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The Unexpected Power of Hunger

In 1878, a group of jailed Russian dissidents decided to stop eating. They had recently been tried for treason and were being held indefinitely in an island prison. With no certain end to their confinement, they made a gamble: Starving to death couldn’t be worse than how they were living.

If the prison was a graveyard, these inmates were residents in a crypt. The thick stone walls had only the idea of windows, as useless for expelling the stove smoke as they were for welcoming the gray St. Petersburg light. Between cells, the walls were lined with paper, linen, and felt — not for comfort, but to mute the messages prisoners had been tapping through the stone. They were condemned to silence and separation, passing the years one quarter-hour at a time, marked by the ringing of the fortress bells, as they waited for madness, Siberia, or death. To force a resolution — more humane treatment, exile, or just a hastened fate — they refused to eat. Their captors could improve their conditions or they would no longer have prisoners at all.

The campaign they waged is generally considered the first modern hunger strike. People had gone hungry as a means to an end before: Religious fasting dates back thousands of years, while in ancient India, the brother of an exiled king once fasted to advocate for his return; debtors in pre-Christian Ireland sometimes starved themselves on their creditors’ doorsteps to plead for financial forgiveness. But this was the first known instance of political prisoners wielding deprivation to acquire leverage over their oppressors. And in this case, the conditions were just right to make the idea contagious.

Unmoved by the prisoners’ protests and pleas from their families, the official overseeing the prison reportedly remarked: “Let them die; I have already ordered coffins for them all.” But before the strikers could succumb to starvation, the director was stabbed to death in the street by an outraged comrade of the prisoners, sparking a chain of events that eventually made the tactic a mainstay of nonviolent protest across the globe. The strike not only led to more freedoms and visits for those prisoners, it revealed that hunger can indict authority and implicate onlookers to instigate change.

The assassin fled to Great Britain, where he became an editor and published accounts in London’s revolutionary press of hunger strikes spreading in Russia — particularly those led by women. The mainstream English press picked up the story, intrigued by its parallels to the British suffragette movement. In 1909, after being arrested for attempting to stamp pro-suffrage text on the walls of the Palace of Westminster, Marion Wallace Dunlop, of the Women’s Social and Political Union, announced a hunger strike and used it to demand political prisoner status. Dunlop was a popular illustrator of children’s books, and the British government, afraid of letting a sympathetic figure starve to death in a London jail, released her after 91 hours. Dunlop’s startling public victory made the hunger strike a common tactic for British suffragettes, who proclaimed it “the strongest weapon they had ever used against the Government.”

In 1910, imprisoned suffragettes won new privileges from the home secretary, 35-year-old Winston Churchill. When Churchill’s successor revoked these privileges two years later, the hunger strikes resumed. These campaigns offered a new tactic to anyone opposing British rule at home or abroad, like the 10,000 Irish revolutionaries who went on hunger strike between 1916 and 1923. An Indian lawyer who was living in London at the time watched the women’s suffrage movement with great interest, and he came to believe that fasting could be a coercive political act and an inward practice. That lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi, took the idea home in 1918, where he and other anti-colonial activists used hunger strikes widely until India gained independence in 1947. From Gandhi, and into the latter half of the 20th century, leading activists and rebels from all over the world used hunger strikes to spur momentous social change: Cesar Chavez for labor rights, Bobby Sands for Irish independence, Nelson Mandela for the end of South African apartheid.

Hunger strikes appeal to the most mundane physical experience. Everyone knows how hunger feels, and most people organize their time around staving it off. When someone chooses to go hungry, it’s a forceful rejection of biological normalcy. That may be why it’s taken less than 150 years for the tactic to go global, to make hunger a recognizable form of potential power for the powerless. A 2008 study of hunger strikes between 1906 and 2004 found examples in “127 different countries and representing numerous cultures, political and economic systems, and levels of economic development.” They varied in size — from individuals to groups numbering more than 100 people — and duration — from a few days to a few months — and took place over a wide array of issues, but they most often focused on prisons, the justice system, or political reform. The results were equally diverse, from individual transfers within a prison to wholesale regime change.

