In May 2013, my son Kiran and I boarded a plane from Amsterdam to Toronto with a dual purpose. First, after months of exchanging letters with Omar Khadr, we were going to visit him in Millhaven Institution, where he was incarcerated following 11 years of mistreatment in Guantanamo Bay. Secondly we wanted to understand why Canadian citizens allowed this ongoing atrocity.
What had happened to this country with once high standards on human rights?
I learned about Omar when I saw the documentary ‘Four Days in Guantanamo’ on Dutch television, shortly after he was ‘convicted’ in a sham military trial at Guantanamo. Omar, who shared the same dreams as my children, had received so little opportunity in life and my sons, so much. His plight touched me deeply and I began an advocacy campaign.
From the Netherlands we had made arrangements to visit Omar twice in Millhaven, near Toronto. Reports from Guantanamo had declared him a model prisoner and completely non-radicalized. Yet, the Canadian government had incarcerated him in a maximum-security prison under harsh conditions; solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.
Upon arrival we learned that Omar had been transferred to Edmonton the same night we had traveled. This required a hasty switch of plans, allowing us to be the first visitors for Omar in Edmonton Institution. Prior to the visit we were x-rayed, sniffed by dogs and presented a video showing the violent power relations between prisoners when drugs were smuggled in. We were led to a closed room with a glass divider. I realized that we didn’t even know what Omar would look like. His last photos were, after all, taken five years earlier by the Red Cross in Guantanamo.
Suddenly Omar appeared; a tall, athletic, young man with an extraordinarily gentle appearance — someone who transcends the environment. Of course we recognized him!
Omar was all smiles. Arlette Zinck, English professor, who had also come to welcome Omar, opened the conversation, “Omar, I came all the way to meet you at Guantanamo, and now I am so happy to welcome you here in my hometown.”
She introduced us: Aaf Post with her son from the Netherlands. “Aaf Post!” Omar’s face brightened even more. It reminded me of his hopeful look in the documentary, when Canadian officials finally visited him in Guantanamo and 16-year-old Omar thought they had come to save him. Sadly, they just came to contribute to his torture. His look made our visit beautiful and sad at the same time. Beautiful because he is such an extremely kind man, so worthy of every second that we, Free Omar Khadr Now, advocate for his freedom, and sad because he is still mistreated and used as a political pawn by the Canadian government.
I was relieved he was so well-balanced and optimistic. He had survived! We had hours of amazing in-depth conversations. Omar enjoyed and absorbed every moment and didn’t allow a moment of silence. He had hardly spoken English in the long months of solitary confinement.
Omar has a highly developed empathy and spoke differently with Arlette, me and Kiran. Arlette and I were treated with the greatest respect, while Kiran, five years younger, was seen as a friend. This was his first ‘regular guys encounter’ in 11 years! They talked about movies, books, cars, schools … young man stuff. They talked incessantly. And every conversation with Arlette or me invariably ended with: “Can I speak with Kiran again?” … eyes twinkling back and forth. Kiran said later: “Speaking with Omar is like talking to your best friend.”
Omar told us his faith had become his anchor to guide him through the tough years; it structured his day and grounded him. It prevented him from judging others and helped him in forgiving his oppressors. Although he had been denied all that a youngster needs to develop properly, he had raised himself more than well.
In the years that he was deprived of schooling, he had seized every opportunity to gain knowledge. I could easily talk at an academic level with Omar. It was evident that he has a high potential in social and technical skills. When I told him my other son has aspirations to become a doctor, he said, “That makes two of us.”
Omar was deeply moved by our visits. He said, “Even though my ordeal has been difficult there is a positive side, it has blessed me with people like you in my life. Prison is not an easy place, people who care about me are the light in the darkness.”
An announcement sounded: our time with Omar was almost over. This was our last visit. When I asked him what he would like people to write about in their letters to him, Omar replied he would be most happy with details about people’s every day lives. After spending so much time in prison, he was totally unaware about ordinary life. Time was over; by way of farewell, we pressed our hands against the glass. Bye Omar, see you soon — in freedom!
Leaving him behind felt so wrong. How much pain should someone bear for the dirty political games of governments? We could only guess why this country, part of the Western ‘civilized’ world, was acting so unlawfully against this innocent young man — who had admirably found a way to hold his head high and maintain his dignity.
Aaf Post is a Dutch urban planner. In 2011, she founded the Free Omar Khadr Now campaign when she became aware of Omar Khadr’s plight. By now the campaign has developed into a vibrant, Canadian-oriented team with many active members. Its core activities are:
- Maintaining the well-sourced Free Omar Khadr Now website with current and background information on all aspects of the case;
- Monitoring the media to encourage accurate and objective coverage of the Omar Khadr case;
- Providing community reach out to schools, universities, faith based groups to educate the public on facts of the case;
- Fundraising for Omar’s pro bono lawyer to help with ongoing legal costs.