The missile came crashing down to the earth in a huge plume of sand and dust, skipped twice through an open field, and slammed into the concrete barricade. Mussa and Abdelfatah remained motionless on the opposite side with their arms still over their heads, expecting any minute it would go off and kill them both.
But nothing happened.
Mussa, the brave one, was first to lift his head and take a look.
“Today, we are the lucky ones!” he exclaimed.
There on the other side of the concrete was a sleek, tan-colored, air-to-surface missile, its nose dented, its long delta wings bent like the blades of a blender. It was still simmering from the heat of its flight.
Abdelfatah rose too. “Praise Allah,” he said, looking at the long, cylindrical device.
For a moment, they studied the missile. The boys had seen older Soviet-era rockets before, but nothing like this one. This one was space-age in appearance, and it had numbers along its side and the writing, which was in English.
“Is it NATO?” Abdelfatah asked.
“Maybe,” Mussa said.
“What should we do with it?”
“We must take it.”
“Take it where?”
“Back to the compound.”
“Yes, to Shinabah.”
“What if it goes off?”
“Then we die.”
Abdelfatah did not answer.
Mussa leaped over the barricade and took hold of the missile’s nose and he strained to lift it. “It is a gift from Allah,” he said. “Come on, help me! We must take it.”
Abdelfatah reluctantly climbed over the barrier and together they tried to lift the rocket, one on each end. But the device weighed nearly four-hundred pounds and they could barely budge it. Mussa joined Abdelfatah at the tail-end of the rocket and together they were able to lift it off the ground. They dragged it around the end of the barrier and began to drag it down the street.
“Is it okay? It will not go off?” Abdelfatah asked.
Mussa looked back at the rocket, its nose having left a squiggly white line on the asphalt. “I don’t think so.”
“What if it does?”
“Then we won’t have to worry anymore.”
They stopped periodically to take deep breaths and rest their arms. And they admired their newfound treasure. What few victories the rebellion had known had been celebrated exuberantly, generally in the form of machinegun-fire from the beds of pick-up trucks and the rattling off AK-47’s indiscriminately into the sky, and the screeching out of the ancient Arabic battle cry——an oscillating sound made by forcing air through the windpipe while simultaneously flapping the tongue against the roof of the mouth. Now Mussa envisioned a victory celebration of his own. In a city besieged by rockets and sniper fire where NATO war jets screeched through the sky every morning and where CNN news coverage was filmed on a cell phone, coming close to death was an everyday occurrence for two fifteen-year-old boys. But it was not everyday that a weapon of considerable strength was delivered to one’s feet. Now he thought of how he could use it. And he thought of the Soviet-manufactured T-72 tank, a forty-ton monster which had been raging havoc in their neighborhood. It had recently shelled the marketplace where his mother bought bread and had destroyed the apartment building where his brother lived, nearly killing him. This rocket was just the weapon he could use to destroy it, he thought. If only he could figure out how.
He stopped again to take a breath and rest his arms. He looked over into Abdelfatah’s eyes. “We’ll use it to destroy Gaddafi’s tank!” he said.
Abdelfatah didn’t know how to reply. He simply nodded, “Praise the Rebellion.”
The main rebel meeting room was lively with discussion and strategy when the loud thud of the missile being dropped turned everyone’s attention to the door. Nouri Shinabah, the self-appointed leader of the ‘Martyrs Company,’ turned his eyes to Mussa and Abdelfatah, who stood there in the doorway light. The air-to-ground missile was resting at their feet. Mussa was straddling it, his right leg pressed firmly against it.
“What is it?” asked Shinabah.
“It is a missile,” Mussa said.
“I can see that. Where did you get it?”
“It crashed into a barricade.”
“But it missed us,” Abdelfatah said.
“We were behind this wall when we heard something whistling down from the sky. We could hear it coming down fast and when we looked up, we saw this silver streak coming straight at us.”
“It came out of the air?” asked another man.
“Like a spear,” Mussa said.
“Down from the heavens,” Abdelfatah said.
The men in the room exchanged doubtful glances.
“We ducked behind the barricade and covered our heads. We thought we were dead.” Abdelfatah was rattling now.
“But it didn’t explode,” said Mussa.
Shinabah stared at both of them, as did everyone else in the room. But slowly all eyes turned back to Shinabah. It was he who formed this rag-tag militia, consisting of students and bakers and craftsmen and lawyers and mechanics and businessmen. They all stood there, dressed in all kinds of different clothing, some in traditional garments, others in western-style suits, and others in combat fatigues, waiting for him to speak.
