An improbably intimate conversation between two former child soldiers

On Monday evening, former child soldiers Omar Khadr and Ishmael Beah staged an improbably intimate conversation about their lives in front of about 900 people at Dalhousie’s Rebecca Cohn Auditorium. It was riveting.

I drove down from Cape Breton for the event, sponsored by the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, which is housed at Dalhousie. I wanted to see first hand what 10 years of imprisonment and torture by the U.S. Government, encouraged by a sinister Canadian Prime Minister, had done to Khadr.

Omar Khadr

Both Khadr and Beah were forced to become child soldiers at age 13, but their experiences ended very differently. Beah was rescued by UNICEF and treated as a victim of war who needed counseling and treatment. Khadr, a Canadian citizen raised in Toronto, was locked up as a dangerous terrorist at the US military’s notorious Guantanamo prison camp, where he endured many rounds of torture while Stephen Harper’s government refused to seek his release or repatriation.

Under sensitive questioning by Shelly Whitman, the Dallaire Initiatives Executive Director, the Khadr and Beah talked openly about their emotional responses to their very different experiences. Beah projected confidence and joi de vive about his work to eradicate the use of child soldiers as weapons of war. Khadr came across as shy and fragile, but possessing a quiet sense of humor, and unfathomable compassion for those who treated him so wretchedly.

The ill-treatment continues. Khadr is a favorite target of the Canadian right. Before the event, one campaigner, an Afghan war veteran, stood outside the Cohn, berating arriving audience members with lies about Khadr’s time as a child soldier.

Asked what he would say to this man, a veteran of the Afghan War, Khadr said, “I would try to see him as a human being and see his pain.”

Asked the hardest thing about adjusting to civilian life in Canada, Khadr paused, and said, “I’ve been treated as a bad person for so long, so I feel I have to prove I’m not a bad person. Everything I do, I have to be aware of being proper, not making a mistake.”

I hope the Dallaire Initiative recorded the evening and will make it available online.

There was one jarring note. The conversation so captivated the audience, it could easily have continued for two hours. Alas, the organizers allowed an assortment of Dalhousie officials to chew up more than half the program with interminable institutional infomercials, paeans to academic colleagues, and own-horn tooting. Fully 55 minutes passed before Khadr and Beah were led on stage, and at the end, their conversation was cut short for a final 10+ minutes of logrolling.

The run-up also included a 15-minutes talk by Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the celebrated humanitarian who has raised awareness of genocide, the plight of child soldiers, and veterans with PTSD. No objection there. But the academic folderol was insulting to audience and guests alike.