Tuesday, August 9, 2022
HomeOpinionThe Pain of a Hunger Strike: I Have Been There

The Pain of a Hunger Strike: I Have Been There

Yodith Gideon during day seven Hunger Strike against Amhara genocide in the Oromo region of Ethiopia (Photo credit : Yodit Gideon Twitter Page)

By Taddesse Solomon

It is surprising that many people don’t comprehend the physiological and physical effects of a hunger strike. They seem to compare it to fasting where one could easily forgo food for two, three or even a few more days. Based on my own experience in addition to publications on the subject, an extended hunger strike poses a serious risk to one’s health. 

The ongoing hunger strike by Yodith Gedion and her supporters on Downing Street in London to highlight the current Amhara genocide in Ethiopia is one such dangerous exercise. Hunger strikes by themselves are detrimental to the health of the striker if those in power are not answerable to higher moral or religious imperatives. However, in a country where authorities have little to no regard for human life, as is the case in Ethiopia, it is necessary to bring the carnage to the attention of the global community, in the hopes of bringing a timely intervention to remedy the indiscriminate massacre of women, children and people with disabilities.

Yodith, I watched the interviews you had with Abebe Belew of Addis Dimts, and with Gobezze Sisay of the Voice of Amhara I heard your kind and grateful acknowledgement of the people who came to join you in support of your hunger strike: The gentleman who came from Glasgow, Scotland; another gentleman who brought you a comfortable chair to sit on for those trying long painful days and nights; there was also the fellow Amhara lady who took you into her home for a night to relieve your back pain. You also acknowledged the individuals who shared your hunger strike, along with your tribulations across social media platforms. You also remarked about the absence of Amharas in London, particularly religious teachers of various faiths and institutions. In my view, this no show by religious leaders and other Ethiopians hurts more than the pain you and your fellow protesters feel throughout your body.

49 years ago, I was imprisoned in Sudan. An illegal refugee with no papers, I was a nobody in Kober, a huge prison complex in Khartoum. Kober was built by colonial Britain to detain and torture Sudanese nationalists and those who opposed colonial rule. We were three young Ethiopians from central Ethiopia and five Eritreans from northern Ethiopia. One of the five Eritreans, Asmerom claimed he was an Ethiopian nationalist who was arrested caught loitering in an army barrack office of the officer in charge. The other four Eritreans who were in their late thirties and forties were Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) operatives who were manning offices in Khartoum at the time of their imprisonment. Asmerom was in detention for over two years after being accused of espionage. Our stay in detention was unbelievably humane and civilized. Each detainee was provided with a bedframe, mattress, blanket and two decent meals a day. There was a weekly visit by the Commissioner of the prison administrator; this visit allowed detainees to raise complaints or issues related to their circumstances and living conditions. I had heard stories about the then Sudanese president Jafar Numiery during one of his visits coming close to throwing punches with young Sudanese officers he detained after they had confronted him about their imprisonment by him and his administration. I am not sure if this practice of visits by higher officials exists in today’s Sudan or in any other African countries, but it should be done as an act of civility.

Unfortunately, I have seen the other end of the spectrum; I was imprisoned in the Ethiopian towns of Yirgalem and Awasa for a few months during my high school years. Those prisons were overcrowded, unsanitary, and did not provide prisoners with basic necessities. I have heard similar things about the current conditions of prisons in the capital Addis Ababa and other parts of the country. The barn-like prisons in Ethiopia close the means of egress at sunset and are opened the next day at the whim of the guard or the officer in charge. The prison blocks in Kober are open, allowing prisoners to walk, play chess, card games, read and recite poems 24/7. My heart breaks when I compare the prison situations in the two countries fifty years ago; they couldn’t have been more different. 

Respect for the detained no matter the circumstance is a reflection of a society’s moral values. I was able to observe this virtue when I worked as a construction project manager in juvenile and men’s detention centers in New York City.  I have repeatedly spoken of this virtue of respect for fellow human beings to my children and friends alike countless times. My sincerest apologies to those who have not experienced or are willing to imagine the different experiences and realities of those in the world we live in.

Yodith, you and your fellow hunger strikers’ heroic sacrifice will be appreciated immensely by the victims, the survivors and the citizens of the world who appreciate and respect human life. I went on a tangent sharing my experience knowing full well you are not alone in this; there are millions in the world who have gone through hunger strikes including their supporting families.

In Kober, there were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including their leader, Dr. Hasan Al Turabi, his deputy Dr. Burad, the young officers of the Sudanese Communist Party, the sharp colonel Sadiq Al Mahadi who prepared his own meals daily, Shoge, the poet who wrote lyrics about an Amhara lady in one of his works, former officials of the Abud regime, people who called themselves democrats and other intellectuals. There was also the infamous German mercenary, Rolf Steiner, who was caught fighting alongside the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in Southern Sudan. Kober had its own clinic run by Dr. Hashim and his assistant Sadiq. All of us detainees had equal access to this clinic during the day, without exception. The only exception was Steiner who was allowed to have a weekly or biweekly visit from a European medical professional.

After a few months of detention, eight of us, including our Eritrean friends, agreed to go on a hunger strike to get our message out to the authorities for an immediate release. There was an intense discussion and argument among our Sudanese friends and us. Most of our Sudanese friends thought this was our only hope of securing our release and getting our message out to the responsible authorities. Some, for religious , philosophical or health reasons felt we shouldn’t go on a hunger strike.

It was the holy month of Ramadan when we started our hunger strike. It was hot, close to 40 degrees Celsius, just like the recent heatwave in London, Southern Europe and some parts of the United States. None of us had the experience of going through this painful process and the challenges that come with it. None of us knew how it would end. But we trusted the support of our Sudanese friends who advised us. Even though our friends from the Muslim Brotherhood initially had some misgivings about the hunger strike, they were supportive of us once we started.