Shinabah said nothing. He walked silently over to Mussa and Abdelfatah and knelt down beside the projectile. He studied the device, running a hand along its side. Then he tilted his head and read the numbers and writing on it.
“It is NATO,” he said, “an AGM-65 Maverick. It will be useful in the rebellion.” He rose to his feet, took off his cap, and looked around the room until his eyes found a stout man with a large moustache. It was Hakim Audin, their ordinance expert. “What do you think?”
Hakim came forward and looked at the missile.
“Can we launch it?” another man asked.
“No,” Hakim Audin said, “but we can remove the warhead and use it. It’s a blast-fragmenting warhead. We can use it as a mine or make some kind of road IED of it.”
“Yes, of course,” Shinabah said. He stepped aside and Hakim leaned in and wrapped his big fingers around the nose of the missile. Shinabah waved a couple other men in to help him, but before they could step forward, Mussa held out a hand and spoke loudly. “Wait! We have plans for it.”
Shinabah looked at him, waiting for further explanation.
“It is ours,” Mussa said. “We found it and dragged it back here. It belongs to us.”
“It belongs to the rebellion,” said a voice among the men.
It was young lieutenant Haftar, a twenty-five-year-old who had recently joined the group from Benghazi. He was from the Senussi tribe, an elite political-religious order whose Libyan blood was considered stronger than the other tribes in the region; much stronger than Mussa or Abdelfatah.
“It belongs to us,” Mussa cried. “It fell from the sky into our lap. That we were not killed by this device, that it came to use like a gift from the heavens, is divine providence. It belongs to us.”
“It is nonsense,” the young lieutenant said.
“It is not nonsense. It is Allah’s will and we will not give it up.” He straddled the missile in a protective stance, turned back, and looked to Abdelfatah for support. Abdelfatah only offered a shrug.
“You are both correct,” Shinabah then said in a calm voice. “It is divine providence that this fell out of the sky and did not kill these two. That is a miracle in itself. But it also belongs to the rebellion, like every one of us, and all that we own, and all who we are, and the air and the wind that we breathe, and the life that we love.” He looked at Mussa. “Tell me… what is your plan?”
“The tank in the city center, the one that destroyed the port shipment last week and that destroyed the apartment where my brother lived——”
“It is a coward. It kills and then hides beneath the palm trees.”
“I want to use this missile to destroy it.”
“We will bury it in its hiding place when it is gone and blow it up when it returns.”
“Is it possible?” one of the men asked.
“Yes,” Hakim Audin said.
“Then how will they detonate it?” the young lieutenant asked.
Hakim Audin, who was still on one knee, held his thick fingers over the grey circle at the tip of the missile. “A simple shot from a rifle,” said. “It has a contact fuse in the nose. One bullet in this area will detonate it.” He looked up at Shinabah, who nodded his head in agreement.
“Then it is done,” Shinabah said.
“They are children,” the young lieutenant objected. “Let the men handle it.”
Shinabah ran a careful eye over Mussa and Abdelfatah, measuring them up. “There are no children in Misrata,” he said. “Only men. And we need all the men we can get to win this war.”
The young lieutenant, Haftar, shrugged his shoulders. “If it is your will?”
“It is my will,” Shinabah replied.
“Then so be it,” the young lieutenant said.
Shinabah knelt down beside the missile and cupped his hand over the grey-circled tip. He looked into Mussa’s eyes. “One round here.”
Mussa nodded his head.
“It is yours, then.”
Mussa smiled widely and looked back at Abdelfatah, who smiled back, nervously.
“But if for some reason your plan doesn’t work, you must bring it back here and we’ll decide another use for it.”
When the meeting finished, Mussa and Abdelfatah dragged the missile back to Mussa’s apartment, to his mother’s disapproval. After a short argument, they took it from the apartment and hid it in a vacant building across the street.
The next morning, they scouted the place where the tank parked each day beneath three palm trees. It was cater-corner to a little café, which the crew frequented. They found a large oleander bush on the other street corner and hid in it. They sat and watched the tank.
The tank had flipper-like armor panels and a 125mm gun. It was a leftover from the Afghan war, but still a powerful weapon against unarmored street-fighters. For the past three weeks it had been targeting small factories and apartment buildings, and the shops on Tripoli Street where Mussa’s mother bought bread and women stood in queues for hours at a time waiting for flour, sugar, and pasta. And it had been targeting the marina too, where storage sheds kept the munitions and water, which were the lifelines of the revolt. He knew he could always rely on the tank being gone at night, out for its nightly runs, shelling and refueling, and back in the morning, to hide beneath the palms during daylight.
