In Wales with Imam Şiş

Newport, Gwent, has become an extraordinary hive of activity for the Kurdish cause. At its heart is a man who is wasting away after 140 days on hunger strike, but whose enthusiasm for creating a better world shines out of twinkling eyes. When I finally got to meet Imam Şiş last Wednesday, he was sitting up in his bed beneath a PKK flag, with Persian violin music coming out of his laptop and a big stack of books on the table beside him. His weight loss made him appear much younger than his 32 years. We discussed the harassment that the community and supporters have had from the police, and how the Kurds have insisted on their right to fly that PKK flag, and he asked after the hunger strikers I had visited in Strasbourg. Although he has the warmest of smiles, he observed that he can get angry when solicitous friends try to force him to take food or attempt to slip nutrients into his water. And he protested – as a visiting photographer took photographs – that all this is not about him, but about the cause.

The next day was May Day, and local campaigners had arranged to hold a candlelit vigil for the hunger strikers on the steps of the National Museum in Cardiff. Speakers included Plaid Welsh Assembly Member, Bethan Sayid, and there were messages from Labour members – all interrupted by loudspeaker announcements by museum security against the use of naked flames. I said a few words of solidarity from Scotland, and there was a speech in Welsh that compared Imam’s action to the candle flame in the speaker’s hand. But all our speeches were tame compared to the call to action that Imam had written to be read out at the vigil and at the rally on Saturday.

I saw Imam again briefly back at the Newport Community Centre that night, and was shocked to learn the next day that his condition had suddenly become critical, and no more visitors were being allowed. The Welsh solidarity action had already surpassed similar action elsewhere – including getting a motion of support agreed in the Welsh Assembly – but now activity acquired a new urgency. At the official level, Plaid Cymru wrote to the Welsh Minister for International Affairs, and the next day a letter was sent to UK Foreign Minister, Jeremy Hunt. (Of course, he is hardly the person to whom one would choose to intrust one’s future, but he is the person with power to intervene.) Activists had already planned a good turnout for the Saturday May Day march, where Imam’s speech was read at the rally, and ‘boycott Turkish holidays’ pickets were already being organised for different spots around the UK. We contributed a bit of leafleting and street speaking in Dundee as part of this.

The campaign has brought together members of the Kurdish community and left activists of all kinds. Imam is a member of Plaid, and was already well known for his involvement in other socialist campaigns. The movement around Ocalan calls for Kurdish cultural freedom, but it is also a vibrant force for left internationalism. And, as Imam reminded everyone in his speech, ‘Every day that goes by without struggle is a service to the ruling classes of the capitalist system.’

Sarah Glynn

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