Get past the leather-clad man at checkpoint when you enter Homs and you heave a sigh of relief. Syria has long inspired paranoia:conversations are conducted in whispers, and software is downloaded to beat the internet monitors. During meetings phones, all assumed to be tapped, are left on top of fridges so that only their whirring can be heard. But in the past two months that has grown even more acute. Most interviews are done via Skype, code-words are used on the phone, meetings are abandoned at any sign of men in leather jackets, the uniform of the security forces.

A trip to Homs, an industrial city 100 miles north of Damascus, seemed worth the risk. It isis a microcosm of the rest of the country; Sunnis live alongside minority Christians and Alawites and tribal families rub shoulders with the poor and the educated elite. Largely ignored by foreign visitors but a lively hub of intellectual and café life, Homs has been subject to a heavy security and military  crackdown  in which scores have been killed since protests began in March. The worst came after a sit-in on April 18th at Clock Tower square. Tanks have now withdrawn to the outskirts of the city—lined up along the road to the restless villages to the north of Rastan and Telbiseh—but the atmosphere remains tense.

It is a pleasant town with glassy cafes next to old souqs and new concrete low-rise neighbourhoods. Bar the checkpoints, things seem normal. But dig a little deeper and there is much more to it.Introduced by a local friend to “safe” people in the city, the divisions between the protesters and the rest of the population are immediately apparent. The former have become an underground club. The weather and family matters dominate conversations with acquaintances who cannot be trusted. With others who have been vouched for, talk turns to the latest demonstration or person to go missing. Suspicions of the Alawites, the sect to which the president, Bashar Assad, belongs, are frequently raised.

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