I watched a documentary on CBC Thursday night with intense interest. Why? For years I have carried images of three men and three boys who sat beside us for breakfast in a restaurant in Scarborough. The year was 1998. At first, only the three men were at the table. Though middle eastern-looking, particularly two of them, they spoke in accented English, as if it was the language in common to them. One, more western in appearance, seemed to be the leader. As was my habit -- a writer's practice, I eavesdropped on their conversation. I overheard the word "incendiaries," and surmised they must work for a movie production company because they were talking about how to set off explosions. And then three young boys joined them. They were very well-mannered and obedient. The conversation between the men stopped as they talked to the children. The youngest boy's face has haunted me. It was Omar Khadr.
When I asked my late husband after we left the restaurant, "What if those men were terrorists?" He said, "How do you prove it? The RCMP would laugh at you if you reported what you heard." I admitted my writer's imagination was running away with itself. No one would believe me. But that little boy's eyes stuck in my mind. They were the eyes of a child confused about the world he found himself in.
And then 9-11 erupted. I watched the towers implode on TV and remembered this bizarre conversation I overheard in 1998. Were they connected? I prayed they weren't. But I'll always wonder.
And then, a story on TV brought this incident alive to me again. A 15-year-old boy was captured in Afghanistan in July 2002 after a firefight in which all the insurgents were killed except for the boy. The boy was accused of killing U.S. Special Forces Sgt. Christopher Speer, arrested and subsequently sent to Guantanamo Bay where the U. S. imprisoned and interrogated their most radical of terrorists. That boy was Omar Khadr, the Americans' youngest prisoner. As soon as I saw his picture, I remembered the face of the little boy who would have been no more than 6-years-old in the restaurant back in 1998.
None of it made any sense. How can the U.S. -- the defenders of freedom and individual rights -- treat a 15-year-old as an adult criminal in a war situation? Clearly, at the time of the firefight in Afghanistan, he was a CHILD soldier, threatened in an attack by the Americans. Even though the Americans offered them a chance to surrender, the insurgents killed the translators making the offer and carried on fighting. That was not Omar's decision. He was following the orders and actions of his leaders. Put yourself in his situation. In this fight to the death, you are surrounded by "enemy" firing at you with the intent of killing you. How do you react? Do you defend yourself or hold up a white handkerchief in surrender? Who even has a white hankie these days? He naturally fought back and was the only one still alive once the shooting stopped.
How he survived his wounds is mind-boggling. Not one of the news articles following this documentary mentions the horrific injuries he suffered. He should have died. And that's why I found the CBC documentary -- "Guantanimo's Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr" based on the 2008 book by the Toronto Star's Michelle Shephard -- so dumbfounding.
How do you look at the "combat" pictures taken of him while he was still unconscious? A gaping wound the size of a golf ball in his chest, for instance. A bloodied bloated face, for another. A sight that would make even the most hardened person want to throw up. The American medic who attended him said under the articles of war he had to treat him. That's right. That's humanitarian. Everything that followed for Omar Khadr, however, was anything but humanitarian treatment.
Omar's Canadian lawyer, Dennis Edney, says he believes the Americans have made Omar the propaganda fall guy for all the Americans killed in the Afghanistan war. So bent on retribution and revenge, the American military lost its perspective in its treatment of Omar as an adult offender . They needed someone to blame and they had Omar.
One critic of Omar's innocence argues he has been justifiably tried as an adult. by the Canadian definition of a 'young/juvenile offender' who, even though is 8-12 years old, is able to understand the consequences of his actions and could have chosen not to exercise them. Accordingly, Omar Khadr meets this exception. The same critics also claim in the definition of his culture he is seen as an adult where 16-18 year-olds are beginning to form families and are considered adults.
However, Canada's Romeo Dallaire, former UN commander who witnessed the Rwandan genocide, calls Omar's trial a travesty of justice. He witnessed child soldiers in action and has set up an outreach to help restore African children so abused to redeem themselves. Andy Worthington, an investigative journalist, adds, "Amnesty International suggested that, because the USA is one of only two states that have not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognizes that children need special safeguards and care, it feels free to trample on the human rights of juveniles in its ‘war on terror,' and this was confirmed by pronouncements from within the administration."
That brings up the next focus of the documentary. It showed "stock" videos of Omar's interrogation -- his deliberate isolation and daily humiliation. One of his interrogators at Bagram in Afghanistan, where he was first imprisoned, delighted in mistreating him, and here is where Omar shows a remarkable wisdom. If he tried to fight his tormentor or retaliate in any way, he was giving more power to him. Instead he took the abuse -- day after day after day -- and did not show resentment. Eventually, American interrogator Damien Corsetti thanks Omar in the documentary for returning his humanitarian side. He learned to respect Omar's passiveness, a passiveness that not only saved the great South African leader, Nelson Mandela, while in prison, but also led to the inspired movement of Mahatma Ghandi in his quest for India's independence.
In light of Omar's cultural background and training and family affiliation to Al Qaeda, where does his positive mindset based on a philosophy of love for one another come from? If anything, his treatment throughout his incarceration would more likely produce a hardened radical, but instead the young man I saw on TV is filled with a humble heart and forgiving nature. Despite his family's efforts to brainwash him as a child and then Guantanamo's efforts to crush his spirit, he emerges whole and focused on building a good life. Much of his hope is credit to his defence lawyer and his wife, Dennis and Patricia Edney. They restore my pride in being Canadian.
Omar Khadr at 15-years-old wounded in a firefight in Afghanistan. A U.S. medic saved his life after Omar begged the U.S. Special Forces who attacked him to kill him.
Omar Khadr today at 28 years old. The Canadian government is challenging his release from prison.