Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A Lebanese Boy Learns To Fire A Kaytusha

Amrak Heesan sat at a wood table eating oats soaked in goat’s milk. His son, Mokar, ten years old, sat with him eating a banana. The house was made of stone and had three rooms, the living area which contained all the kitchen equipment and a television set, as well as a bedroom and a bathroom. The house was on a hill in the Lebanese town of Khiam near the Lebanese border with the Golan Heights. Amrak’s wife, Seffe, had left Khiam two days before with Mokar’s sister, Juha. Juha was only four, so Seffe did not wish to wait for the Israelis to come. She was scared and wanted to find a safe haven for her daughter and herself, and she felt bad to leave Mokar behind. But Amrak was insistent. “Mokar was ten years old. He was old enough to hold a rocket. He must stay and fight,” said Amrak to his wife Seffe. So Seffe departed only with Juha in their green 1988 Toyota Celica. Seffee did not know where they were going to go. She did not wish to go to Syria. She had heard that those who went to Syria never came back. She wanted to stay in Lebanon, maybe close to the sea. Seffe told Amrak before she left that she would drive with Juha toward Tyre or Sidon and try to find one of her sisters. Amrak suggested further north; but further north was unfriendly to Shia, so she preferred to stay in the south.
Mokar looked at the battery-operated clock on the wall. It was four minutes to nine in the morning.

“It is almost time,” said Mokar.

“There is no reason to rush. There is plenty of time,” said Amrak to his son as he played with his oats, not really hungry.

Amrak had been suffering from stomach pains for the past few days, and they had become worse this morning. The departure of his wife and beautiful four-year old daughter, Juha, with jet black hair and light brown eyes, was like an ending to him. He did not think it would ever come to this. This war that was now raging. Of course, the whole town of Khiam had become a storage facility for weapons, including the nearly thousand Kaytusha rockets that came in weekly over the last five years by truck on roads from Syria.

Kaytushas were old Soviet rockets, and though they were tested every now and then, no one really knew if they were reliable. If you walked down the dirt and stone roads of Khiam on any day, you would not see one rocket except for maybe a pickup truck now and then with a pile of them in the back. But walk into anyone’s home in Khiam, and the entire living space was piled with Kaytushas. Everyone had a quota. Amrak’s house was big enough to hold fifty Kaytushas, and what was left of that fifty was lying behind where Mokar sat at the table eating his banana.

So with all the rockets piling up in the house, Amrak found it amusing that he never thought it would come to this. How could he think otherwise. The Kaytushas had become so much apart of everyone’s home, that they were used for all sorts of purposes. Lying five of them next to each other was a popular support for mattresses. Some had rigged them with electrical cords, placing a light bulb at the top and then a shade hanging on the bulb. This had become a popular lamp, so much so that a local electrician had made a sizeable business at retro-fitting the Kaytushas as standing lamps. Though this was frowned upon by the local authorities, even they had to laugh at the ingenuity of the Khiam residents.
This had all changed in the last two weeks. All the lamped Kaytushas had been reclaimed as rockets. And to the surprise of everyone, the Kaytushas were not only reliable, they all seemed to work as described by the Syrian engineers who came to instruct locals in how to fire them.

“I want to do it, Papa. Can we go now?” asked Mokar.

“I am not finished with my oats,” said Amrak.

This was to be Mokar’s first time firing a Kaytusha. In fact, two weeks ago was Amrak’s first time firing a Kaytusha. It was frightening how much noise the rocket made when it took off from the tripod stand. The air rumbled, hurting the ears. And one looked at the fire blast with caution as it got very bright, sending off sparks in all directions. But the rockets worked. They went up in into the air, heading for Israel like a javelin. It was a sight to see. At first, it had made all the Khiam men proud to se the rockets head up into the clouds. But the pride had been replaced with fear. The excitement was being passed down to the next generation.

Mokar was anxious and excited. He got up from the table and went over to the pile of Kaytushas behind him, which were piled up against the stone wall and held in place by four cinder blocks lying on the floor.

“Can I at least take one outside and get it ready?” asked Mokar.

“Yes. Yes. OK,” said Amrak.

Mokar picked up one of the Kaytushas. It was heavy for a ten-year old. He had to drag it, which is what he did, out the front wood door into the bright morning Lebanese sun.

Amrak’s stomach pain grew worse. He held his stomach. It disturbed Amrak that his son so easily could live with these rockets. Mokar picked them up and moved them around like a large toy. Amrak had always touched them with caution, never fully trusting them, never feeling comfortable. But Mokar had spent half his life with these rockets. The Kaytushas were part of his life; they had become part of his son’s culture.

The pain got worse. Amrak stood and walked to the window where he watched his son set up the Kaytusha outside the front of his house. He saw other sons setting up other rockets at other houses in the town of Khiam. All the sons were moving with excitement. And all the fathers watched from their living room windows.

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