Hunger strikes remain a particularly potent tool of last resort in prisons, where they’re often used to protest inhumane conditions — much like those first hunger strikers did some 140 years ago. But in recent years, there have been strikes to protest evacuations from homes in New York City, unjust firings in Turkey, environmental rules in India, repatriation to Mexico, a terrorist designation in Chile, and proposed cuts to food stamps in Indianapolis. Other strikes pushed for new futures altogether: nationalizing education in Bangladesh, press freedom in Serbia, better labor laws in Hong Kong, health care spending in Poland, and graduate student labor rights in Connecticut. They didn’t all achieve their stated goals, but they all raised consciousness and galvanized support.

All that said, hunger strikes are not just a means to an end; they’re life events for the people who undertake them. Hunger strikers deprive themselves not just as biological entities who consume sustenance, but as human beings who derive pleasure and community from eating. To provoke social change, they risk that their relationships to food may never be the same. What does it mean to transform eating from a personal experience to a political act and back again? Last year, I spoke with four people who undertook a hunger strike, each for a different cause. What follows are their stories in their own words. (Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.)

Why decide to strike?

Abdullah Elshamy had arrived in Cairo in the summer of 2013 to cover protesters, not to be one. As a journalist working for Al Jazeera, he reported from the massive sit-ins in support of Mohamed Morsi, the president who had been overthrown in a coup in early July. On August 14, security forces of the new government decided to clear Rabaa Square by force — it didn’t matter if the people in the way were partisans or press. In the crackdown, at least 817 people were killed, including four journalists. Other journalists, including Elshamy, were arrested without charge.

Abdullah Elshamy

I was asked by the head office to go and join the coverage back in Egypt. I was covering what was going on both in Tahrir Square and Rabaa Square for the news channel, doing day-to-day news coverage, especially at the camp of the ousted president. So that’s how I got to that point of getting arrested, which was on the 14th of August 2013, and from that point on all the way till 10 months after that date, I was in prison without any real charge.

I got to come up to this decision, which I thought I would have never done, especially to the fact that I myself used to be a food-loving person. I was also very obese at that time. I was a person who was just some ordinary guy who was doing his journalism, and in detention I came to realize that I was going nowhere. I had to do something. All the requests my lawyers filed for any sort of solution were not even looked into. … Prison was something that looked at that point as an endless stage of my life. I thought if freedom was only to come through death, that I wouldn’t mind having my freedom through being dead. … At least at that point, I have taken back my freedom through my own decision. … For five complete months, which was from August 14, 2013, all the way till the 21st of January 2014, was endless loop which kept carrying on. Every 45 days there was this this renewal of detention and there was not any sort of justice being served.

Abdullah in his own voice:

As Naderev “Yeb” Saño arrived in Poland for the 2013 United Nations Climate Change Conference, Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms in history, made landfall in Leyte province, Philippines. As the chief negotiator and head of the Philippine delegation, Saño had a professional mandate to represent his country’s climate interests. After nearly 200-mile-per-hour winds and a 13-foot storm surge hit his family’s hometown of Tacloban City, his personal and professional obligations could hardly be separated: He wanted to show solidarity with his country; he also wanted to press other nations to establish a loss and damage mechanism for vulnerable countries hurt by climate change and to make pledges to the Green Climate Fund. Haiyan demonstrated the danger of climate change and the need to address it on an international level, and Saño needed to do something more than just give a speech.

Yeb Saño

When I boarded my flight going to Warsaw, I had no idea at all. The opening of the summit was Monday, November 11, but I was already in Warsaw for a pre-meeting — that would be November 6. On November 8, Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines. I started to receive trickles of news from home: My brother was at ground zero; my relatives, it was not clear what happened to them. Only after a couple of days did I get news about them. They had received news about my brother, that he had survived, but the city was running out of food. There was rioting and a lot of looting. It was a dangerous situation.

