The boys sat cross legged in the shade. The older one wore a holed shirt, once white, now grey with the dust of rubble from the shattered house. His brother wore a man’s shirt he had found over his tee shirt. They had managed to gather some other loot from the ruin in a couple of strong polythene sacks which lay at their feet. Now they started to go through them, to sort into worth keeping, worth trading and worth nothing.
The younger lad had taken a gold watch from the man’s wrist. Its glass was cracked but it still worked. Tradeable. So was the wedding ring. He’d taken both on the first visit, while the man was still moving, before he died. It looked like good gold. They could buy some stuff with that.
The military and ambulance had arrived quickly and interrupted their work. The brothers had hidden round the back of the building in a part relatively unaffected by the explosion. The youngster was contemplating his luck at having been so close when it had happened, giving him the chance to get to the man’s gold before his brother could.
They found a box in the wreckage of the main living room after the soldiers had gone; after the four bodies had been taken off in the mortuary cars. It was a cedar wood box and very simple compared with some of the other stuff the people here had once owned. Inside were a few papers. Somehow the older lad had expected cigarettes which would have been useful for barter. These were waste. He was going to throw them aside when his brother stopped him.
‘What do they say? Are they contracts, or deeds to the property? You’ve not even read them.’
‘I don’t need to read them. The only things we want are things we can trade easily.’
‘But if the rights to the land are there we can trade those.’
‘No, Uqbah, they would be traced back here. People would know we had stolen them.’
‘What do you mean, stole? We aren’t stealing, Basel. There is no owner now; we saw this family being taken away. We arrived first and now the stuff is ours, yours and mine.’
‘Of course we have stolen them. What’s the matter – are you afraid of the word ‘steal’, being called a thief? You think that because you’ve heard that the thief will have his hands cut off in your lessons at the madrasa that it will always happen? Well, I too have heard the Hadith quoted, and read for myself in the Sunna that this can happen, but I also know that the Q’ran says that if you repent and make up for it Allah will forgive you. If we are caught we have to make sure we say that we are sorry and we are using the stuff to help other people now that the owners can’t use it.’
Uqbah was unsure about his brother’s certainty – it seemed just like he was making it up yet he stopped arguing. There was another explosion some distance away. The boys had grown used to them – everyone had. Uqbah believed he could even judge how far away the rockets had fallen. This one was maybe fifteen hundred metres off.
He looked back at the hoard. Food was always a good find, and they had some good tinned stuff as well as bread and bottled water. Meanwhile Basel went through some more of the clothing they had rescued. He had seen a tee shirt that he liked, but it must be somewhere at the bottom of the bag. He decided to leave it until later.
‘There are some good trousers that will do for Kaamla, and this coat for our mother is going to be useful later in the year when winter is coming on.’
Uqbah watched his older brother.
‘That man’s clothes are too big for anyone I know,’ he said. ‘Perhaps we could sell them or swap them for aspirins or antiseptic cream.’
‘Too big. You’re wearing one of his shirts! Waiting to grow into it?’ Basel joked. ‘It makes a good coat for you.’ He had decided not to try to carry bedding away because it was too bulky. Maybe he could come back later with his brother for more things. Then he noticed the corner of his new tee shirt and pulled on it. As soon as it was loose he changed into it.
Now voices were heading his way.
The boys shifted, moving towards the back wall of the house again, where a section of concrete roof had fallen and would provide shelter; where they had hidden when the ambulances came. The rescued treasures had to stay; there was no time to fetch them as well as hide. They would just have to hope the bags weren’t noticed, otherwise the cops would search the place. Both the voices were male. The footfalls the men made were firm and clear - loud, even. The boys knew they were soldiers’ boots making that noise. They were talking loudly, so they reckoned they weren’t looking for someone, just patrolling; after all, hadn’t they already been to examine the place?
The brothers waited until the sounds of the talking and walking had diminished. Then together they decided that the bags they had rescued would be better where they had just been hiding, allowing them time to search the two rooms in the wreckage that they hadn’t been in yet without worrying about looters taking their new belongings.
Each of them lifted a polythene treasure chest and hauled them over to the hiding place.
‘These are heavy, Basel,’ Uqbah said. ‘We aren’t going to be able to carry much more.’
‘We can collect just the best stuff, then, and maybe sort out what we are going to take back with us before we set off. We can always come back for anything else. We’ve got to come back anyway for bedding,’ his brother reminded him.
Uqbah looked out from his hiding place. On the street a few people, largely busy about their own business, glanced at the shell that had once been a family home. No one stopped and stared, they just glanced. The boy was used to this. In his town there had been so many homes destroyed in military action that one no longer regarded a bombed out building as worth a second glance.
‘You’d think that there would be family here, wailing and moaning. There aren’t even neighbours protesting about the attack like there usually are.’
‘Maybe no one liked them, brother. Maybe they only moved in recently and no one knows them. Come on.’
The boys slipped into the house through a back window whose glass and bars had gone in the bombing. They found themselves back in the kitchen. They’d already plundered food from here. They crept towards the hallway. The next place they wanted to look was the girl’s bedroom. Basel reckoned that if they’d found pants with the laundry that would suit his sister, Kaamla, they were bound to find other stuff in her room. And then there would only be the boy’s room to look in. He could get his brother home by dusk.
He wondered whether his mother was looking for him. He’d been away a few hours now, and he knew she felt that at twelve Uqbah was too young to be out after dark for long. He thought differently. His brother needed to learn about life here. He needed to help with the scavenging.
Basel hoped their mother would be pleased with the reclaimed goods because he feared his father’s reaction if she wasn’t. Their father didn’t like the boys taking risks to get stuff even though it had such an impact on the family income. It seemed to him that it exaggerated his own inadequacy, but he couldn’t work since he had lost his arm. Basel looked at his hands, grimy with the filth of the house he was in. He thought of how it had once stood, smart and new; standing out in the ordinary street as the home of a rich man and his family. Scavenging would help his family get richer, maybe even move away from the house they had into one that would bring some respect; some self respect too.
The girl’s room seemed to have been worse off. Fragments of the rocket that had landed on the house were more evident here. The furniture was shattered and there had been a small fire where her clothes had been stored. The boys lifted the bed onto its side to make more room for themselves and then began to sift through the debris. There was little of use except a locket and a medallion showing a man carrying a baby. They pocketed these and went on to the boy’s room.
‘They were Christians.’
‘What do you mean, Basel?’
‘There, on the wall, it’s the cross that the prophet Isa died on. Christians have them in their houses. I thought this was an Israeli’s house.’
‘Why was it bombed if it was Christian?’ Uqbah asked.
‘How do I know? Loads of rockets miss their targets. These people aren’t as accurate as they claim on television, you know.’
‘Why did you think it was Israeli? There aren’t Jews Gaza side of the border.’
‘They build where they want. Look at Nisanit – clearly on Palestinian territory.’
‘But these were Christians?’
‘Maybe they were part of the clinic staff, or some United Nations project.’
‘Do you think those papers you threw away might have said something?’ Basel was getting impatient at Uqbah’s persistent questions.
‘We’ve got to get home. Get what you can and let’s go,’ he said.
The best item was another mp3 player like the one they had lifted from the living room. Not that they could use them, but they would sell well. The boys took an armful of goods between them and went back to their sacks.
The sacks weren’t there. A militiaman was waiting for the boys.
He lifted his rifle. A bomb exploded on the other side of the town.