Virtually cut off from outsiders, the area which sustained the first government tank assault of the uprising nine months ago this week is now facing a military sweep intended to quell dissent.
Separate families told independently how brothers and children of those wanted by the authorities have been targeted to force their relatives to give themselves up.
“They sent for me, saying they would kill my brother if I didn’t hand myself in,” one man, who called himself Abu Mahmoud, said in the Jordanian town of Ramtha after fleeing over the border last week.
His name had appeared on the “wanted” list issued daily to troops.
Last Saturday, just after he left, they were as good as their word. “My brother was leading a protest march,” he said. “A sniper shot him twice, one bullet in his chest and the other in his head.”
For a while in March, Deraa was almost taken over by protesters, after demonstrations over the arrest of a group of a teenagers for scrawling anti-regime graffiti developed into the first major confrontation of the uprising. But the protests were peaceful and the army shelled its way back in.
The struggle there has received less publicity than the fighting in Homs, where as many as 200,000 people staged one of the opposition’s biggest single demonstrations yesterday, and Idlib to the north.
But this week, activists and refugees gave The Telegraph a detailed portrait of the regime’s new tactics, as tanks are deployed to break the general strike which is the opposition’s latest gambit to put pressure on the regime.
“There are barriers every hundred or two hundred metres in Deraa as checkpoints,” one resident said by Skype.
“Every day they get a new list of names that are wanted by the regime. We have soldiers who are contributing to our cause, sometimes for free, sometimes for money, who give us the lists.” Another refugee, Abu Ali, 34, said he and two of his cousins had organised protests, written slogans, distributed anti-regime leaflets and provided first aid for those wounded.
Early on, before army defections began and the struggle began to morph into open war, they were handed automatic weapons by sympathetic soldiers. Even so, they were shocked at the violence that has now developed.
“It is sanctioned to kill anyone who takes part in a protest,” he said. “We want to protect ourselves. I saw a man with his seven-year-old, who was shot simply to make the father suffer.
“We saw women and children killed, houses bombed and bodies mutilated.” In turn, the Free Syrian Army, a ragged band of defectors, has begun to retaliate.
Last month, it ambushed a convoy of armoured personnel carriers in Deraa, setting some on fire. Earlier this week, in its bloodiest attack yet, it killed 27 soldiers at three checkpoints in the province.
As the clashes worsen, activists, even those not involved in violence, are being forced to escape, leaving their families to face the consequences.
Abu Jarrah, 31, one of the cousins, said the security forces told his father that they wanted to “pluck their eyes and cut their bodies into pieces”.
“They said that they would unearth us in 24 hours,” he said. “A few days before we left, they stormed my neighbour’s house and while he wasn’t there took his 12-year-old son hostage. The next day they took the wanted man’s brother hostage.”
He said two of his own younger brothers had been arrested and remained in custody. “I don’t know where my youngest brother is,” he said. His other brother had been suspended from the ceiling by one of his hands and beaten with electric cables, according to an inmate who was subsequently released.
The reports conform to accounts from Human Rights Watch, which alleged this week that officials and army officers had issued “shoot-to-kill” orders and sanctioned torture of detainees.
Those whose relatives are active in the opposition, like Abu Jarrah and Abu Mahmoud, are particular targets.
Abu Jarrah showed The Telegraph the aftermath of a shooting. By coincidence, it was that of Abu Mahmoud’s brother, though the two families do not know each other. In the video, the brother lies on the floor as he is given first aid.
“There is no God but Allah,” he says, his head lolling. The treatment is of no avail, and they are his last words.
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