Two years ago, a business-sized envelope arrived at my home in Canmore, Alta., from the maximum-security Edmonton Institution prison. It was from Omar Khadr.
I curiously pulled out three lined pages, his neat scrawl covering them front and back. He wrote that he had initially been afraid to read about my experiences as a hostage in my memoir, A House in the Sky, but that he was glad he did, because my fight to survive had resonated with him. He ended the letter, “Your friend, Omar. I hope it’s OK to call you a friend.”
Captured in 2002 by American forces in Afghanistan and charged with war crimes, Omar spent nearly 10 years imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay. Omar was 15 when he was captured, severely wounded and partially blinded during the battle. His punishment has always been controversial, with many arguing that, guilty or not of the crimes, he was a child and should have been charged and treated as such.
Despite our differences, somehow, impossibly, unexpectedly and delightfully, we have become friends.
Omar and I have both received long-term psychological care from the same clinical psychologist, Katherine Porterfield. Porterfield is on staff at the Bellevue program for survivors of torture in New York City. She is one of the most renowned experts in North America on the effects and treatment of PTSD. Over the last three years, her expertise has shaped my recovery, as we Skype each week and visit when we can in
person. So profound is my gratitude that I dedicated my book to her, together with my parents. She has worked with Omar for almost a decade, including much of the time he spent in Guantánamo Bay, mostly over the phone. It was through this connection that he received my book.
Last June, Omar and I met in person for the first time, finding each other in the lobby of the West Edmonton Mall hotel. He’d just been released on bail as part of an appeal. By this point, we had exchanged dozens of long letters, written on everything from scrap pieces of paper to fancy stationery he was able to purchase at the prison store. Our plan was to have breakfast, some eggs and potatoes, and do a little shopping. Omar needed new clothes and I had appointed myself his fashion stylist. He said he was ready to wear some colourful threads after the monotony of prison uniforms. We picked out several button-up dress shirts, one blue-and-white checks, the other bright Guantánamo orange.
For the next year-and-a-half, Omar and I exchanged letters. I sent him postcards from my many travels on book and speaking tours around the world. (As I write this piece, I am in Singapore as part of a two-week work trip to Asia.) Much of our correspondence has been lighthearted, but we’ve also grown to trust each other. There were immediate parallels between our experiences, including the search to make sense of what had happened to us. Until Omar came into my life, I’d never had such explicit conversations about the pain that continued after release. I would often weep as I wrote my letters to him. Some of these never reached him, sent back to me because I’d added stickers which, I later learned, were forbidden in prison. In one undelivered letter, I wrote: “You have to keep going, even when the sun is hidden, because the time we spend in darkness makes the light much brighter when the pain is done. I’ve been there. I’m still here. I know how you feel.” Omar, who was at the time living in a small cell by himself, was articulate in a way that can sometimes read like poetry. His words— he is such a private person, I cannot in good conscience reveal them here—echoed so many things I had felt only a few years earlier in a dark, hopeless place.
I admit I was a little nervous to meet him, because I didn’t know what to expect. But Omar is immediately likeable. He has a great sense of humour and peppers his stories with jokes, often poking fun at himself. When I asked him what he was most excited about, now that he is free, he told me: “experiences.” He loves taking long bike rides and being outside. In public, as I witnessed, people recognize and approach him. He is kind to each one. A young couple at the restaurant came to our table on that first morning. “Omar? Sorry to bother you. We just want to say how happy we are that you are finally free and we wish you all the best.” The woman’s eyes welled up. They, like me, seemed to be moved by his very presence back in the world. Mostly, people just want to shake his hand.
In 2009, I returned to Canada after having been held hostage for 460 days in Somalia. I’d been abducted by a group of criminals while trying to land a story as a freelance journalist. The experience of returning was surreal. It was disorienting, difficult to reconnect with friends and to feel a part of the world after having been in captivity. During those first months of recovery, the flashbacks were so intense, I often couldn’t stand. I could see my captors circling me, weapons in their hands. I could smell the musty, dark room; feel the chains on my ankles. These intrusive thoughts bombarded me many times a day. They exhausted me emotionally and physically. I was free, but I wasn’t truly free in my mind. It would only be years later, as a result of therapy, that I would come to understand PTSD and the myriad symptoms I have.