I was given the duty of speaking for the Philippines at the opening plenary. We anticipated that we were going to be given the floor, noting how thousands of lives were lost during the typhoon. The Sunday before the opening, because I was staying at an apartment and not a hotel, I bought food for two weeks. And then, just before midnight, it dawned on me how critical the situation was back at home. My brother was helping gather dead bodies, and I could not fathom how the situation truly was on the ground. He wasn’t eating, so the least I could do was stand in sympathy with him. If he could survive not having food in the aftermath of the most terrible storm that’s ever hit the Philippines, I think I could survive not having food as well.

Barbara Hernandez had been keeping her head down, teaching special education and studying for a sociology degree. She followed the news but had never been an activist. Then, on September 5, 2017, the Trump administration announced it would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, throwing Hernandez and nearly 690,000 other DACA recipients into uncertainty over their ability to work, study, or live in the United States. Fearing deportation, Hernandez quit her job and considered moving to Mexico rather than waiting to be detained. In the meantime, she found video of a sit-in to block traffic in front of Trump Tower in New York City, where nine DACA recipients were arrested. By Thanksgiving, she’d joined the group, Movimiento Cosecha, in her first action. In December, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to stage a sit-in at the U.S. Capitol to advocate for permanent protections for DACA recipients. Eight activists were arrested during the sit-in. They spent nearly a week in jail and, while detained, extended their protest by going on hunger strike.

Barbara Hernandez

I had never been active before. I was dedicating myself to school and work. When I heard the first time that we couldn’t renew our DACAs, that we wouldn’t be able to work anymore, I was very scared. It pushed me into a bad situation where I had to quit my job, I was thinking of moving. I told my family: “I’m just going to self-deport. I don’t think I want to be here.”

On Facebook and Instagram, I saw Movimiento Cosecha had been doing an action outside Trump Tower. I saw all of these youths there, taking action. Seeing how full of life and how brave they were, it encouraged me to take that first step. My first action was Thanksgiving Day, in New York City, where four of us interrupted the parade. After that, we went to D.C., and that’s where I spent six days in jail. I was thinking, “Oh, they’ll probably just hold us and release us.” I didn’t think we were going to spend six days. But I stuck to our goal, which was making our stance that we want a clean DREAM Act. … I was there, putting my body at risk, putting myself at risk of being deported, and here are these politicians eating fancy food, free to go anywhere they want. Well, I’m not. I’m in there sacrificing my body and I wanted them to feel that guilt that they have my life in their hands, and it’s not a toy, it’s nothing to be played with. I want them to make a real decision.

Barbara in her own voice:

Mary-Pat Hector, a student at Spelman College in Atlanta and the youth director of the National Action Network, wasn’t anticipating a fight. In the fall 2017 semester, when she learned that many of her peers were struggling to get enough to eat, she assumed the school would move quickly to feed them. The problem was apparent, and the solution — to redistribute extra meal benefits — had already been implemented at other campuses. It was only after being stonewalled by Spelman’s administration that she decided to reach for a new approach.

Mary-Pat Hector

We give away $1,000 a month to a student in need, outside of books or tuition. That was National Action Network’s first big thing on our campus. We understood that students needed money, and we asked them to send a video on why. When we would listen to the videos, some students would talk about how they would do things on Tinder just to get food. It was alarming. You have students coming from all across the country. Their parents were thinking that they’re going to be taken care of, and they’re hungry.

A lot of students have meal plans on campus, but they don’t make use of their meal plans, while others can’t afford to live on campus. … Spelman had a policy where they’d give commuter students nine meals throughout the duration of their time. So, if you were hungry, you’d only have nine meals for four years. We’re at one of the top historically black colleges and universities — I mean, people like Martin Luther King and Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson came from these institutions. You’re telling me there’s no way we can feed these kids? At predominantly white institutions they have plans where, if students don’t use their meals, they can donate those meals to students who don’t have a meal plan or have run out of swipes. And these are through the same dining service, Aramark, so we’re like, if Aramark does this at other institutions, it’s possible for them to do this at our institution.

