Sunday, August 7, 2011
Benghazi Boyscout Gravediggers
In Gadhafi's Libya, Boy Scouts become gravediggers
"Mostly we played football. Now we dig graves..."
The Libyan war continues to grind forward, with no end on the horizon, and the scale of the mounting casualties is reflected in the hands and faces of the Boy Scouts. The teenagers in their pressed white uniforms have rough calluses, now, after six months of labour in the main graveyard on the edge of Benghazi. They gaze out at the headstones with tired eyes, at rows of graves that stretch endlessly into the afternoon haze. These youths have become grave-diggers, and the profession gives them the seriousness and dignity of older men.
Before the violence started, the Benghazi Boy Scouts behaved almost like the Scouts in any other part of the world. They went camping in the desert, ran fundraisers, helped the needy, and picked up litter from the streets.
“Mostly we played football, before all of this,” said Mohammed El-Bagrmi, 16, an engineering student. “Now we dig graves.”
The Boy Scouts were among the few international organizations permitted under the regime of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, because they were viewed as politically neutral, and the Scouts continued in that spirit during the rebellion. By working in the graveyard, the young men stay away from the front lines.
“If I sent them to fight, I would lose all the principles of Scouting,” said Ali Mohammed Al-Zaydi, 43, who has led the same troop of Scouts for 26 years.
As he spoke, rivers of sweat ran down his face and through his salt-and-pepper beard, soaking his homemade Scout uniform. His small troop has maintained a gruelling pace in recent months. They built 60 graves a day at the beginning of the uprising; now it’s an average of 12, as the eastern front near the port town of Brega settles into a grim routine. Each side fires volleys of rockets across the desert at enemy lines, and ambulances race up the long highway to Benghazi.
Some of the dead end up in graves decorated with huge wreaths, like the heavily ornamented resting place of General Abdel Fatah Younis, whose mysterious assassination continues to breed dissent among the ranks.
Other graves contain small herb gardens, or bowls of seed to attract birds; locals believe that birds can summon God’s mercy with their beautiful supplications. Many plots contain no markings except a four-digit number scratched into wet concrete, indicating one of the many anonymous dead in the chaos of recent months.
Underground, the graves are all identical. An excavator scoops out a shallow trench in the orange dirt, and Scouts finish it off with hoes and shovels. Then they build rectangular compartments from concrete blocks.
For hours, there isn’t any sound in the graveyard except the squeaking of a rusty wheelbarrow, the scraping of a trowel on wet mortar, and the chinking of a hand-axe that the Scouts use to trim rough edges from the blocks.
The graveyard is the size of several football fields, but Mr. Al-Zaydi predicts that he will need to find a new place to bury the dead if the war continues at this pace for the next two months.
It does look as though Benghazi will need another graveyard this year.
The rebel advance on Tripoli has been slow, and the only hope for a quick resolution is a negotiated settlement. Several NATO countries recently floated the idea of allowing Col. Gadhafi to remain inside Libya if he were stripped of power, something initially endorsed by the rebel leadership and then quickly disavowed as the rebels had trouble selling the idea of negotiations to their rank-and-file.
This is a key problem: as the death toll mounts, public opinion hardens, and it becomes more difficult to strike a deal that might finally end the work of grave-diggers.
Even the young Boy Scouts see no reason to talk with Col. Gadhafi.
“Some people don’t want any negotiations with him at all, and others accept negotiations if he goes away from Libya,” said Ahmad Al-Shaykhi, 16, wearing a Baden-Powell pin on his uniform. “But many people want him dead.”
He paused while heavy guns thundered at a rebel training field in the distance.
“I think the problem is that no other country wants him,” Mr. Al-Shaykhi added.
When asked whether this meant the Scouts would keep digging graves, he looked thoughtful.
“Yes, maybe, but we hope not. We don’t want to continue this war. But he must leave. We will not stop until he’s gone.”
The Scouts were joined in the graveyard by a pair of tough young men, who had just returned from the battlefields. Firas Busnayna, 21, hunched next to the grave of his cousin and unzipped a small leather-bound copy of the Koran. He mumbled verses while his friend Khayralla Al-Ammari, 22, stood nearby. They had fought on all the major fronts in the east, and were preparing to leave the following day for more action near Misrata.
“We will not accept negotiations unless Gadhafi steps down, leaves the country and faces a fair trial,” Mr. Al-Ammari said.
When Mr. Busnayna finished his holy verses, he gestured at his cousin’s simple plot. “We lost him, and for what?” he asked. “For Gadhafi’s departure. That’s why we lost so many people. We cannot accept less.”
“Won’t that take a long time?” he was asked.
“I don’t want to be a pessimist, but I think it will require a long time,” Mr. Busnayna said. “The decisive battle will be in Tripoli, and Gadhafi has bribed many people there and bought their loyalty. The problem is that these people now feel they cannot turn against him.
“Their destiny is linked to his.