The loneliness of PTSD can’t be overstated. The smell of a banana can remind me of the days I spent starving, sometimes eating the peel in order to stay alive. The sight of a room full of men, a situation that, in my former life, I would have considered mundane, can be such a powerful trigger, I’ve had to flee such events more then once. When you have PTSD, you learn to live with the weight of the experience. In the nearly six years since I was released, the severity of my symptoms has lessened somewhat, if only because I better understand them and don’t allow myself to get lost in the confusion. I’m blessed to have great friends and a supportive family, but even those closest to me will never fully know how many dark moments I face in a day.
Because I chose to be public about my story, many people have reached out with stories of their own. A young woman from the United States wrote me last week to disclose, for the first time, decades of abuse. A man from Cornwall, Ont., recently approached me to say that my story inspired him to forgive the men who tormented him for years in high school. With the connection, we survivors feel less lonely. We try to learn from each other.
I’ve become intensely sensitive to the pain of others as a result of my own. I find myself in an unlikely and unusual role, becoming a source of information, a confidante, an advocate for those who have survived extreme situations. And a friend, as it turns out.
I read Rinelle Harper’s story on the front page of the newspaper one day in November 2014 while sitting in a Toronto hotel room on a book tour. The then-16-year-old had been walking along the Assiniboine River in Winnipeg one evening after celebrating the end of midterms with friends. Separated from them, she was approached by two young men who quickly turned on her. Beaten and sexually assaulted, she was thrown into the icy waters. Downstream and severely injured, she managed to pull herself ashore. The attackers found her, tried to kill her with a baseball bat and left her for dead. When a jogger discovered her the next morning, she was brought to a hospital, where they found no pulse. As Rinelle hovered between life and death, her family members gathered, holding their breath. Miraculously, she survived.
I was overcome by emotion when I read her story, even needing to call Porterfield to discuss how deeply Rinelle’s story had rocked me. In tears, I confided in her that such cruelty made me afraid of the world. The level of sexual violence, the viciousness of the young men involved, reminded me in some dark ways of my own experiences in Somalia. And my heart broke for her. How does a 16-year-old recover from something so devastating?
I thought about this when, in the months following the attack, Rinelle’s mother, Julie, reached out to me on Facebook, saying Rinelle was familiar with my story. Rinelle is painfully shy, and when we spoke over the phone she gave me short answers to my questions about her well-being. It was only when we met that she opened up, wanting to know about my story, slowly talking about hers. The soft-spoken teenager and I became friends.
Over the last year, I have come to know the entire Harper family. I’ve written about their recent struggles, from the family home in northern Manitoba burning to the ground, to Rinelle’s challenge of finding a new high school when her previous school deemed her ineligible for enrolment. In the face of so many devastating events, their tenacity is surprising and inspiring.
In a number of get-togethers, we have talked about our experiences, the possibility of forgiveness, and fears about the upcoming trials against our respective victimizers. (In Rinelle’s case, two suspects, who were 20 and 17 at the time of the attack, face several charges, including attempted murder, aggravated sexual assault, and sexual assault with a weapon. In June, after years of police work, the RCMP announced it had arrested one of the men allegedly involved in my kidnapping, a Somali citizen named Ali Omar Ader. Arrested in Ottawa after he travelled to Canada believing he had a book deal, he now faces trial for the charge of hostage-taking.)
Rinelle told me recently that among the most difficult experiences after the assault was the language the media used to describe it. “I hated when they used the word ‘rape,’ ” she said.
She was also initially uncomfortable that her parents made the choice to identify her by name as a victim while she was in critical care, which thrust her, unprepared, into the national spotlight. Like me, Rinelle is now someone who will likely forever be yoked to the narrative of her suffering, discoverable with a simple Google search and subjected to the often-harsh commentary that comes with having an online persona over which you have little control.
