RAS LANUF, Libya — The bullet the boy held was bigger than his hand. He said he was 15, but then admitted he was 14, and frankly, he looked a year or two younger than that. When an enemy warplane approached, sending the gunmen around him scrambling for cover, the boy, with placid poise, stood and watched. His friends called him the “smallest soldier.”
“I got here yesterday,” Ali Abdul Karim said Wednesday, after the threat of an airstrike had passed. He left home in Benghazi this week without telling his mother and hitched a ride south with some fighters. At a rebel checkpoint here — one of the most dangerous places in Libya — he sat on the porch of a mess hall and played in the dirt with his bullet, near boxes of ammunition and an antiaircraft gun.
As Ali watched, men with machine guns drove pickup trucks toward the battle with Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s troops. “I’m hoping to fight,” he said. Dozens of Libyan teenagers traveled to Ras Lanuf this week, trying to help rebel fighters with their ultimately failed attempt to keep control of this oil town, a strategic prize. Among the doctors and former policemen who made eager volunteers and the stoic soldiers, the youngsters searched for Kalashnikovs and a way to get to the front lines.
This was no lark. In its opening moments, young men fueled the Libyan revolt, facing Colonel Qaddafi’s guns with stones from Tobruk to Tripoli. This week, with the revolution threatened and the rebels losing ground on two fronts, the young men said they felt needed again, even if there was really no way to help.
Like older brothers, adult fighters told boys to stay away from the front. Jomaah Attiya, 15, sat at the hospital in Ras Lanuf as a young medical student checked his pulse. The boy, woozy with a headache, had spent the day at the entrance to the city, with the fighters, after leaving his home near Benghazi without a weapon or a word to his family.
The medical student, Abdel Karim Talhi, had also come to fight, but said there was no way Jomaah was going forward. The boy, who wore an olive drab sweater, had other ideas. “It’s not dangerous,” he said. “I’ll go if God says yes.” Outside the hospital, near lists of dead resistance fighters taped to a window, a group of young men from Benghazi sat on a wall, as if they were loitering back in their neighborhoods and not sitting a few miles away from approaching artillery shells. They had been in Ras Lanuf for four days. Unable to join the battle, they simply channeled the weariness and bravado of fighters. One of them said he could use a shower.
Another young man had brought a knife. “This, I’ll put in Muammar,” said Mohammed al-Aguilli, 21. Next to him, Yussuf Fargui, 17, said he had bid his mother goodbye before he left home on the outskirts of Benghazi. A deep anger brought him to Ras Lanuf; his father had been a political detainee at Abu Slim prison in Tripoli, killed along with more than a thousand other inmates by security forces in 1996.
“I’m not afraid,” he said. “Someday, I’ll die.” By the front doors of the hospital, Ajdallah Awad, 18, watched over a 16-year-old friend. “We started with peaceful demonstrations,” he said. “But this wasn’t Tunis or Egypt. Hopefully, God is with us.” Inside the hospital, even the doctors seemed too young. Dr. Salem Al Warfalli, 24 and just out of medical school, roamed through a gynecological clinic that had been turned into a trauma center. It was emptied of patients early Wednesday after the nurses fled and water to the city was cut off. He had treated bullet wounds and seen amputations. “I came from Benghazi to help the doctors,” he said. “We all want Qaddafi to leave us.”
Hours later, the hospital was filled with fighters again. By Thursday, boys watching Al Jazeera in a Benghazi cafe were learning that the rebels were losing Ras Lanuf. Ignoring the latest soccer results and their girlfriends, they huddled together, making grave plans. They would need cars, weapons and stories to tell their distraught parents. Boys and young men, some too young to drive, marry or work, prepared themselves to die.
Anas al-Bakoush, 22, said the latest news had left him “broken and depressed.” He and his friends had spent the morning at the courthouse in Benghazi, the headquarters of the resistance. After coffee, they would head back to the courthouse, in a cycle of protest and respite that marked their days. Mr. Bakoush, in his second year in college, said he might fight if his older brother went. At the same time, he worried about leaving his parents and his younger brother.
Nearby, Hamza Mahfoudh, 27, and his brother, Taher, 22, had both made visits to Ras Lanuf. Both wanted to return, though Hamza said he would try to prevent his brother from going. He understood why that would be hard to do. “It doesn’t feel right to just stay here,” the older brother said. “He’s scared for me,” Taher said.
Like all of their friends, their lives were being transformed, their conversations now filled with the details of battles over faraway ground. A month ago, Hamza Mahfoudh worked in a Taco Bell in Missouri and was studying for the G.M.A.T., the Graduate Management Admissions Test. “I came back for a visit, and I got stuck,” he said. “I couldn’t leave my family.”
But he planned to, as soon as he found weapons and a car. “It’s everyone’s duty to go,” he said. On a street near the courthouse, a group of children tagged along after a soldier who was riding on the back of a pickup truck, his hands wrapped around the handles of a large machine gun.
Nearby, there were signs of normal teenage life. Boys huddled around an area for women in front of the courthouse, flirting with some girls there. Elsewhere, teenagers tried to make a few dinars hawking flags and revolutionary stickers. Mustafa Amdawij, 57, walked near the courthouse with two of his sons. He lived in the city of Brega, near Ras Lanuf, and had brought his children because he “needed them to see this festival.
“It’s freedom,” he said. “I was born in 1954. I’ve already enjoyed it. They don’t know it.” His eldest son, a 21-year old, was not with them, because he had gone to Ras Lanuf to fight. “I encouraged him to go,” his father said. “If these young men don’t go, who goes?”