In 2002, British citizen Moazzam Begg got to know Omar Khadr as “Buckshot.”
That was the nickname American soldiers had given to the then-gravely-wounded teenaged fighter from Canada. At the time, both Mr. Begg and Mr. Khadr were being held in Afghanistan, before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay as suspected al-Qaeda “enemy combatants.”
In 2005, Mr. Begg was flown back to Britain, a free man, after his government lobbied for his release. Now 44, and interviewed by phone from Birmingham, he reflects on his reintegration into society – as well as Mr. Khadr's potential for one.
Can you recall what it was like to first get back to Britain?
It was myself and three other Guantanamo prisoners. We were all shackled up and taken by 40 guards onto a military transport plane – it was really odd. Did they think we were going to escape on our way to freedom?
We were greeted by police. We heard the sound of protesters. We were being held for a few hours and they were calling for our immediate release. There was a laughable questioning. After that was done, I was released. Police were very helpful and then eventually took me to a place where I met my family.
Surrealness. Oddness. Where am I? Less than 24 hours ago I was in Guantanamo in a solitary-confinement cell. Now I'm here with these people, including a three-year-old son that I've never seen in my life. My wife was crying, my father was crying, even my brother – but I wasn't. Because all my tears had dried up in Guantanamo Bay.
What were the first things you did?
The day I returned home, I was fixing a leaky pipe. Just asked where was my wrench and spanner and got to the job.
I tell you, the thing that's most memorable to me was getting in a car, rolling down a window, and driving down a motorway with the wind in your hair – free as a bird. That's a feeling that I cannot forget. Going to the shop to buy sweets, chocolates – the freedom! The liberation!
What's your life like now?
There are 15 Guantanamo prisoners who returned to the U.K. where none of us were ever imprisoned. But we believed that we would not have been sent to Guantanamo if it wasn't for our own government – or that we would have been released earlier. So we took a case out against British intelligence services. We won a massive out-of-court settlement.
Now I'm a public figure. I do lectures and speeches and even do my own television show – Absent Justice on the Islamic channel. I wrote a book called Enemy Combatant. I'm a director of Cageprisoners.com. We fight for the rights of people in Guantanamo and people who are detained without charge or trial all over the world.
I wanted people to see me for me. Not for what had been been painted as – the worst, most dangerous prisoners in the world.
Any problems? Any threats?
I've heard comments hurled – “al-Qaeda” and so forth – but very rarely. In seven years, once or twice?
Earlier this year I tried to fly to Canada only to be greeted by armed officers who walked onto the airplane, escorted me off and told me, “You're not allowed entry into Canada because you're a former Guantanamo prisoner.”
In Canada some people think Omar Khadr will be a remorseless al-Qaeda member till he dies.
The one voice that's missing in all of this is Omar's voice. Everybody's talking about him, but no one is hearing from him. I think the conviction in Guantanamo cannot be used to judge him.
I first saw him in the Bagram facility [in Afghanistan] when he was terribly wounded.
I was in custody like everybody else. They used to call him Buckshot – apparently he'd been hit point-blank from a shotgun. They said he threw this grenade on unsuspecting soldiers coming by to help the Afghan people.
Of course the reality was a firefight. He looked like a child. Very skinny, gaunt, pale, weak, quiet, shy. Soldiers would scream insults at him, with his hands tied and his legs tied and a hood over his head.
What does he know? He's in a world of men prisoners. There was nobody his age he could talk to. He shouldn't have been there.
You have never denied going to paramilitary camps?
In '93-'94 I did go to a camp that was run by the Kashmiris and this was to support them. After that I went to Bosnia and I did take part in the fighting against occupation and oppression. But I have never been, never would be involved, in acts of indiscriminate terrorism against any civilians or people outside a war zone.