I Lost My Eyes
“How’s your English?” a grainy image shows a figure in an orange jumpsuit, his face obscured and his figured bent. His questioner is even harder to read, appearing as fragments on screen: a shoulder, an arm, a head with a digital blackout over it. Both are viewed through a frame, as this is a video made of an interrogation, the camera peering down and into the room, the angle itself disconcerting, as it suggests you’re seeing something that maybe you shouldn’t.
This is the start of Omar Khadr’s ordeal, recounted in the documentary You Don’t Like the Truth: Four Days Inside Guantánamo. Khadr was 15 years old when he was captured in Afghanistan in 2002, then sent to Guantánamo, where he was interrogated and tortured. In 2010, he pleaded guilty to five charges, including “murder in violation of the law of war,” as part of a plea agreement with military commission prosecutors. That agreement included the possibility of his transfer, after at least one more year of detention at Guantánamo, to Canada.
A Canadian, Khadr is currently the only Western citizen still detained at Guantánamo. This is a crucial facet of his story, as pointed out in the film, which is screening at New York’s Film Forum through 4 October. When he first appears on screen—in video taken over four days in February 2003, declassified in 2008—his image is smudgy and the footage includes jarring scritches. Khadr’s questioners from the CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence) include someone who says he’s from Scarborough, Ontario, like Khadr. “I guess we’re the first Canadians you’ve seen in a while?” suggests the questioner. He offers Khadr a hamburger, or something from Subway. He must be hungry.
The boy agrees, he is hungry. And the frame splits, to show someone else watching the tape, along with you. Dr. Raul Berdichevsky, of the University of Toronto, and the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture, points out what you’ve just seen: “The first element that comes out is to find that he was so excited, so hopeful, even in his body language, when he hears about Canadians.” Cut to Moazzam Begg, who was held in “extrajudicial detention” at Bagram and then Guantánamo for close to three years, author of Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim’s Journey to Guantánamo and Back, and the director of Cagedprisoners. Following Berdichevsky’s observation, his sounds like the consequence: “One of the worst things within being held as a prisoner in Guantánamo is that you become sometimes so isolated, so frustrated, so separated, that you become trusting and trust in your interrogators.”
The troubling nature of such trust, consequential for all involved under any interrogation circumstances, is exacerbated in Khadr’s story for a few reasons. For one thing, he is a Canadian citizen and his countrymen did not intervene in the U.S. process, a process that notoriously included torture. Indeed, the next day’s interrogation room footage begins with evidence of Khadr’s reaction: he is fearful, tense, and reluctant to speak. The interviewer presses, suggesting that the difficulties are Khadr’s fault
Khadr’s American lawyer, Lt. Commander William Kuebler, has questioned the charge that his client murdered Sgt. First Class Christopher J. Speer. The U.S. alleges that the 15-year-old, the sole survivor of a July 2002 firefight in Ab Khail, a village near Kost, Afghanistan, “popped up and threw a grenade” at Speer, fatally wounding him. Photos of the scene show Khadr’s body crumpled in the dust, with bullets in his back and shoulders: he hardly looks capable of “popping up.” As Kuebler looks at the interrogation video, he interprets it: “The bottom line is they’re breaking the law in this video.” The interrogators should not be speaking to a child without an adult representative, for starters. But, the “legal black hole” that defines Khadr’s experience since he went to Afghanistan—at the behest of his much-admired father, Ahmed Said Khadr, an “associate” and financier of Al qaeda who was killed in 2003—leaves him without recourse.
Kuebler and two Canadian associates, Dennis Edney and Nathan Whitling, spell out the legal problems Khadr has encountered. When the Canadian government refused to acknowledge his juvenile status, and essentially signed off on U.S. jurisdiction, he had no advocate through the early days of his detention. He suffered wounds to his back and eyes, and has claimed that his torture included being denied pain medication, having his head covered with a bag while he was threatened by a dog, having his hands tied above a door frame for hours, and being forced to urinate on himself, among other abuses. As you hear his recollection, the film shows images from Abu Ghraib, certainly alarming on their own, but also suggesting here that such methods practiced by a number of U.S. military and civilian personnel, a pattern and a pathology.
Consequences of his abuse are visible in footage from the next days, as he appears increasingly withdrawn and distraught. “I lost my eyes, I lost my legs, I lost everything,” the boy cries. The interrogator sounds dispassionate: “No, you still have your eyes. Relax a bit, have a bite to eat and we’ll start again.” The film cuts to a former cellmate, who recalls, “He showed me his eye, he said he lost sight in his eye.” Thus the documentary repeats its strategy, to offer official narratives—in the form of the interrogators’ questions or in title cards that list charges against Khadr—and then counter them with witnesses’ versions, or, most effectively, with the unclear footage from the sessions, with a terrible ambient soundtrack full of noise—the air conditioner and other generic videotape racket—that in itself is awful to hear.
When, at the end of one session, the interrogator expresses his disappointment in their lack of progress, the boy is left behind, alone. The image is stunning, as he begins to moan and cry out for his mother, his voice rasping and grinding with the noise, telling a story that is at once utterly corporeal and existential, painful and riveting. It makes you too aware of your own part in all this, that as this sort of treatment went on and goes on in whatever black sites around the world, you are ignorant, willfully or not.
The film is populated by interview subjects who have different sorts of experiences—who have witnessed, been subjected to, or committed abuses. Each subject who was close to Khadr at any point—literally, in a room with him during his detention—focuses not on his citizenship, but on his youth. His lawyers and the Toronto Star‘s national security reporter Michelle Shephard point out that under the U.N.‘s Paris Principles, child soldiers are subject to protection and rehabilitation rather than condemnation and punishment. Begg, who met him at Bagram, remembers, “The rumor was that he’d been involved in the killing of an American soldier. His treatment was worse than anyone else’s, despite the fact that he was a child.”
And Damien Corsetti, a guard at Bagram and Abu Ghraib who was nicknamed the “King of Torture” (and has told other parts of his story in Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side) asserts he was appalled at Khadr’s abuse. The film underlines the irony that this “monster”—another nickname—objects t Khadr’s treatment. He describes his own perspective at the time (“We were all so angry, everyone, the mindset of the average American soldier over there was hatred, we hated them”) and makes allowances for this enemy, because he was a child. “If he did it, which I think there is significant doubt that he did it, you can’t hold a 15-year-old responsible. It’s very unfortunate what happened, but he’s a 15-year-old child in a war zone.”
This sounds like something of a bottom line, morally if not legally. But even as Corsetti says it, we know that the black hole into which Khadr has fallen is endless. As Khadr points out to his questioners, they don’t like the truth: they have stories they need to tell, paychecks to earn, and reputations beyond their own to uphold. The simplicity of his assessment, along with the very rawness of the film—the crude editing, the clunky split screens, the awful sound—help you to see what’s missing. These rough edges are applied to the nuances of the legal case, not to mention the hammering ethical failures of the “legal” or “extralegal” conditions. And so the roughness makes clear that none of the seeming rules and refinements mean anything. Except that there is no end of costs—for Omar Khadr, his interrogators, the Canadian government, or the U.S., no matter how it imagines itself.