We created this proposal and this plan, and we sent out emails, we requested certain people to meet with us to talk about a potential “Swipe Out Hunger” initiative on campus. Literally no one responded. … And so we said: “How are we going to get them to pay attention?”

Mary-Pat in her own voice:

How do we live
through hunger?

As people go hungry, the brain’s control over the body starts to slip. Backup carbohydrates are spent in a day. The body finds fuel wherever it can, starting with fatty acids and ketone bodies before moving on to essential proteins. Once the body begins consuming itself, physical ability and mental capacity start to malfunction. Muscles weaken or become paralyzed; eyes wander or twitch; limbs refuse to follow signals from the brain; the sensation of touch is lost or twisted. Eventually, the brain itself becomes a victim: Confusion and memory loss set in, and cognitive and executive functions falter. Eventually, the body consumes proteins until it can no longer support vital organs, and they fail. Without hydration, this takes one to three weeks. With hydration and occasional mineral intake, the body can survive between one and three months.

Long fasts, like Abdullah Elshamy’s, are impossible without water. Proper preparation and diet before the strike, along with advice from doctors and experienced hunger strikers, can allow a striker to maintain activity and sharpness for longer and reduce discomfort. Mary-Pat Hector and her peers planned to ease into their hunger strike, but when news got out, they felt the need to follow through right away.

Mary-Pat Hector

There is a nice soul food restaurant right up the street from campus and they have these lunch specials and you get a discount as a college student. So I ate baked chicken, macaroni and cheese, and some cabbage. Then, that day, we were like, “Oh my god we have to start.” We had found the information had gotten leaked and that we’d have to start in the morning. We called a press conference that day, and literally there was little to no preparation.

The first two days were the hardest, just because your stomach’s growling; your head is hurting; you’re trying to drink water; the water’s not working; you’re thinking, “I think I can stop, I think I can end it, I don’t know what I’m gonna do.” It wasn’t until the third day that I got used to not eating. … After the first two days, I really did not think about food. I just wasn’t hungry. I thought I was crazy. I began to ask other friends, like, “Girl, are you hungry?” and she’d be like, “Nah I’m not really hungry anymore, but I’m weak. I can’t do anything. I just want to go to class and go lay down.” And that’s all we did: We would go to class and when class was over, when I knew there was no other class, I’d just sit there, take a nap.

You could see a difference in everyone’s attitude, just like the grumpiness, the not wanting to do anything, not wanting to move, not paying attention in class. One thing that we wanted to make sure we did was stay together. Every day we tried to be in groups, so we know we’re not going through it alone and we could be together. I feel like the worst thing was to leave each other alone, so we would spend the night at each other’s houses. We’d link up and have daily meetings and strategize and organize: What if this doesn’t work? How long are we willing to go?

Barbara Hernandez

I think it was around 3 in the morning when they came in and gave us a container of food. Obviously, we said, “no thank you,” but they just left it there. I believe it was the second day — that’s when we got cups to get some water. … I think the first couple of days I didn’t think much of eating, I was thinking about how what we were doing was being portrayed in the outside world. As we got closer to coming out of jail, I think that’s when I would be fantasizing about food. I remember speaking to one of my cellmates and saying I wanted to have pho — or any sort of soup. I remember thinking about margaritas. I did a lot of meditation. I always pictured myself being somewhere else rather than there.

I want to say it was Wednesday. I’m really bad at time, especially in there, because we didn’t have a clock, we didn’t have any sort of time. That day I got very sick and I started throwing up. Luckily, I was at the nurse’s office when that happened. I threw up all the liquids I had, then I started bleeding and I got really scared because that’s never happened to me before. I was like, “I cannot do this, I have to eat something.” It was hard to eat anything, because they weren’t offering any food at that moment, and I had to wait until they would offer. That same day we were told that we had court, so I was like, “Okay, perhaps we’ll get out today and I can go to the doctor and get some food in me.” Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, and we had to stay another night.

