Now, take a moment, think about the last time you were really hungry. You skipped lunch because work or school didn’t allow for it. Your head is pounding, you feel drained, and your stomach is now growling and aching. You’ve had some water, but despite knowing that you’re not “starving,” you simply have to eat. No matter how often you once told your mother that you were starving before snack time, this hunger is more intense, more disruptive, and perhaps even a little painful. You stop; grab a snack, an early dinner, something to end the suffering.
Stay with me. Now, imagine that you don’t have that option to grab anything. You’ve had your one meal today and, despite it not being enough to even curb your hunger then, you know that you do not have another meal coming until tomorrow. That meal will likewise not take the hunger away entirely, and you know that its lack of protein, vegetables, etc. will still leave you feeling weak. Perhaps, it isn’t tomorrow, perhaps your next meal will only come at the whim, or grace, of a stranger. Maybe you’ve exhausted their charity and your next meal is a mystery. Maybe there isn’t one. You live in the Horn of Africa and you are one of the millions suffering malnutrition and may become on of the tens of thousands who have died of hunger.
Starvation leads to painful and damaging wasting away of the body. As the person’s body breaks down, their muscles atrophy making movement painful and difficult. Dehydration can set in causing painful dry and cracked skin. Oral and digestive diseases can set in including scurvy, diarrhea and even fungal growths in the esophagus. Cognitive functions become impaired and eventually, the body’s major organs start to fail as the body suffers a lack of the necessary vitamins and nutrients to support it. Death from starvation is not swift, and the excruciating pain and suffering can last for weeks as your body slowly deteriorates.
What do you think it would take to make you do this to yourself? Can you think of an issue that would lead you to starve yourself, perhaps to death?
The hunger strike is not a new idea. It is a centuries old practice that until modern times rarely garnered the attention it likely deserved. It was likely Mohandas Gandhi and his multiple hunger strikes during the 1930s and 40s that brought the most international attention to this form of non-violent protest. Despite attempts to suppress news of his actions, media attention to his movement, his methods and the effects on his body gained worldwide attention.
More recently, attention was called to the 1981 hunger strike of Bobby Sands. A member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, Sands led the hunger strike to call attention to the rights of political prisoners in the British penal system. Sands starved himself for 66 consecutive days, an act that ultimately claimed his life. Sands followed in the steps of another Irish revolutionary, Terence MacSwiney, the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Cork who engaged in a 74-day hunger strike in 1920 to protest his incarceration by England.
The Arab Spring, or Jasmine Revolution, has generated amazing scenes of bravery as revolutionaries have thrown themselves at tanks, in front of bullets or simply stood still while being beaten by their own governments. These heroes attract the most attention in the international media, but behind the scenes are those who are silently, and slowly, betting their lives to improve the lives of others.
Abdulhadi al-Khawaja is a Bahraini human rights activist and the co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. He was fundamental in leading pro-democracy protests in Bahrain in early 2011, and attracted the ire of the government. He was arrested in April, 2011 and tried before a military tribunal and sentenced to life imprisonment. Following allegations of torture and mistreatment in jail, al-Khawaja began a hunger strike in February 2012. He continued his strike for 77 days until the prison removed him from his hospital bed, placed him in solitary confinement and began force feeding him with a tube down his throat. al-Khawaja continues to starve himself for the rights of his fellow Bahrainis to determine their own future. He is a non-violent revolutionary and he, and his daughters Maryam and Zeinab, encourage nothing more than nonviolent resistance to the country’s autocratic rule.
Mohammed al-Bajadi is a human rights activist in Saudi Arabia, jailed for calling for the release of political prisoners in the Kingdom. He was arrested in March 2011 and brought to trial in secret the following October. In March, 2012 he joined 38 other people in a called 2 day hunger strike, but continued his strike for more than a month. Little is known about al-Bajadi’s condition since April.
The Palestinian cause has elicited its own hunger strike phenomena. Protesting against the use of so-called “administrative detention” (i.e. being thrown in jail without trial, or often even with charges), the denial of family-visitation rights and the use of solitary confinement, Palestinians have used the hunger strike to call further international attention to their plight. Khader Adnan grew so tired of being subjected to administrative detention, that he denied himself food for 66 days, an act which ultimately brought about his release. Hana Shalabi was subjected to 25 months of administrative detention in Israel before being released in 2011. She began to study nursing, but was again arrested by Israel in February 2012 and jailed without charge or trial. Shalabi commenced a 43 day hunger strike to protest her, and her fellow inmates’, treatment. She was ultimately released, but exiled to Gaza, being denied the ability to see her family in the West Bank. More recently, another 1,600 Palestinian prisoners began a hunger strike which lasted more than a month. Among them were Thaer Halaleh and Bilal Diab, both of whom are held without charges and had been on a hunger strike for more than 70 days. Their strike is now coming to an end following an agreement to curb the use of solitary confinement, allow families in Gaza to visit their relatives in West Bank or Israeli prisons and a supposed agreement to “ease” the use of administrative detention of Palestinian activists.
So, think about it the next time you’re a little peckish, or have skipped lunch. What would it take for you to accept that hunger and then multiply it out over weeks or months, putting your life at risk in a fantastically slow and painful way?By Ted Graham, Aslan Media Columnist