Each time I visit the hunger strikers in Strasbourg they are visibly weaker. Now, after 113 days without food, they spend almost the whole time in bed, though sleep is difficult and lack of real rest is itself a serious problem. They don’t like to talk about their health, but they are all suffering multiple pains and discomfort, as well as the fear that their heart could give up at any time, and they are extra-sensitive to sound and light. My friend, Kardo, continues to have problems with his eyes, so that he has to be separated off from the rest of the makeshift dormitory by a thick curtain to keep out the light, and the pain his eyes give him can be intense. For some of the hunger strikers, the only outwardly visible sign is their significant loss of weight, but Kerem Solhan looks fragile, his head wrapped in a shawl, and Yuksel Koç seems to have aged many years since I first met him just over 10 weeks ago, and has acquired new round glasses that, as Kardo observed, make him look like Gandhi. The stress is also telling on all those who provide them with daily support.
On doctor’s orders, my talks with Kardo were limited to 10-15 minutes. On Saturday I saw him twice, but he was suffering from a night of pain from his eyes. Despite the protection of dark glasses and his curtained bed, he kept closing his eyes to rest them, which made it harder for him to concentrate. But we managed to talk, among other things, about the difficulties for the Kurds in Turkey to rise up against the crushing brutality of the regime, and about support, and lack of support, from outwith the Kurdish community. I updated him on what was happening in the UK and he dictated a short message to be read out on Sunday’s demonstration in Cardiff.
On Sunday, I only had one brief visit, but Kardo managed to speak without his dark glasses, from the gloom of his curtained bed, and that old smile returned as he talked about the importance of living a revolutionary life even if you don’t succeed in your aims, and recalled his excitement at seeing the changes brought to the Arab women by the SDF’s liberation of Manbij. He observed that he used to think that Kurds were the most oppressed people until he saw those Arab women, and he described his own joy as they discovered their new freedom, and one overcame her initial fear sufficiently not only to speak up but to argue back at him.
Visitors came to see the hunger strikers from different places, including their families. Yuksal introduced me to his wife, and there was a big delegation of Kurds and their friends from Italy. While supporters boost the morale, it is getting harder for the hunger strikers to spend much time with them. And, ass well as the predictable pain of street noises to people in their extra-sensitive condition, I was told that some local Turks drive by in cars blaring out Turkish nationalist songs.
Meanwhile, in the big official buildings at the other side of the city, ministers and officials make speeches and shuffle papers. Sometimes, in response to intense behind the scenes lobbying, mention is made of the Kurdish question – even supportive statements produced – but none of this results in action. And so, we wait to see how Erdoğan responds to an election wounding in which Kurdish votes played a conspicuous part.
The chances of Turkey conceding to the hunger strikers’ have never been high, but, although they are insistent on realising their demands, the hunger strikes also have another aim and another measure of success, and that is the strengthening of their movement, both within the Kurdish community and beyond.
This desperate action is a response to their failure to get noticed through more conventional means, but the ability of the wider world to ignore even this vast demonstration of selfless determination is shocking, if perhaps no longer surprising. In the UK, the concerted efforts of activists inspired by the Welsh Kurdish hunger striker, Imam Şiş, have begun to force the issue into the mainstream political consciousness, but we will need to do a lot more to breach the walls of national self-interest and move out from the obsession with Brexit, if we want the Kurds to receive the attention their action and case deserve.
We need more people out on the streets as they were in Cardiff yesterday, but we can also begin to achieve something from the comfort of our homes by sending letters to the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and writing to MPs and newspaper letters pages.
(My drawings show the hunger strikers 6 weeks ago.)
Below are links to all the articles I have published recently about the hunger strike and the situation in Turkey. (Updated 14 May)
STUC supports Kurdish hunger strikers Common Space 18 April 2019
Ken Loach backs 7000 Kurdish protestors on hunger strike The National 14 April 2019
Kurdish solidarity protest at Scottish Parliament marks Ocalan’s 70th birthday Common Space 4 April 2019
‘Turkish thumbs down to Erdogan, thanks to Kurdish election strategy’ Common Space 1 April 2019
Write a letter in support of the Kurdish hunger strikers Common Space 29 March 2019
‘The plight of Kurdish hunger strikers grows – we must not ignore them’ The National 24 March 2019
As the hunger strike rolls on, let’s join the Kurds in a celebration of resistance Common Space 21 March 2019
‘MP remains committed to Kurdish struggle amidst 121 day hunger strike’ The National 8 March 2019
‘Meeting the Kurdish hunger strikers in Strasbourg has restored my belief in humanity’ Morning Star 28 February 2019
Kurdish hunger strike first hand account: 70 days without food and still smiling Common Space 26 February 2019
‘Yesterday Mandela, tomorrow Ocalan’ Common Space 15 February 2019
‘The Kurdish hunger strikers in Strasbourg who would die for their love of life’ The National 10 February 2019
‘Hunger strikers tell the world of Turkish torture of jailed Kurdish leader’ The National 3 February 2019
‘Interviews with Kurdish hunger strikers’ Common Space 30 January 2019
‘First meeting with the Kurdish hunger strikers in Strasbourg’ Common Space 25 January 2019
‘Why are 162 Kurdish political prisoners on hunger strike’ Common Space 9 January 2019