Abdullah Elshamy

On the 18th of January 2014, we had a hearing — the usual renewal session where we would go to court, a judge comes out and claims he will be listening to our demands, and things end up just the same. Again, I received an extension of detention. It hit me then that this is going nowhere, justice will not be done in an Egyptian court.

I decided I would start on the 21st of January, which had no special significance as a day, and I did. I was at that time with other people in the cell. They would bring food, and people from my cell would take it, so they didn’t realize there was someone in this group of 20 people who was not eating. When it was food time, I just started reading more books, keeping myself busy with other stuff.

The first month, it was hard to carry on with the strike, but eventually that hunger feeling faded away. To be more specific, it was after 40 days. I started becoming numb in terms of being hungry or trying to fill any want for food. At the end of February we had a check from the prison management. I told them that I wanted to make an official record of my hunger strike. They did and started taking my vitals on a daily basis, but nothing more than that.

Only at the beginning of May, when we had a session in court and I told journalists, foreign journalists, that I was a journalist who had been in prison for over nine months and was on hunger strike, did things start to heat up. Al Jazeera was constantly speaking about my hunger strike, and international media was reporting about it, so the Egyptian government sent an official to try to convince me to stop, to tell me I could hurt myself. A few days later, we were able to smuggle out a picture of what I looked like, which contradicted the story the government told about me, [that] I had secretly been eating my own food sent by my family. After that, they decided that if they transferred me to solitary confinement at the maximum security prison — which they did — there would be no more news about me.

Yeb Saño

My last meal was a piece of bread for breakfast. In my speech in the opening plenary, I said with all due respect to the hosts — so as not to disrespect the hospitality of Poland — that I was commencing a voluntary fast for the climate, in solidarity with my countrymen struggling for food back home and with all communities around the world suffering from climate change. A lot of people came forward and gave me pointers on how to fast properly: activists who were experts, total strangers, doctors who emailed me. They told me what I needed to do to be able to do it for the two-week duration of the conference, to not just lie down and look pathetic, to do my work at the same level with sleepless nights.

I was given a lot of pointers, including making sure that I warmed my liver every morning with a warm compress. They told me telltale signs on whether my body is acting weirdly or not. It was quite a struggle for the first three days, as you can imagine, like those who are going on detox, the first three days are just crazy. I was feeling very, very hungry, and then I was getting chills at night, probably because of the food withdrawal and maybe I was also dehydrated. One of my struggles was that my apartment was one and a half kilometers from the conference venue, and along that road there was an Italian restaurant, a French bakery, a Persian restaurant, a Chinese restaurant. When you’re not eating, everything will smell very good, and more pronouncedly.

On the fourth day, it was like magic. I did not crave for any food at all. What really drove me was the mere fact that this was a commitment I made very publicly, and I had to honor that. And, of course, during that whole first week the negotiations were not going anywhere. My brother gave me inspiration — I knew he was still in Tacloban City, still gathering dead bodies. Within a couple of days, more than 300 people [in Warsaw] had joined the fast. There were a number of days when everyone who was fasting would assemble in front of the cafeteria and we just sat down there with empty plates, deliberately showing that we were not eating.

Yeb in his own voice:

How does hunger
change eating?

These days, it’s rare that someone doesn’t survive a hunger strike. The deaths of Bobby Sands and nine other Irish republicans in the 1981 Maze Prison hunger strike, which spanned 217 days, are as notorious as they are exceptional. “Open-ended” hunger strikes, where strikers are prepared to continue until death, still occur more than 100 died on hunger strike in Turkish prisons between 2000 and 2003 but most strikers only set out to fast for a certain amount of time. Those who go on living, however, don’t emerge unscathed. Like other traumatic experiences, hunger strikes disrupt the basic expectations of daily life. Just like space flight can change astronauts’ religious or philosophical outlooks, or solitary confinement can produce lasting difficulty in social situations among formerly incarcerated people, hunger strikes can transform how people relate to eating.

