Moazzam Begg recalls the suffering of Omar Khadr

22.7.08

Omar KhadrI don’t normally cross-post articles from other sites, but I was moved by this article, in which Moazzam Begg, author, former Guantánamo prisoner, and spokesman for the British human rights group Cageprisoners, recalls the time he spent with Omar Khadr in the US prison at Bagram airbase, Afghanistan, in 2002, when Omar, who was severely wounded, had just turned 16. The article first appeared on the Cageprisoners website.

Who Cares For This Boy?

His hair has grown, his voice sounds a little deeper and his wounds appear to have healed somewhat. But what isn’t clear from the first ever Guantánamo interrogation video to be released for public consumption is that Omar Khadr is blind in one eye.

The Bagram airbase lies some 30 miles north of the Afghan capital, Kabul. Inside the airbase is a prison, a converted machine factory built by the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan. Inscriptions in Russian are still visible on the walls and doors. During the day, this place is usually deathly quiet. But at night, the sounds of soldiers as they patrol — chains clinking along the concrete floor as prisoners are frog-marched to and from interrogation rooms, and the screams of interrogators and interrogated — usually keep you awake.

It is worse than Guantánamo. In this place I witnessed two separate killings by American soldiers — the subject of this year’s Oscar-winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side — before I too was sent to Guantánamo. It is here too that I first met Omar Khadr, a boy from Canada who’d just turned sixteen.

I never really understood why, but our military police guards would always refer to Khadr as “Buckshot Bob” or simply “Buckshot.” His wounds didn’t seem to me as if they had been caused by the blast of a shotgun. They were much more horrific. Chunks of his chest and shoulder had been blown out — or so I’d assumed — and he was unable to see through one of his eyes because of the injuries he’d sustained, allegedly in a firefight with US troops. His chest looked like he’d just had a post mortem operation performed on him — whilst he was still alive.

He was emaciated, fragile and quiet. But the rumour spread around about Khadr claiming that he’d launched a grenade attack on unsuspecting US forces. Consequently, the military police units guarding us all treated Omar Khadr with open contempt and hostility. He was sometimes screamed at all night long; made to stack up crates of water bottles which were thrown down again; a hood placed over his head whilst his wrists were shackled to the ceiling.

But, three years after my release from Guantánamo, and five since I last saw Khadr, I have come to realise the logic behind the name “Buckshot.” Photographs released by the US military this year show Khadr when he was first captured. The missing chunks of flesh were exit wounds from shotgun rounds fired. It is now clear, based on statements by the soldiers who captured him, that Khadr had been shot in the back — at point-blank range.

Khadr and I shared a communal cell where walking, talking, standing or simply looking in the wrong direction would earn us a few hours with our hands chained above our heads to the cage door and a hood placed over our faces. Still, I managed some whispered conversations with Khadr, who, just like me, had begun to comprehend that his ordeal had only just started.

Omar’s treatment varied according to the perception various soldiers and interrogators had of him: most of it bad. But a handful of them, who actually got to know him and speak to him like a human being, told me how bad they felt about having a child like him in custody. I recall the last words Omar Khadr said to me before he was shipped off to Guantánamo: “You’re fortunate, people here care about you. No one cares about me.”

Omar was later accused of causing the death of a US Special Forces operative with a grenade. Yet a report given by the soldier who shot him says that not only was Mr. Khadr alive there, an adult man was also alive at the time he, the US soldier, rushed in shooting. This contradicts the testimony of another solider who said that only Mr. Khadr was alive at the time. Whatever the case may be, Omar is fast approaching the seventh year of his detention in Guantánamo. He is now twenty-one.

In January this year, a training document produced by the Canadian foreign ministry, which referred to Guantánamo Bay, listed the United States as a country known to practice torture. Despite this assertion, the only western citizen remaining in the world’s most infamous prison at Guantánamo Bay is the Canadian, Omar Khadr. And his government, which accepts that the abuses faced by others at such places are very real, will do nothing for its own citizen, who was bought there in chains as a child.

In the video that made headlines this week Khadr is heard repeating some words in a very distressed state. Whilst there is some dispute about whether he’s saying “help me, help me” or “kill me kill me,” his family believe he’s simply saying “ya ummi, ya ummi” — Arabic for “my mother, my mother.” Although this video was recorded (in secret) over five years ago, the words I last heard from this gaunt, softly-spoken child all those years ago echo yet again. But this time the world can see and hear him: “No one cares about me.”

Moazzam Begg is the author of Enemy Combatant. Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

4 Responses

  1. paul Siemering says...

    Thanks for this close up view of young Omar.
    There is no case against this boy. In the first place, nobody knows he threw that grenade. In the second place, child soldiers are victims, not perpetrators.
    And finally, the heroes who shot him in the back are members of the U.S. armed forces, the most powerful military machine in the world. For this reason they are also the worlds biggest cry babies. For the first time in the history of armed conflict this mighty force insists that when they attack somebody, their victims CAN”T SHOOT BACK! The most powerful, yes. But most especially the most cowardly.

  2. laura macleod says...

    I am absolutely disgusted by the treatment of this boy. Who is helping him? It is evil and terrifying. I want to help him – as most people who have any humanity would want to – how can we help him? I am mother and I am aghast at the evil shown to this boy – the west says it supports human rights but how can this boy be imprisoned like this?

  3. ANGELA DAY says...

    My fellow Canadian friends and I want to help but don’t know how.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    This was my reply to the above post:

    Hi Angela,
    Petition your politicians. Write to them. It sounds futile, but it isn’t necessarily. People can make a difference. Explain that the Canadian government needs to make amends for its illegal activities, both in endorsing the US detention of a juvenile, and in sending Canadian interrogators to Guantánamo. Point out that Canada leads the world in encouraging the rehabilitation of child soldiers from other countries, and should be ashamed that it has turned its back on one of its own. Explain that Omar is being scapegoated for the supposed sins of his family, and that this is always unjust – and especially so because he was a juvenile when seized.
    See what they say. They should be obliged to respond to you, and there’s no way that they can legally justify what’s been done to Omar.
    Best,
    Andy

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