Rehabilitation Must Be the Next Chapter of Khadr's Saga

A hole in the wall and the anger behind the fist that punched it can symbolize hope. Canada should be thinking about that when it comes to Omar Khadr.
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A hole in the wall and the anger behind the fist that punched it can symbolize hope. Canada should be thinking about that when it comes to Omar Khadr.

Each room in the child soldier rehabilitation center we visited in Freetown, Sierra Leone had more punched-out holes than we could count. Inside were four or five boys between ages 11 and 17 who had the battlefield experience of adults. Fighting for either government forces or rebel armies during the 10-year civil war, these skinny, malnourished kids were forced to shoot loved ones and raid villages or be killed themselves.

Many seemed too far gone. Some were convinced a voodoo priest made them immune to bullets. Others maintained they fought a corrupt government in a capital city they couldn't identify who caused their family's suffering. One boy said his commander shouldn't have quit. They could have won.

The source of the holes quickly became clear. The boys were used to taking things with force. So, they screamed, cursed and lashed out at bruised staff members when they didn't get their way. Or sometimes, just because.

If things got uncontrollable, a security guard restrained the boys, careful not to hurt them. When the hostile energy was spent, the counselors offered warmth.

"Violence is wrong," they repeated in group therapy sessions. "But no matter what you do, we still love you."

Unconditional love is the doctrine for rehabilitating lost boys, with the exception of the most famous child soldier.

We think of Freetown when Omar Khadr's boyish face flashes on television. He was 10 when his father enrolled him in weapons training --the age many of the Sierra Leonean kids were drawn into battle.

When he was captured at 15, Khadr could have received rehabilitation. Instead, he received torture and an adult prison at Guantanamo Bay. Last month, the 24-year-old pled guilty to terrorism-related charges.

Khadr will serve one year of his eight-year sentence in the U.S. before he can apply for transfer to Canada. The government has indicated it will accept. That's when we need to focus on rehabilitation rather than writing him off.

Canada made a grave error by not intervening sooner.

The adults in Khadr's life used fear and intimidation to enlist him, much like the boys in Freetown. However, those children were transferred to positive environments teaching trust.

The counselors had no formal training, but recognized a non-judgemental, loving environment allowed the boys to talk about their experiences. Through acting, drawing or discussion they spoke of their capture, their battlefield experiences, even how some killed civilians for shoes.

These efforts didn't always work. The crude office was filled with files of runaways. But, those who stayed progressed, many accepting their violent pasts. Then, through vocational training they realized status and strength could come without violence.

For Khadr though, it seems his avenue back into society will be a maximum-security prison.

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner testified Khadr is "highly dangerous" and rehabilitation will be difficult. This is no doubt true -- it was in Freetown. War had turned the boys into hardened killers. But, Sierra Leone didn't renounce them.

Canada would be wise to listen.

Khadr's situation is not unique. Some combatants are demobilized as kids. But in Sierra Leone, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo many demilitarized child soldiers become adults in armies.

A 2006 report on West Africa's demobilization by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers even said child combatants released in their twenties had similar needs to kids. Unfortunately, they are often overlooked because they can only access adult treatment.

If he's thrown into a Canadian prison, that's what Khadr will get before emerging from jail at just 32.

If we want him to have any shot at reintegration, this sentence needs to focus on rehabilitation. It would be easy to write off Khadr as a lost cause. Instead, we need to take charge of his future.

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