For the entire day they watched the tank. It did not move, but men with machineguns came and went from it to the little café. In the afternoon, they saw the tank Commander. He came walking past them with a young soldier. They knew it was the tank Commander because he wore a tank Commander’s helmet equipped with a microphone and earphones. It had a pair of goggles strapped to the top of it. On their return trip, the two men stopped near the oleander bush, not more than a few feet away.
“Rebel bastards,” they heard the tank Commander say. “Scum of the earth, ungrateful for what has been given them. Ungrateful for what the great one has done. And they will all die for their ungratefulness.
“They think the world will care,” he laughed. “The world does not care. The world only cares about money, and oil.”
“They are nothing but idiots,” the young soldier said.
Mussa looked up through the oleander leaves and he could see the Commander’s dark face, half-shadowed by the helmet. There was a military insignia on his sleeve and a portrait of a woman pinned to his lapel. The Commander unwrapped a stick of gum from a pack he had in his hand and offered it out to the young soldier, who took it. Then he unwrapped another stick and tossed the wrapper, which floated down into the oleander bush and settled near Mussa’s foot. Mussa looked at Abdelfatah and put a finger to his lips.
“This war will be over soon,” the Commander said.
“Finally, these rebel pigs will all die,” the young soldier said.
They walked back across the street, climbed up the side of the tank, and disappeared inside of it.
Mussa felt the blood rise in his veins. They will see, he thought. They are cowards who hide beneath palm trees!
Another couple hours past before the long shadows of late afternoon stretched across the street, during which time Mussa thought about the rocket and how best to bury it beneath the tank.
“We’ll leave the nose tipped up,” Mussa said, “so that we can put a bullet in it. We’ll cover it with something. Maybe some grass or a palm leaf.”
It made sense, Abdelfatah thought, looking over at the tank. “Yes, of course.”
They were both still watching the tank when the powerful V-12 engine first came on and they saw diesel fumes spew out the back. The tank remained idling for twenty minutes, maybe more, while the early evening light faded. Then it moved forward, slowly leaving the dirt shoulder and clanking onto the pavement. It stopped for a moment, then came rolling past them, its huge revolving tracks slapping hard against the asphalt. They could feel the earth vibrating beneath them. The shear size and power of the thing made them feel small.
“Where is it going?” Abdelfatah asked.
“Don’t know. Different night, different target.” He turned and looked into Abdelfatah’s face. “Last target.”
Abdelfatah smiled. “Yes, last target.”
They stayed hidden in the oleander bush until the tank completely disappeared down the street. Then Mussa sprung to his feet and hurried across the street to where the tank had been. Abdelfatah followed.
Deep in the dirt were the track marks. They could see where the tracks had come and gone many times. They could see an oil stain in the sand where the belly of the beast had rested. They could see where it entered the street, the deep lines carved into the asphalt.
Mussa looked up into the foliage above. He could barely see the darkening sky through the fanning palms trees.
“Right here!” he said, pointing to the place in the long shadows where the belly of the tank had rested many times. And looking around, he saw a white cardboard box lying in the street. “And that!” he said, pointing to the box. “We’ll use that to cover the tip of the rocket.”
He ran over to the box, picked it up, examined it carefully, and holding it out before him, tore open one side. Its shape and size was perfect, he thought. He carried it back and set it down near the base of the palm trees.
An hour later, the boys were struggling in the dark. It was no easy task dragging a four-hundred-and-fifty-pound rocket four blocks with a shovel strapped to it and a blanket over it. But the boys were strengthened by their faith and desire for freedom, and the cleverness of their plan. They were full of gallantry, which always makes such a task simpler than what it is.
When they arrived back at the palm trees, they were happy to see the street-lamps were off and the café was closed. There was no moon, which was good. The Arabian night was pitch black and speckled with stars. They dragged the rocket to the far side of the palm trees and hid it behind the trees. Then, with the shovel, they began their work. They took turns digging, piling the dirt carefully to one side so as not to disturb the tracks.
“It is like digging a shallow grave,” Abdelfatah said.
“A long and narrow grave for a big monster,” Mussa replied. “We will be the heroes after this.”
After a long turn shoveling dirt, Mussa stepped aside and let Abdelfatah dig again. He sat quietly at the base of one of the palm trees, leaning against it. He felt a jubilant elation, confident that their plan would work. As the pile grew, he stared at the dirt. Once again, he imagined a victory celebration of his own and he smiled inwardly. It was the earth of his father and grandfather, he thought. It was the sand of all his ancestors; the birthplace of all his generations, and would be the birthplace of his descendants. It was the good Libyan earth, in which his forefathers rested and in which he would rest one day.
