Why I went on hunger strike

Katie Dancey-Downs
Oct 20, 2017 · 4 min read

“When is anyone going to pay attention to what we’re doing?” Guantánamo Bay prisoner and hunger striker Ahmed Rabbani wrote to his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith. We’re paying attention now Ahmed, and we’re doing it too.

A twenty-four hour hunger strike seems like hell on Earth when your favourite of the deadly sins is gluttony. But twenty-four hours pales in comparison to the 30 days that Ahmed Rabbani and Khalid Qasim have gone without food, as they use the only means at their disposal to peacefully protest their indefinite detention without trial in Guantánamo Bay.

When I saw human rights organisation Reprieve’s latest campaign online, I immediately wanted to be involved, in spite of my love affair with cake. Before my stomach could catch on, I’d signed up for a 24 hour fast in solidarity with the four men on long-term hunger strike in Guantánamo.

The fast for justice

The hunger was uncomfortable, but just about bearable. The pounding headache and complete lack of energy was more difficult to ignore. I followed the rules and drank little and often, avoiding my much loved (and apparently much needed) caffeine. Even after one day of fasting I was losing concentration. After work, I even tried to put my bike in a shed I’d dismantled the week before. I can’t imagine what a whole month of this would feel like.

When I woke up the next morning I was hungry, but I thought I could probably go on if I’d wanted to. This is not far from what lawyer and Reprieve founder Clive Stafford-Smith said to me the day after he finished his five-day strike.

He told me, “After day three it becomes easy for some people. And that worries me for the prisoners, because they may well get on what Shaker Aamer [more on him later] called the Hunger Strike Highway, and then feel no particular reason to get off it. Ultimately they lose the ability to make rational decisions.”

As your body deteriorates with malnourishment, so too does your mind.

The Guantánamo hunger strikers

Reprieve represents two of the four men currently on hunger strike in Guantánamo. Ahmed Rabbani and Khalid Qasim have been on hunger strike for four years, but everything changed on 20th September 2017. Reprieve says that since then, they have received no medical care and are being left to starve until they are almost, but not quite, dead. Then they will be force fed. By this point they will have irreparable damage to their internal organs.

“Before, there was a strict policy. When you had lost 15% of your weight they would force feed you, and they would put you under a very strict medical regime to ensure you didn’t suffer health-wise,” Clive said, going on to describe the horribly unethical practice of force feeding.

“This is the worst of all possible worlds.”

The real issue is getting a fair trial for the prisoners who have never even been charged with anything. This is not to mention the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ what you or I might call torture. But in the meantime, Reprieve is aiming to get proper medical care for those on hunger strike.

With over 500 days of solidarity hunger strikes now pledged, can Ahmed and Khalid be persuaded to pause their own hunger strike, as people across the world take it on for them? Whether they do or not, Clive says they have been moved by the suggestion. When Reprieve talked to Khalid, he said that it meant so much to him, because he no longer felt so stranded and alone. He is immensely grateful to everyone.

Reprieve will be collecting together all the blogs that are written about the Fast for Justice, and sharing them with Ahmed and Khalid. So if you’re reading now, please know that you are not forgotten.

In solidarity

As I’m writing, 524 days of Fast for Justice hunger strikes have been pledged. I was around number 400 on Tuesday afternoon.

One of those people fasting in solidarity with Ahmed and Khalid is deputy leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson.

He told me, “They [Ahmed and Khalid] are two of the most powerless people in the world and the only way they felt able to exert some control over their lives was to refuse food. They’ve been force fed by prison guards, a cruel enough punishment in itself. But the Trump administration recently decided to stop doing that, which means they are facing a very slow and painful death.”

He, like myself and many of the other hunger strikers, wants to bring this injustice to the world’s attention.

Fasting for change

I promised to get back to Shaker Aamer. Over the phone, he gave Clive Stafford Smith instructions on how to complete a successful hunger strike, and get on the Hunger Strike Highway. I won’t go into detail, but it involves prunes.

Shaker Aamer was in Guantánamo Bay for 13 years, during which he went on hunger strike many times, and there were solidarity strikes around the world. He was released in 2015.

This is a symbol that there is hope, and there is always hope. Wrapped up in my own fast for 24 hours it might not feel like it’s changing the world, but if I tell everyone I know why I’m doing it, and they tell someone else, maybe there’ll come a time when people simply won’t stand for it anymore.

I went on hunger strike for a day because I absolutely, unequivocally, believe in the right to a fair trial for everyone. Whatever they may or may not have done. I hope that I’ll never be in a situation like Ahmed and Khalid, where the only option I have left is to put my body on the line. But if I were, I would hope that 524 people would pledge to join me in solidarity.

Read more about Reprieve, on Lush Times.

Katie Dancey-Downs

Written by

Writer, reluctant Slytherin, aspiring crazy cat lady. Days spent writing for Lush Times and hoarding books.

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