Before boarding a C-130 transport to Guantanamo, Omar was dressed in an orange jumpsuit and hog-chained: shackled hand and foot, a waist chain cinching his hands to his stomach, another chain connecting the shackles on his hands to those on his feet. At both wrist and ankle, the shackles bit. The cuffs permanently scarred many prisoners on the flight, causing them to lose feeling in their limbs for several days or weeks afterward. Hooded and kneeling on the tarmac with the other prisoners, Omar waited for many hours. His knees sent intensifying pain up into his body and then went numb.
Just before he got on the plane, Omar was forced into sensory-deprivation gear that the military uses to disorient prisoners prior to interrogation. The guards pulled black thermal mittens onto Omar’s hands and taped them hard at the wrists. They pulled opaque goggles over his eyes and placed soundproof earphones over his ears. They put a deodorizing mask over his mouth and nose. They bolted him, fully trussed, to a backless bench. Whichever limbs hadn’t already lost sensation from the cuffs lost sensation from the high-altitude cold during the flight, which took fifteen hours. “There was points I wished to God that one of these MPs would go crazy and then shoot me,” recalled one of the hundreds of detainees who have made the trip. “It was the only time in my life that I really wished for a bullet.”
At Guantanamo, Omar was led, his senses still blocked, onto a bus that took the prisoners to a ferry dock. Some of the buses didn’t have seats, and the prisoners usually sat cross-legged on the floor. Guards often lifted the prisoners’ earphones, told them not to move, and when they moved — helplessly, with the motion of the bus, like bowling pins — started kicking them. The repeated blows often left detainees unable to walk for weeks.
After the ferry ride, Omar was evaluated at a base hospital. “Welcome to Israel,” someone told him. Then he was locked in a steel cage eight feet long and six feet wide. Because the cage had a sink and squat-toilet and the bed was welded to the floor, the open floor space was comparable to that of a small walk-in closet. The cages had been hurriedly constructed from steel mesh and transoceanic shipping containers. Giant banana rats ran freely through the cells and across the roofs and shit everywhere: on beds, on sinks, on Korans. Prisoners were allowed only one five-minute shower each week; the cellblocks stood in a perpetual stench.
Omar’s arrival at Guantanamo in October 2002 coincided with a fundamental turn in the administration’s War on Terror. Within weeks of his arrival, at the authorization of President Bush, interrogators at the detention facility began using starkly inhumane techniques. Before Omar Khadr had even started to assimilate the wondrous horrors of Guantanamo Bay, his captors began to torture him.
Ahmed said Khadr, Omar’s father, always said he did not want to die in bed. He wanted to be killed. When his children were very young, he told them, “If you love me, pray that I will get martyred.” Three times he asked Omar’s older brother Abdurahman to become a suicide bomber. It would bring honor to the family, he said. Abdurahman declined. Later, when Ahmed sensed that Abdurahman’s faith was weakening, he told him, “If you ever betray Islam, I will be the one to kill you.”
Omar and his brothers attended madrassahs and Islamic schools. His mother and two older sisters covered their bodies and completely veiled their faces. At home, the Khadr children were warned that the purity of Islam was being compromised, from within and without. The quest to repurify it diminished to insignificance everything else in life. Purity was the simple measure by which good and evil were distinguished, and the means of destroying evil were equally simple. The Khadr children were raised to serve a purpose. Their fealty was sounded every day.
In 1988, when Omar was two, the Khadrs left Toronto for Peshawar, Pakistan, so Ahmed could take a job with a charity called Human Concern International. In those days, Peshawar was an operational base for Islamist insurgents fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden had gone there to recruit, fund and train mujahedeen. Intelligence sources claim that many of the orphans and refugees aided by Khadr later became fundamentalist guerrillas under the guidance of bin Laden.
In 1992, not long after Omar had begun his studies at a madrassah in Peshawar, Ahmed nearly died after stepping on a land mine in Logar Province, Afghanistan. (Intelligence sources say he had gone there to fight with predecessors of the Taliban in the Afghan civil war.) Ahmed was evacuated to a hospital in Toronto, and the rest of the family returned to Canada with him. It would take him two years to recover.