The ditch formed nicely, angling deeper at the backend so that the tail of the missile would be deeply hidden. When the hole was ready they dragged the missile around the base of the trees, rolled it into the hole, and covered it carefully, spreading the dirt and sand so that it looked as if no one had been there. They carefully swept away the drag mark and their footprints with a palm leaf. Then, with the long stem of the palm leaf, added lines in the dirt which closely resembled the original track lines. As planned, Mussa took the box and set it on top the protruding missile tip. But it looked too big, so he tore off a piece, folded it with a crease down the center, and carefully laid it back on top. Then he stepped back and considered it.
“It’s perfect,” he said, confidently. It looked like a wind-blown piece of cardboard which had just settled there accidentally.
“I think so,” Abdelfatah replied.
Abdelfatah took the palm leaf and evened out some irregularities in the surface and covered the remaining footprints. As they walked back onto the asphalt, he tossed the palm leaf off the side of the road. They found a perfect place down the street, behind a stone wall, from where they could get a clear shot at the cardboard. It was some fifty meters away; far enough for their presence to go undetected and close enough for them to make the shot. Then they left, back to Mussa’s mother’s apartment for some tea and bureeks, and flatbread.
They could not sleep, nor did they want to, and timed passed.
In the early morning hours, before the sun rose, they returned, now each armed with a Kalashnikov AK-47. And to their grateful surprise, they saw the tank had returned and had parked perfectly along the roadside beneath the palm trees in the same exact spot, its belly, presumably, resting squarely above the piece of cardboard.
They took their position behind the small stone wall. They positioned their rifles above the stone, and they waited. It was still too dark to see the piece of cardboard clearly. They could barely see a vague grayish thing beneath the outline of the tank.
As the light increased and the tank took form, the turret facing them, the grayish thing beneath it remained obscured. Despite the coming light, the cardboard was difficult to see because it was in the shadow of the tank, which was in the shadow of the palm trees.
“Can you see it?” Mussa asked.
“Barely, but I can feel it,” Abdelfatah said. He leveled his rifle.
“Not yet,” Mussa said, wanting to wait for more light.
A few more minutes passed. Now they saw the front armored plates and its running gear, and the machinegun on top the turret.
“It is my shot,” Abdelfatah said.
“Who is the better shot?” Mussa asked.
Abdelfatah turned and looked at Mussa. “I can hit it.”
“Who is the better shot?”
“We’ll shoot together,” Abdelfatah then said.
Mussa nodded. “Okay, we shoot together, on my count, when I say so.”
With the accelerating light of daybreak, the piece of white cardboard came into focus. But it was farther beneath the hull than they had anticipated, and at this distance, it was impossible to see the circular grey nose of the missile.
Mussa looked at Abdelfatah. “We can hit it,” he said.
“Just hit the cardboard.”
Mussa pressed his cheek against the wood stock of his rifle. Abdelfatah did the same. And with both barrels pointed over the top of the stone wall, they each centered the blurry grey thing in their circular sighting apertures.
“Ready?” Mussa asked.
“Now?” Abdelfatah replied.
“When I say ‘go.’”
“When you say ‘go’?”
“No, on three.”
“Okay, on three.”
Mussa took a deep breath. Then he began to count, slowly; “one, two…” and on “three,” they both pulled their triggers. Their rifles bucked, and the bullets careened off the side of the missile and ricocheted and pinged off the belly of the tank. But nothing happened. Mussa shot again, quickly. And again, and the bullets continued to careen of the side of the missile and smack against the front armored plates of the tank. Then they heard the tank engine come on and saw a puff of smoke come out of the rear exhaust.
Mussa flipped the rifle’s switch to fully automatic mode, held the stock tight to his shoulder, pressed his cheek firmly against it, and pulled the trigger again. The rifle spit out a fierce, rattling folly of rounds, hitting the dirt before the tank, ripping the ground beneath it, shredding the cardboard, and ricocheting off the gilled-armored plates. Abdelfatah did the same, both rifles now rattling in fully automatic mode, the bullets ripping through the air, pinging against metal, uprooting dirt, and obliterating the cardboard. But still nothing happened.
Before they knew it, the turret began to move, ever so slightly, as to center in their direction. The boys exchanged horrified expressions.
Mussa sprung to his feet, as did Abdelfatah. They both ran with all their might toward the café, the tank’s 125mm cannon following them, its turret turning diagonally. Just as they reached the sidewalk, the building above them exploded into a fountain of pebbles and smoke. The entire structure was in a large ball of flames and smoke. Mussa was hurdled off his feet, as was Abdelfatah, and they were both buried in an avalanche of plaster and brick and boards and splintered wood.
