"I Know Them for Their Wounds" by Alexander Yates

A different perspective: What might it be like to find the dictator?

Published August 30, 2011 1:06AM (EDT)

It is my deepest hope that the man who called himself the King of Kings will go undiscovered. This is a change for me. When I first started looking for Gadhafi, just a few days ago, my intentions were to reach as far down his throat as I could and grab his tongue at the root, or to put my thumbs knuckledeep through his eyes. I meant to kill the man, if such a thing was possible. Mind -- I don't say possible out of any misplaced awe for the addled murderer. Absent Gadhafi's soldiers and walls, he's as killable as any other slightly puffy old man. I say it because I didn't know if it was possible for me to kill him, given my recent condition. It's only been a few days since I was shot, and already I can move objects. If I concentrate hard enough I can lift an empty drinking glass, or even push open doors. But wrapping my fingers around the old man's throat? That, as yet, is beyond me.

He was in a shipping container when I found him. In the end, rooting him out wasn't all that difficult. Of course, I had some advantages. Being able to penetrate brick like it's nothing but a threshold, or slip unnoticed through checkpoints -- through the checkers -- are two such. I spent a day searching the remains of Gadhafi's shattered palaces and the ornate, psychotic warren of bunkers stacked beneath them. I wasn't alone -- rebels had taken up positions, cackling at his vintage pornography and furiously frisbeeing his china across a grand ballroom. The dead were there as well, searching. I knew them for their wounds -- the mangled, the tortured, the exploded and beaten. Sniper victims looked like they were still alive, until they turned their heads, just so. "Patience," one of them kept saying. "He shall soon be found." And he was.

The shipping container was in Abu Salim, wedged into a dusty alley between low-rise, private buildings. I’d only meant to drift through it as a shortcut to the street beyond, but suddenly there he was, along with his nurse and a few of his functionaries -- or maybe they were his sons? The inside of the container was a humble affair, with some cots crammed into the far end, dotted sparsely with small, beautiful pillows. Near the entrance was a little media hub; a digital camera and tripod, aimed at a joint stool set before a screen of green construction paper. A pair of crank lanterns offered the only light, and that was softened by sheets of Egyptian cotton that had been hung from the walls and roof, which gave the interior of the shipping container the feeling of a strange rectangular tent. Gadhafi stood in the middle of this space, talking with a younger man. He wore his favorite, full-on pan-African regalia, clothing typical to exactly zero Libyans. He was reviewing some remarks, while the younger man chewed a pencil, circumspect and almost imperceptibly impatient. From the far end of the container there came the sound of messy weeping. The nurse, a pretty young woman with dark roots in her unkempt straw-light hair, must have realized that her timing was bad. She should have left sooner than this. Gadhafi approached her, put a hand on her shoulder. "Courage, darling," he said. "The news today is good."

I launched myself at him and slipped neatly through, touching all the muck inside him. I thudded on the floor and rolled out of the container, into the bedroom of a young boy in the building adjacent. He and his mother were under the bed -- they weren’t doing anything but listening to the never-fading sound of gunfire. There were empty cups on the floor, from where they’d had tea. Under the bed. Their eyes were red with crying and boredom and terror. I howled so loud I could have sworn they heard me, and charged back through the wall and into the container. Gadhafi had seated himself upon the stool, practicing his speech. I slashed at him. I bit him through the throat. Gadhafi made a face and rubbed his bulbous old nose like it had a tickle. He coughed and did a little voice exercise. "The sheep sleeps beneath the leaves. The sheep. Sleeps. Beneath. The leaves." I felt like I might shatter to bits.

"Nothing you can do," a voice said. I hadn’t noticed him when I came in; a man squatting against the wall, opposite the still-weeping nurse. He was dead as well -- all but naked, his withered skin dark as resin. He stank of cooking, and smoke licked about his neck and shoulders. He’d later tell me that he was a soldier who had refused to fire on demonstrators in Benghazi. Gadhafi himself had presided over his execution -- his burning. "You think I haven’t already tried?" he said.

I sat beside the man, and together we watched our one-time brother leader deliver a speech humiliatingly awesome in its insanity. The young man -- one of Gadhafi’s sons, I was sure of it -- recorded the whole thing, and then used the laptop to add in a background of a cheering, ebullient crowd. With a hug and a kiss from his father, the young man slipped out into the darkening evening to deliver the remarks to God-knows-whom. Gadhafi returned to his little stool, and began dictating a correspondence to the Prime Minister of England. It wasn’t clear, at first, who should be taking this down. The people in the container looked at one another with exhausted eyes. Finally the nurse got up from her cot, wiped down her slick face and began transcribing the missive. The correspondence went on all night. Our old leader had a lot to say to the likes of Barack Obama and Silvio Berlusconi and Nelson Mandela and Danny DeVito. He wrote, as well, to "the Traitors" -- no one inquired as to what address they should dispatch this note -- promising them an eternity of blood.

The next morning, the soldier got up to leave. "I’m getting nothing out of this," he said. "Besides, I need to look for my sister. Don’t you have people of your own?" When I told him they were dead, he said: "And that matters, why?" He put one leg through the wall of the shipping container. "The old man will die when he dies," and I got the horrible, sinking feeling that there was a note of forgiveness in his voice.

"I need to see it," I said. The soldier sighed, and left without another word. The day passed slowly. After lunch, Gadhafi demanded to go on a stroll in his gardens, miles away now, likely a command center for the rebels. His son made ready to take him, but as they reached the exit he remembered that it was hot today, and they ought to change clothes. They returned to the corner with the cots, put on light linen pants, discussed dermatology with the nurse, asked how she ever managed with such fair skin, obtained from her a little story about her hometown, and the whole question of going outside was thus avoided. More ghosts arrived. A man without fingernails or eyes or soles to his feet. A woman who had been cut from ear to ear, but only so deep that it was the infection that finished her. We watched the old man wallow in his blood-soaked vanity. We noted how the expressions of his sons and functionaries were hardening, how even his beautiful nurse was eyeing the rifles leaning against the wall. Eventually, my fellow ghosts departed. The woman even touched Gadhafi, lightly, on the head before she went. It seems he felt it, because he stopped whatever nonsense he was saying and looked behind him. "You shouldn’t stay," she said to me.

And she was right, of course. I’m not being insincere when I say that I am awed by her humanity. I wish that I could forgive this terrified, dangerous child. But I can’t. So I will remain here, watching this butcher and his offspring stew in their own offal. The rebels will likely find the container, relieve its occupants of this particular hell. But, as I said before, I hope it doesn’t happen. I hope Gadhafi is never found; that the container is bricked closed. And I will wait here, watching this man and his loved ones exact their own punishment. I’ll stand guard by the door until they fucking eat each other.

By Alexander Yates

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