Thursday, October 20, 2011
Children of the Revolution
Thirteen-year-old Naseem heads daily to the frontline in Muammar Gaddafi's hometown Sirte, saying he feels inspired watching his father and older brother fight the former Libyan leader's forces.
"I am not scared," says the rake-thin boy, even as he shows scars on his left foot caused by a too-close encounter with a mortar shell during the battle for the town of Ajdabiya a few months back.
"I get inspired when I come to the battlefield with my father and brother," he says, speaking with obvious awe of his father Saleh Ahmed and 17-year-old brother Murad. He says he provides "back-up" for his family members.
Naseem is among many child fighters seen criss-crossing the Sirte battlefield as National Transitional Council (NTC) forces attempt to crush the last pockets of armed support for Gaddafi.
Some are fully engaged in the heavy street fighting now raging in the Mediterranean city after earlier having cut their teeth in skirmishes with Gaddafi diehards in the swathes of desert surrounding Sirte.
While some risk their lives transporting food supplies to those on the front lines, others are seen loading shells into Russian-built 130 mm artillery canons or tanks.
These trigger-happy youngsters are also the first ones to fire their Kalashnikovs with every successful shelling of a Gaddafi target.
Ahmed Boukeila and another 17-year-old, who gave his name only as Bashir, are clear what they are doing in Sirte.
"I am searching for Gaddafi and want to capture him," said Boukeila, a mechanical student from Benghazi, the eastern Libyan city which first rose up against the veteran leader.
"There is nothing more important right now than finishing off Gaddafi. I have lost friends in this fighting and I don't mind getting killed myself. I will be a martyr, which is a great thing in my religion," he said.
The two teenagers plunged themselves into the anti-Gaddafi rebellion soon after schools and colleges in Benghazi shut down when the uprising erupted on February 17.
In Sirte, the pair are to be seen toting their Kalashnikovs and travelling in pick-up trucks to the frontline with other fighters.
Sometimes, however, they are to be found guarding deserted houses in newly captured territory, inside and outside the city.
"I will keep fighting as long as I can. But once the fighting is over and if I am alive, I will return to my studies," said Bashir, who like Boukeila speaks fluent English.
Commanders of the new regime's troops are adamant they do not allow anyone below 18 to fight or even come close to the frontline, where rockets, mortars, rocket-propelled-grenades and machine gun bullets rain relentlessly.
"We check their identity cards or take it in writing from their parents that their boys who have joined us are 18 years and above in age," Hussain al-Amami, a former colonel in Gaddafi's military, said.
For Ahmed, father of Naseem, it is a "moral duty" to bring his young son to the frontline.
"He has to see what is happening in his country. I am not worried about him or what international rules and regulations say," Ahmed said as he waited with Naseem in Sirte's Number Two neighbourhood ready to join the fighting.
"Even if he or his brother Murad die in this battle I will not regret it. This is a revolution and in a revolution there are no rules," Ahmed said as he and Naseem ducked for cover from machinegun bullets flying overhead.