Yeb Saño

On Friday evening, I realized I was not going to end my fast because the conference wasn’t over, so Saturday went by and then Sunday morning it closed, so I could finally eat. The doctors reminded me that I could not go back to my normal diet just yet. My first, not meal, but first thing that I took in that was not water was orange juice during a party that Sunday evening. I was flying via Dubai back home, I had soup, that was my first meal. It was pumpkin soup. It was probably the best soup I’ve had in my whole life, it was very tasty, I can still remember that moment. I realized that many months after that, it wasn’t a great soup, but during that time it was the best soup in my life. I still have that soup every time I pass through Dubai.

I was given a program for one month about how to get back to a normal diet. It was pretty straightforward — all soft stuff for the first week, no meat. The first few things I was eating was watery fruits. There’s a lot of that in the Philippines so that wasn’t too difficult.

That experience of fasting changed a lot of my relationship with food. I became more of a mindful eater after that. I saw food as something that a lot of people didn’t have around the world, and people struggle to find them, so I actually eat less and I saw food not so much with its culinary value in terms of how good it can be, but really as something that makes people survive. People around me had to adjust to me because, especially people who love food, when they took me along to a restaurant or to a meal, they knew that I wasn’t very picky but I also didn’t eat much. Also, it didn’t matter to me how it tasted. When my grandma was still alive, she cooked really well and my mother’s a very good cook as well. When they cook, I have to eat heartily, because they really cook good food and as a means of respecting of that, I do celebrate and eat with heart. But rarely. In the morning I have a special blender. … It’s just a really high-speed blender. I put in greens and some fruits and that’s basically my breakfast, sometimes my lunch as well. Put some protein seeds along with it, nothing too fancy, just a smoothie.

I love the change, I think that being able to eat more mindfully makes you think about the food system in a more holistic way, because I still am an activist and I think I’ll be one for the rest of my life. It helps me frame things in a very neat way in how the world needs to revolutionize its diet if we’re going to solve something like climate change. It’s a powerful experience when you literally experience hunger, because you realize what you’re missing and you realize what millions of people around the world are struggling with. I now appreciate food a lot more, and even the best kind of food that you can eat in the world, I appreciate it a lot more. It’s not that I don’t like food now. I love food more, and I can savor food better after that experience.

Barbara Hernandez

That night I decided to break the fast and have a cookie, which was the most hideous cookie I’ve ever had in my entire life. It tasted like baloney. [In jail], they give you a baloney sandwich on white bread, and the cookie was in between the baloney, cheese, and the white bread. It was kind of like a baloney cookie sandwich, and it tasted like lead. I will never forget that flavor. It was gross. I would not give that to anyone. When I was out, soups were still embedded in my head. I wanted soup, any kind of soup. In California, I’m really close to a nice Vietnamese place where they serve pho, so I got pho in D.C. Once I got back to California, my aunt made a pozole. It was delicious. I was like, “Oh my god, this is perfect.”

We had hoped both Republicans and Democrats would do something to pass a clean DREAM Act before the holidays, and we found out that nothing was getting done. But we also saw how the community got together, and how people wanted to take a stand. A lot of people said, “Hey, these people are super brave, we want to follow upon their footsteps.” I thought that was something that came out of the strike. Unfortunately, the politicians didn’t meet our demands, but as far as our community, it worked in a positive direction. I hope we were an inspiration for other people to take action.

For myself, it really made me appreciate everything that I have: the space where I live, the food that I put into my body. I don’t want to be a picky eater anymore. I don’t want to say take off the onions on my burger. I want it all now. I just want to embrace everything that I have, because being in there definitely makes you think about all of that. And for those people that are still in there, they don’t have that opportunity to have those foods that we have out here. It makes me value my eating habits more, make better decisions on what I eat.

