Ayman Oghanna for NPR
Mabruk Eshnuk (left) and his son Malik left their home in Pittsburgh to volunteer and fight with rebels in western Libya's Nafusa Mountains.
Ayman Oghanna for NPR
About a month ago, I met Mabruk and Malik Eshnuk, a father and son who had traveled from Pittsburgh to western Libya to help rebels battling forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
The family originally hails from the Libyan coastal city of Zawiya, but left years ago.
Mabruk and Malik were filled with optimism when I spoke to them. Mabruk, the father, had a ready smile and a voluble manner — he spoke so quickly it was often hard to follow him.
He talked a lot about being a Muslim and how helping others was a central tenet of his religion. He had previously taught Islam to convicts in the Pennsylvania state penitentiary system. In 2006, he housed the family of a young Iraqi boy who was getting lifesaving treatment in the States.
"Everything that we do and work and help, it's based on the Quran," he said.
Mabruk immigrated to the U.S. when he was a teenager. He then married and raised his children in Pennsylvania.
But outrage over what was happening in Libya drew him back to his home country. And so he took his middle son, 21-year-old Malik, to fight in the western mountains.
They had only a few weeks of training when they joined other rebels to take the town of Bir al-Ghanem from Gadhafi loyalists this past weekend.
It was their first battle — and their last. Mabruk and Malik did not survive it.
We were able to reach Yaseen, Mabruk's eldest son, by phone at his home in Pennsylvania. He says he got the news this past Saturday from an uncle who still lives in Libya.
Islam teaches that the death of someone who is fighting for freedom will be rewarded in paradise. Yaseen says that has helped him cope.
"He died a shaheed, a martyr, and he is in the highest paradise. This was their goal, victory or martyrdom, and we are very proud of them," Yaseen says.
But he admits at times it's hard to believe they are gone.
"I lost my boss and my right-hand man. You know, I miss them, is the problem," Yaseen says. "But for them, there is nothing that could be better for them at the moment. One moment I said, 'Aw, I wish he was here right now.' But then I said to myself, 'What am I talking about? I would never take them back from heaven where they are right now.' We knew this was a good possibility when they left and we accepted it."
The exact details of how the father and son died are still unclear.
It seems Mabruk and Malik were hit by sniper and rocket fire during the fight for Bir al-Ghanem. One of the Grad rockets incinerated the car they were traveling in.
As they were in life, they were found in death, Yaseen says: a father trying to shield his son.
"They actually said they found my dad was clutching my brother, holding him, and you could even tell my dad was burned much worse; my brother was protected, you could see," Yaseen says, unable to hold back his tears.
Mabruk and Malik Eshnuk were buried in the western mountains. Yaseen says he hopes one day he will be able to visit their graves.