For years after my release, I would only participate in media interviews if the outlet agreed in advance not to use the words “brutal,” “torture,” and “rape,” preferring the more vague term “sexual assault.” I was so sensitive that the mere mention of these words would trigger my PTSD, leaving me paralyzed and tearful. Most journalists showed sensitivity and compassion in their interviews. Occasionally, though, an overly curious interviewer would push for the salacious details, the very things I was struggling to get through privately with Porterfield. When I first disclosed that I had been sexually abused in captivity, at a rally for ending violence against women (Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising), a number of media outlets screamed about the abuse in their headlines. “Chained, raped, tortured,” read one of them. I felt exposed and re-victimized. I never expected I’d be fielding calls from Asian and European media, asking for more details.
Whether we like it or not, Omar, Rinelle and I all have a public stage—an opportunity, that is, for people to hear us. Is it a responsibility? To speak a message that can help people somehow, and potentially help us to derive meaning from our tragedy? Publishers, like movie directors, find us. It’s an old, tired game. The great temptation is to try to put our trauma behind us and live a “normal” life, but all three of us know there is little normal in what has happened so far. Why should the future be normal, either?
Narrative runs through the heart of nearly any recovery. It’s a deep human impulse to share one’s story, to take a challenging experience and make meaning of it, to own it by putting words in it. There is solace in the idea that others want to hear what we’ve been through, to know what we’ve learned. In September, Omar stood on a stage at King’s College, speaking about vulnerability and power in front of 500 students. “To be strong does not mean to be hard and harsh,” he told them, “but it is about opening yourself and being honest.” He said these themes felt important to him, and he spoke about the power we have inside of us to heal.
As I’ve watched Omar test the new waters of his life, I’ve felt inspired by his outlook. “I can’t change the past . . . I can only work on the future,” he said following his release, and I have seen him live this. He is a student at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and King’s University College, finishing up the high school courses he started in prison, working part-time in the cafeteria at King’s. He wants someday to be an emergency medical technician. He lives with a wide-eyed wonder of the world around him, not unlike the way I felt when the chains were finally cut off my ankles and I returned home to re-experience a world I had lost for so long. We have spent time walking together in the Rocky Mountains, both of us in awe of the beauty around us, feeling a sense of profound gratitude that stems from our losses.
I’ve endeavoured to use my platform to spread messages about forgiveness and cultivating peace. I’ve travelled all over the world and written extensively about my struggles with PTSD and recovery.
Rinelle says she wants to be a “voice for the voiceless.” She is writing a book with Vancouver author Maggie de Vries for HarperCollins, to be published next spring. She has already addressed thousands of people at two events in Edmonton and Winnipeg, delivering words about ending violence against Aboriginal women, to standing ovations.
A girl of very few words, Rinelle asked me to help with a speech we will present at We Day in Winnipeg later this month. Hunched over my computer, sitting beside her, I took notes, as she told me she wants to speak about the importance of education and how school has been a cornerstone of her recovery. Later this month, Rinelle and I will stand together on a stage in front of 17,000 people and deliver her message about hope and recovery.
I have learned much about my own journey from my friendships with survivors. We have different stories, but many of the same struggles. I am inspired that Rinelle, whose body still has not healed from her attack, and has another surgery in store, still goes to school every day, pushing aside the pain. Omar is overcoming years spent fighting a system that was determined to keep him behind bars, and is now faced with a world that has varied opinions of him. Yet he lives his life with his head high, knowing he can only change the future and not the past. As for me, I strive to understand the effects of trauma and the benefits of gratitude and forgiveness, to share this, with the hope it may be of use to others.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to be Rinelle Harper, or to go through what Omar Khadr has gone through. I only know my own experiences. And even surrounded by kindness and support from my family and community, I still sometimes feel misunderstood and deeply alone. For any survivor, the real struggles are, for the most part, painfully private.
These friendships may be unlikely, but it’s been one of my life’s great blessings for me to find these two. In October, Omar and I walked around a gleaming glacial lake in Alberta. The turquoise green seemed artificial, too good to be true. “Do you worry that this is all a dream?” I asked him. He looked out at the water and said, “These are the moments that I waited for. Now I am here, and I want to take it all in.”
Collectively, we have suffered more than most. We are bruised, but we are still standing. We lean on one another. And, should any of us need it, I have no doubt we’ll carry each other, too.
This story was originally published in Maclean’s.