After asking me to sit on his left—firing RPGs had destroyed the hearing in his right ear—Shaka explained that his introduction to pop and rock, and to the English language, came via the Backstreet Boys. As he learned to play the guitar, and broadened his musical horizons through Internet downloads, his taste grew more refined. “Neil Young, Metallica, and Pink Floyd, especially Dark Side of the Moon,” he said. “Iron Maiden and Nirvana too,” Essraity added. “We were just young guys enjoying music, dreaming of freedom.”
Then, in the third week of February, the revolution began. Shaka stuck close to his uncle, who had fought in Libya’s war with Chad in the 1980s. His uncle grabbed an RPG launcher when Misurata’s armory was overrun. After blasting two of Qaddafi’s tanks, he was shot dead. His weapon, still stained with blood, was handed to Shaka. Essraity, whose house had been hit by a tank shell, joined him on the front line, as did Hazim “Haz” Bozaid, a powerfully built 29-year-old with a goatee, a stocking on his head, and a black Sepultura T-shirt. An import manager, he was also the lead vocalist and guitarist in a local thrash and death-metal band called Acacus. “I was inspired by Megadeth, Cannibal Corpse, Morbid Angel, Chuck Schuldiner’s Death, that sort of stuff. It was not easy to find in Libya, so if you got something on tape, you guarded it like gold,” he told me.
At first, their unit moved around the city, so bringing guitars to the battlefield was not possible. Shaka left his acoustic model in his car, and his electric guitar—“a Gibson, but a Chinese Gibson”—at home. Both were stolen when Qaddafi’s troops raided his house. They also kidnapped his father, who had not been seen since.
In recent weeks, Shaka’s men had been more rooted, based on the side roads off Tripoli Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, where Qaddafi’s snipers were causing havoc from their hideouts. The revolutionaries’ strategy was to starve the snipers out, cutting off their supply stream by blocking the road with huge shipping containers full of wet sand and metal filings. Shaka’s job was to shoot the tanks, armored cars, and bulldozers that tried to move the containers. Before loading his weapon, he wrote his uncle’s name on the RPG. For Bozaid, a machine gunner who put his body count at more than 25, preparation for battle meant listening to Slayer on his smart phone. “Some of my friends said that I should be reading the Koran. But I needed my drug.”
For the Tripoli Street battle, Essraity and another member of the unit brought along their guitars. When they played during lulls in the fighting, Shaka led the singing. Bozaid said his own voice was “too deep” for anything but metal. Essraity, a skilled guitarist, told his friends: “I’m like Slash—I don’t sing.”
One by one, the sniper’s nests were cleared. Shaka and his men entered the buildings in pairs, peeling apart at the tops of stairs, and flushing rooms with hand grenades or flaming tires. During a raid on one apartment block, he made an unexpected find: a guitar, with a broken neck. He turned it over, and saw the words The Wall. It was his.