CONAKRY, Guinea — Anyone paying attention might have noticed something odd about the two boys slipping into G'bessia Airport.
Despite the West African heat, both were wrapped in sweaters. At their sides flapped thin plastic bags jammed with birth certificates, school report cards, photographs and a letter.
But Conakry's airport at evening rush hour is not the sort of place where people pay attention. It is a humidity-choked thicket of confusion where travelers, hustlers and cabdrivers jostle under the terminal's broad tin roof.
Soldiers patrol with Kalashnikov rifles. Families jam their faces between metal bars, straining to see loved ones crossing the tarmac. Corrupt customs officers with outstretched hands ask travelers, "What do you have for me?" Women with papoosed babies scramble up garbage piles to hop over the airport's crumbling outer wall and tend rows of tomatoes near the runway.
So Yaguine Koita and Fode Tounkara, two skinny, bookish 14-year-olds determined to change their lives, apparently passed unnoticed as they headed for the Brussels-bound Sabena Airlines Airbus A330 that, four times each week, links wealthy Western Europe to one of Africa's poorest cities.
Here's what Sabena Airlines officials say must have happened next:
The boys boosted themselves onto the rear right-hand tires, 5-foot slabs of black rubber almost their height. Then they grasped the gleaming, tubular landing gear and swung themselves into the oval-shaped opening of the wheel bay nearly 12 feet above the tarmac.
Yaguine, the leader, lay down on a metal shelf amid the wires, support bars and hydraulic tubes. Fode curled up in a coffin-sized space just beneath.
As the plane taxied to the runway, the roar of the engines, just 30 feet from their hiding place, was too loud for them to hear each other. Even if they screamed.
The July 28 journey carrying Yaguine Koita and Fode Tounkara from the slums of the capital of Guinea to Belgium's front door would soon shake the prosperous brotherhood of European nations. The determination of two young boys would yank aside a veil of indifference and confront Europe, Africa's former colonial master, with a devastating image of the continent it had left behind. It would even reverberate through the General Assembly of the United Nations.
It began with a dream.
After school, Yaguine and his few close friends would often wander past the neighborhood maze of decaying shacks, past teenage girls selling cigarettes and tiny tins of Nescafe, past unemployed men playing boccie ball in the red dirt.
They would head for a cluster of shaded beach-side rocks where they could study, talk, kick a soccer ball. There, Yaguine (pronounced Yag-EEN) would watch the airliners coming and going at G'bessia Airport. There, his fantasy would take shape.
The boy went to school, did homework, lived in a two-room shack with electricity, a refrigerator and a 10-year-old video game player. His father, Liman Koita, scratched out a living fixing electrical appliances. In a country where life expectancy is just 47, per capita incomes are under $2 a day and only 36% of adults can read and write, the Koitas weren't too badly off, relatively speaking.
On the TV screen in the shack, Yaguine could watch CNN and half a dozen European channels pirated from a distant satellite dish. The boy had seen James Bond ordering martinis and Bruce Willis saving the world. He had seen American TV series dubbed into French. He had seen the promised land, and it was full of white faces.
This quiet, rail-thin boy had no interest in replaying his father's life of quiet desperation. He missed his mother, who had left, remarried and was now living a blue-collar life outside Paris. He dreamed of going to school in Europe, getting a good job, becoming a pilot and coming back to Conakry to help his father.
And so, last July, Yaguine sat down and wrote two letters in the flowery French he had learned at school. He left one of them for his father. The other he took with him.
Saying he was going to visit his grandmother for a few days, he slipped behind his house and down a small, rutted road, cut through an open-air mechanic's workshop teeming with grease-covered children, and walked into Fode Tounkara's yard.
Fode had grown up lost, a boy so desperately shy that he was often forgotten in a pack of siblings and half-siblings so numerous that family members disagree on the total.
The family lives in a moldy two-room shack that makes Yaguine's house look practically suburban. Fode's father earns a few dollars a week as a security guard. A devout Muslim, he has two wives. Fode's mother, Damaye Kourouma, is a heavyset, bent-over woman who makes 80 cents a day growing and selling potato leaves, a sort of Guinean spinach.