I think it motivates me, I feel like I can do anything now. If I spent six days in there without eating, I can do anything I put my mind to. And I want to continue fighting for our undocumented community. If that problem gets resolved and I get either path to citizenship or I get something better than that — I don’t know what would be better than path to citizenship. If this problem were to get resolved, I still want to keep fighting for other groups. For example, Black Lives Matter, indigenous people, people with disabilities. I want to give back to everyone. We all have some struggle within us.

Mary-Pat Hector

I had started tweeting about the hunger strike and Tamika Mallory started tweeting about it, and then activist Shaun King, Russell Simmons, and other people started talking about what was happening at Spelman College and Morehouse College. After that, we finally got some sort of response from our administration, and the outcome was 28,000 meals a year for commuter students or students who don’t have a meal plan — 14,000 at each institution and 7,000 each semester. … We were able to announce that we were concluding the hunger strike, and the win that we had.

As soon as the hunger strike concluded, someone brought in two boxes of hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and literally we all ran towards the doughnuts like it was heaven. Another issue with being a college student is healthy food. The day after we concluded was Fish Friday on campus — extremely greasy — and the first few days after the hunger strike I had a bad stomachache. The first day we ate, things didn’t taste the same. It was like I was eating but not tasting the food or feeling the food, and I had gotten extremely sick the next two or three days because there was so much heavy food in me.

The strike made me value the fact that I can eat. A lot of times before you do something like that, you don’t think about how wasteful you are, you don’t think about how other people in the world might not have the same access to food as you. It made me appreciate the fact that I didn’t have to worry about those things, and it made me think about the fact that there are people out here who are hungry and how I could help them.

It was difficult, but we ended up only having to do it for six days — and that resulted in one of the quickest policies to pass on our campus in a very long time. It caught attention. People see it as someone harming themselves: They know how hard it is not to eat, they know the risk from not eating, and so they’re amazed this person cares enough about this cause to not eat. For a person to care enough about a cause to just cut something off that the world sees as a need is crazy to them. It causes a stir.

Abdullah Elshamy

I was transferred to that maximum security prison, where I had no contact with the outside world. They thought maybe this would be the way to get rid of this hunger strike pressure, but, surprisingly, the opposite happened. The local media, which is mostly pro-government, started reporting about this issue. Several significant news anchors and media personalities started speaking about my detention and hunger strike, increasing pressure of the whole thing. Eventually, I was released on bail on the 18th of June 2014, after I had stayed five weeks on my own.

My strike was a main pillar in my release. I would assume if I had not been on hunger strike I would have been imprisoned much longer, maybe up until now.

I actually do remember very well that the first thing I took was watermelon juice. It’s something that both me and my wife love — she had been on strike in solidarity for three months — so we had that the morning after my release. When I left prison, I went directly to a hospital and I went through the next few months with a doctor who gave me advice as to what to eat and what to avoid. Because of the long time that I was on hunger strike, I had lost almost half of my weight.

Beyond my recovery, the strike made me look at food in general in a totally different manner than I did before. I eat less now; I eat more wisely; I think about what to eat before eating it. I used to be a sugar person; now, I try and stay away from sugary foods, and have been off sugary drinks for two years. A lot of the things I loved, I don’t enjoy as much as I did before. I eat way less than I used to. I now eat to live rather than live to eat. In fact, it affected not just me, but my wife and family as well. I was probably the only obese person in my family at that time, but since I left prison many of my brothers have become more healthy, too.

Still, I try not to think about that time too much. Every now and then I reflect back on it, so I can’t really say I’ve moved on. But in terms of journalism and my profession, I am still doing what I have always loved to do.

Interviews with Abdullah Elshamy, Mary-Pat Hector, Barbara Hernandez, and Yeb Saño have been edited for length and clarity.
Stephen Lurie is a writer, researcher, and organizer based in New York City.
John Carvajal is a cartoonist and illustrator based in Brooklyn.
Audio by Vince Dixon, senior data visualization reporter, and Daniel Geneen, special projects producer.
Creative direction by Brittany Holloway-Brown, manager of visuals & design.
Fact checked by Rowan Walrath
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter

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