If memory serves me well, the first 24 hours of the hunger strike were unremarkable. There were the common hunger cues such as stomach growling in addition to a craving for small things like coffee, tea, cigarettes, etc. However, the second day was much worse, highlighted by a terrible headache. After the second day was over, the hunger began to take its toll. Following the headache, I began to feel excruciating pain all over my joints followed by a nagging back pain. At this stage, I didn’t feel hunger or headaches at all; I just felt pain; pain all over my muscles and joints. My experience by no means has any comparison to what you are going through in the streets of London. We were inside a building, sheltered from the elements and we had a bed with a mattress, not a small chair or a stool that you folks are sitting on day and night. It is hard to imagine you can take a hallucinating nap while sitting on a chair; I am just comparing it to the beds we had. I understand your appreciation of the Amhara lady who took you to her house for a night to treat your back pain. May God bless her home and her family for her good deeds. Our community needs more people like her in these dark and challenging times. 

It is natural that every person’s body reacts differently to this self-imposed punishment. On the third day one of our  teammates collapsed and was taken to a hospital for immediate treatment; others were treated on the site by being administered intravenous fluid. On the fourth day of our hunger strike, one caring Muslim Brotherhood doctor in the detention center came to us and clearly explained the danger and impact of a hunger strike both now and in the future on our bodies. This included damage to the liver, kidney, heart and other major organs. On day five, another Ethiopian friend became unconscious and was forcibly given medical treatment after refusing to accept it.

Yodith, you and your team are there to highlight to the global community a government supported ethnic cleansing and a desperate attempt to hide these crimes with its collaborators.. History tells us that the global community is always late in responding to such heinous crimes and will continue to do so in the future unless coming  generations change this callousness by truly saying “never again”.

Yodith and your team, I pray for the good Lord to give you unlimited strength and to help you come out with complete health. After all, there is more work to be done when you are done with this. I am lucky to have had a decent Sudanese doctor during our ordeal to help me understand the consequences and side effects of going through a hunger strike. The doctor was Dr. Sadiq, who took me to the side like an older brother and advised me to take the hunger strike lightly. This meant that I cheated by mixing powdered glucose with lime and some dried cranberries out of sight of the other detainees starting on the fourth day. If I didn’t pay attention to his advice, I would have compromised the health of vital organs. I am glad I listened to him and came out of the ordeal without affecting my health too harshly. I was in my twenties during the hunger strike, and my response to friendly advice and health related issues allowed me to recover quickly. My humble advice to you and the group: please listen to your body and health professionals, the fight to Stop Amhara Genocide will continue.

The prison doctors monitored our health twice daily and reported our status to the prison Commissioner and then to the Minister of Interior, Mr. Kalifa Gerar. I will dare say that this was the embodiment of respect for humanity. What else can one say after almost fifty years and now hearing about atrocities committed in Ethiopia such as the mutilation of a fetus out of a dead mother and mass graves all over the country? 

I heard your appeal to international media outlets and faith leaders to come out of their hiding and tell the truth to the world. Unlike your hunger strike, on day seven we were told by the prison commissioner that the minister of interior would evaluate our circumstances and that we would be released unconditionally. We had no reason not to trust the administrator’s pledge  and agreed to break our fasting. Within two weeks we were released. 

As I had wondered then and more so now in light of what is going on in Ethiopia, why did the Sudanese people care for us? Who were we? We were foreigners or “habeshas” as they called us, who illegally entered their country; we didn’t even subscribe to the same religion. Some of us were high school dropouts, some completed high school and others committed espionage. Most of us wouldn’t merit any consideration by any measure except being human beings who deserved humane treatment.

I thought and still think that it is always humane to share whatever good is received by paying it forward. I, like many other Ethiopians, am grateful and indebted to the people of Sudan for their humane treatment and for allowing me to have a positive reflection of my first and last hunger strike. However, what pains me deeply when I write and share my experience of hunger strike is the thought of how many of my fellow Ethiopians are oblivious to the cause and to what you are going through on day 10. I know by now, you may have received several text messages and social media postings related to your cause but I wanted to extend my personal gratitude and share my own experience in dealing with a hunger strike in order to highlight your courageous undertaking. I, along with my family, will always remember you and your team in our prayers now and in the future. 

I will also keep asking why the world keeps looking the other way when  mass graves and the displacement of millions is taking place in present day Ethiopia? Ethiopians are grateful for the 1984 world response to help mitigate the devastating famine. Why the silence now? The ongoing unabated crimes against humanity are being committed by a handful of barbaric groups who answer neither to God nor international opinion nor to the rule of law. How else can you explain the repeated mass murder and indiscriminate killings of even the unborn by the government allied militias bent on eradicating an ethnic group, the Amharas? The silence of leaders of the so-called civilized world and religious and tribe leaders in Ethiopia brings to mind the famous 1946 poem from the German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me

And there was no one left

To speak out for me

I urge others to try, if you will, to think of Yodith and her fellow strikers who have been fasting on the streets of London to bring attention to the ongoing Amhara genocide. Could you forgo coffee, orange juice, a whole meal for a day, let alone for ten days?

Yodith, may God bless you and your fellow companions with unlimited endurance and health.

May God bless Ethiopia, since it is a home for millions in distress.

May God bless the Sudan for treating us with dignity and respect. 

May God bless The United States, even with its shortcomings, for becoming a new home for many refugees including myself along with many family members and friends. 

The writer could be reached at : t_solomon04@yahoo.com

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