The first shot, apparently fired by a government sniper, scattered children who had gathered near a forlorn pair of rusted amusement park rides.
The second round, a loud boom from a Russian-made armored vehicle, sent everyone scrambling. Shopkeepers shuttered their storefronts with metal grates, elderly men abandoned their sidewalk chess match, and bystanders helped a boy who had been hawking apples to hurriedly pack up his pushcart.
Shouts and chaos ensued as young men hopped onto the backs of motorcycles or into the beds of pickup trucks, all racing in the direction of the shooting. Some carried assault rifles; others were armed only with their zeal.
Much international attention in Syria has focused on hot spots such as the besieged city of Homs. But, largely hidden from view, the agricultural hub of Idlib province along the Turkish border has become one of the country’s most contested areas.
In Maarat Numan, strategically situated on the main highway between Syria’s two major cities, Aleppo and Damascus, rebels loosely associated with the Free Syrian Army, an insurgent group based on the Turkish side of the border, are holding their own against security forces.
Rebels appear to control most residential districts, where images of the tricolor opposition flag are spray-painted on countless walls. But military checkpoints and carefully placed snipers control two main thoroughfares intersecting in town. President Bashar Assad’s government seems intent on holding the two main roads and occasionally firing into rebel neighborhoods, driving people indoors. Outgunned insurgents mobilize, but don’t always choose to fight back.
Residents say it has been this way for months.
Surrounding villages are as contested as squares on a chessboard: Rebels regularly push security forces back. But the government troops usually remain a village or two away, poised to regain control.
The residents, overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, appear to widely support the drive to topple Assad, whose Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, dominates the upper echelons of the government and its security apparatus.
“May God oppress them like they oppressed us,” a woman known as Um Hamadi said, cradling in her arms her infant grandson. His father, her son, has been in prison for six months for antigovernment activism, she said. “He who oppresses will eventually be repressed.”
Um Hamadi, or “Mother of Hamadi,” is the matriarch of more than a dozen women and children living in a three-bedroom flat in the rebel-controlled Gharbiya district, on the western edge of town. Hamadi, her eldest son, was shot by a sniper in January and bled to death, she said. A son-in-law was killed in May during a protest.
Four of her sons are fighting with the rebels. Another, doing his compulsory military service in the army near Damascus, spent two months in prison for refusing to take part in military actions, she said.
This morning, this city of about 120,000 people had awoken to grisly news: The bodies of three men had been found on a road outside town. An opposition activist said their heads had been sliced open across the top. No one knew who they were, but the discovery heightened the fear and uncertainty that have paralyzed the city.
Along Corniche Street, a major commercial drag, some shops remained open, but their owners stood alone in the doorways. Even if people dare to leave their homes, they have little to spend. Residents say that savings are being spent on weapons.
“All our money has gone to the revolution,” said Mustafa Saeed, 30, a barber. “Women have sold their gold and men are collecting money from their friends.”
Running water and electricity service are infrequent, as in much of Syria, with protracted outages. Fuel is scarce. Students have stopped attending school. Government forces recently retook a strategic faculty building at a grade school; a tattered Syrian flag now flutters from its roof. One resident with a view of the building reported seeing snipers there.
When antigovernment protests first broke out in Syria last March, people here hit the streets in solidarity. They were met with tear gas and blasts from high-pressure water hoses, residents said. The crackdown built over time, as did the resistance.
In August, residents said, the military moved into the city in large numbers.
For weeks, troops raided homes and hauled off young men, said a woman known as Um Abdallah, a math tutor who left the city a few months ago for Aleppo, northern Syria’s metropolis, which is still relatively calm.
As the government extended control of Maarat Numan, residents said, many men fled to surrounding villages or to Aleppo.
In hiding, the men of Maarat Numan, along with some soldiers who had defected to the opposition, began to organize and arm themselves.
Now, in neighborhoods under opposition control, rebels are speeding around in new white Kia sedans and SUVs, among 36 that were hijacked two weeks ago on the highway, said Saeed, the barber. He said they were the property of one of Assad’s relatives who was planning to sell them in Iraq. The rebels consulted a sheik and were told that as long as the vehicles were government property, it was religiously permissible to seize them.
Meanwhile, a network of current and former residents raises money for hundreds of families whose husbands or fathers have been killed or have taken up arms, said Um Abdallah, who has three sons supporting the rebels, two of them now in prison. Each eligible family receives about 5,000 Syrian pounds a month — less than $100.
By last week, the uprising had claimed the lives of 43 civilians or opposition activists in the city, residents said.
In one alley, the blood of a man who residents said was shot and killed two days before still stained a wall and the dirt below it.
And the tally was growing: A woman eight months pregnant, the wife of a pro-government sheik. She was rushed to a hospital, where doctors tried unsuccessfully to save her unborn daughter, who had also suffered a gunshot wound.
A taxi driver in his mid-40s, Abdulbasit Ghanom, shot in his car.
Not long after the call for evening prayer sounded from the city’s mosques, men pushed their way into the driver’s house to pay their respects and to gawk. The man’s body lay on a blanket, a small hole in his stomach. His right hand hung from a wrist that had been shot half off. Blood smeared his face.
Outside, sporadic shooting broke the silence.
The next morning, as much of the city was still stirring, the men of Maarat Numan dug three graves in the cemetery. One was tiny.