountainous northern regions bordering Lebanon and Turkey.
Visitors must now pass at least five army checkpoints to enter Deraa. Soldiers search their cars and check identification cards.
In March, protesters toppled and torched a statue of the president’s father and Syria’s former leader Hafez al-Assad, a symbol of the family’s 42-year rule of Syria.
Now, posters of both Hafez and Bashar al-Assad adorn storefronts and city streets.
“THEY DON‘T KNOW WHAT FREEDOM IS”
At a government building that officials said was set on fire by protesters, shattered glass littered the floors.
“They burned police stations and government buildings and attacked more than 400 schools here,” said General Mohamed Asaad, head of police in Deraa province.
The general said the opposition need not protest because the government had promised reforms. Since unrest began, the president has revoked a much-hated emergency law and legalized parties other than the ruling Baath party.
“The leadership responded to some of their demands,” he said. “They are demanding freedom but they have no idea what freedom is.”
Most opposition groups have rejected dialogue with the government, refusing to negotiate as the crackdown continues and demanding the president’s ouster.
At Deraa’s Omari mosque, where clashes erupted during the protests, troops and checkpoints now encircle the building. Passers-by eye strangers with suspicion.
The mosque looks undamaged. Shopkeepers around it refused to speak.
“Go, and don’t cause me trouble,” one vendor said. “Whoever wants to see the truth can see it.”
A Syrian journalist approached Reuters to say she had been threatened because she supported President Assad.
“My heart is burning, when I see what is happening to my country it breaks my heart,” she said, declining to give her name. “They want to terrorize us here in Deraa, why?”
General Mohamed Asaad said the city was now safe and under state control. He said 200 detainees had been released in the southern city. Activists say thousands of Syrians have been imprisoned since unrest began.
“Life is normal now, the roads are open. What is left is a few armed men who are bandits,” he said.
One some street corners, fresh grafitti has been painted along the walls: “God, Syria and Bashar only.”
But near the security-encircled Omari mosque, some residents hinted that for many in this city of 120,000, resentments still run deep despite their silence.
“What do you want me to say? Things aren’t clear. We prefer to keep it in our hearts,” one vendor whispered.
“Nothing has changed,” another said.
Writing by Erika Solomon; editing by Andrew Roche