There was that moment of time lost, when one doesn’t know what happened or how long ago it happened. When Mussa awakened, he heard nothing, only a loud humming in his ears. He pulled himself from beneath smoldering boards and plaster. He saw Abdelfatah beside him, also rising from the rubble. His body felt numb all over. He had cuts and bruises everywhere. His shirt was torn and smelt like burning sulfur.
Through the haze of smoke, both boys saw the tank. It had come out from beneath the palm trees and was stopped now in the center of the road. Its barrel had come around again. They could see the tank Commander’s helmeted and goggled head protruding from the turret. They could see him shouting commands and pointing in their direction
Mussa tried to move, but his limbs didn’t seem to work. Or maybe it was because of the weight of rubble on him. It didn’t matter. It was as if time stood still. And now he could see the barrel of the tank’s cannon fully upon them, pointing squarely at them. He could see the black hole at the tip, which he knew would soon flash white.
Then, suddenly, there was a loud screeching sound from above. Mussa looked up, as did Abdelfatah and the helmeted and goggled head of the tank Commander. Two laser-like beams streaked downward through the early morning light, and, in the same instant, the tank vanished in a huge white flash of flames and smoke. The turret flew skyward and a high-arching geyser of fiery debris reached above the tops of the palm trees. A second explosion engulfed the entire roadside where the tank and had been and took out the palm trees as well. At the same time, the roar of jet engines sounded overhead as two NATO F-16s screeched away toward the Mediterranean.
The shock waves had smacked against the two boys. They had involuntarily flinched and ducked below the rubble, which already covered half of them. Swirls of dust and debris were still settling around them when they lifted themselves a second time. They pulled themselves from the rubble, dusted themselves off, and looked at one another, not believing what had just happened. In the same moment they thought their lives were gone, they had emerged virtually unscathed, except for the bruises and scratches and ringing in their ears. Meanwhile, what was left of the tank was a burning plume of black smoke that rose high into the bright morning sky.
Mussa let out an involuntary yell. Abdelfatah did the same. Their faces shined with elation. They both grabbed one another and hugged tightly, as brothers do, and before they broke their clutch, a beat-up old white pickup truck came careening around the corner at the far end of the street. The truck rushed down the street and came to an abrupt stop in front of them. Clinging to the fifty-caliber machinegun in the bed of the truck was young Fathi al-Kharaz, a fellow soldier of the Martyrs Company.
“Get in,” he yelled.
The boys leaped into the bed of the truck and, as it zoomed off down the street, Fathi al-Kharaz began yelling jubilantly and he pulled the trigger of the machinegun, sending useless follies into the sky. He had very clean, white teeth and he showed them generously now in the morning sunlight. “You did it! You destroyed Gadhafi’s tank!”
“But our missile did not destroy the tank,” Mussa said.
Fathi al-Kharaz looked at Mussa. “Maybe not. But you brought it out of hiding so the jets could kill it!” He pulled the trigger of the machinegun again and it rattled indiscreminately into the sky. “You are the victors!” He fired again. “We are the victors!” He fired again. “Tonight, Gaddafi sleeps with one less tank!”
Then he let out the long, oscillating, Arabic battle cry.
The truck careemed around a corner into a plaza where stood two dozen rebel soldiers of the Martyrs Company. They were all holding their AK-47s triunphantly skyward, shooting rounds off into the air. Shinabah stood in the center, waiting.
“Tank killers!” he yelled. “We greet you and celebrate your victory!”
Young Lieutenant Haftar, the elite-blooded Senussi, stood beside him. His eyes looked to Mussa. His head nodded. “Yes, you are men of the rebellion,” he yelled out. “You are soldiers of the revolt!” Then he raised his rifle high. “To the tank killers!”
The machinegun in the bed of the pickup truck spoke loudly again, pounding off rounds into the blue Libyan sky. And when Mussa looked around he realized he was surrounded by an army of men celebrating a victory that was his; that was theirs. All around him was the rapid cracking of gunfire, and the loud chorus of tongues, flapping out the old Arabic battle cry.
“We have won, Brother!” Mussa said, looking over at Abdelfatah.
Abdelfatah nodded his acknowledgement. His face was bright and proud too. “Yes, we have won, Brother!”
Together, they watched over the many rifles pointing skyward above many heads, wasting rounds triumphantly into the blue Libyan sky. Then Mussa tilted his head back, filled his lungs with the warm desert air, and let out a long victorious war cry. He felt the warm air rushing through his throat as his tongue flapped rapidly against the roof of his mouth. Abdelfatah did the same, and their battle cry rose in a crescendo with the others, over the sound of the rifles, into the blue Libyan sky. And it was taken by the warm, desert wind.