WHAT could make someone put aside the most basic instinct for survival and go on indefinite hunger strike? What combination of inspiration and desperation? This isn’t an abstract question. More than 250 Kurds in Turkish prisons and across the world are taking this action of last resort (including Imam Sis in Wales). I had read about the hunger strike, even written about it, but when I learnt that my friend Kardo Bokani was one of the hunger strikers, then the immensity of what they are doing really hit me.

Within a week of discovering Kardo’s involvement, I was on a plane from Aberdeen, together with my friend Fiona Napier who is secretary of Aberdeen Trades Union Council.

Kardo is one of the 11 men and three women who have been on indefinite hunger strike in a community centre in Strasbourg since December 17. The first hunger striker was the MP Leyla Guven, a political prisoner in Turkey who stopped eating on November 7. All the hunger strikers have one, simple, demand: that the Turkish government complies with their own constitution – and with international conventions on human rights – and end the isolation of imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Ocalan is even denied visits by his lawyer and members of his family. International law classifies this as torture. The group in Strasbourg expressly calls on the European institutions to put pressure on Turkey, which is a member of the Council of Europe.

It was evening when we got to Strasbourg, and we went straight to the Kurdish Community Centre where the hunger strikers are living – a nondescript modern building among 19th-century apartment blocks. Much of the centre has been reserved for the use of the hunger strikers, including two temporary dormitories, but the two rooms open for visitors and press were busy with comings and goings and hand shaking and discussion.

In the two days we were there, visiting solidarity delegations included French communists, Swiss anarchists, and a politician from Rojava (the autonomous, mainly Kurdish region in North Syria), as well as many groups of Kurds from different places.

The caretaker kept appearing with trays of tea in paper cups, and a group outside the door enjoyed cigarettes. When we arrived, music was coming from the further room, courtesy of visiting players, and we were told that up until day 28 of the hunger-strike there had even been dancing.

Visitors brought flowers in Kurdish red, yellow and green, and sometimes, alongside the serious political discussions, there was the click of backgammon pieces.

The hunger strikers stood out from the rest, marked by their white tabards bearing the words (in French) “break the isolation, we are on hunger strike”, and printed with Ocalan’s familiar moustached image. They also stood out for their smiles – smiles that I don’t believe we will ever forget.

When Kardo appeared, he looked thinner than when I had last seen him, at a conference on the Kurdish situation held in the European Parliament in December.

He now works for the Kurdistan National Congress in Brussels, but I had first met him in Northern Syria, where he was helping to look after foreign delegations.

When we arrived in Strasbourg, the hunger strikers were on their 39th day without food – just sugar and salt water, tea and coffee, and vitamin B1, to prolong their protest and minimise the risk of permanent damage. Kardo told me that he had lost 8kg, and was having problems keeping concentration, but that his morale was high. This was a refrain we were to hear many times.

In an article in the Sunday National last week, I described the physical difficulties faced by some of the other hunger strikers, and their selfless resolve to carry on to the bitter end.

The Kurdish struggle has a long history of hunger strikes, and there have been hunger strikes over Ocalan’s isolation before. Concessions were won, but these were limited, and a few years later the process was repeated.

This time, the hunger strikers are determined to achieve more than fleeting gains.

They have already forced two successes – a 10-minute visit for Ocalan’s brother, Mehmet, which confirmed that Ocalan is still alive and in good health; and the release from prison of Leyla Guven.

But while they recognise these as achievements resulting from their action, they do not meet their objective, and everyone is firm that the strike goes on.

Since I wrote last week, the hunger strikers have moved to slightly more spacious accommodation, but their health is deteriorating. Yuksel Koc is confined to bed and Gulistan Ike has been taken to hospital, with her condition described as serious. Today is day 56. Now I am back in Scotland it is difficult to understand why everyone is not talking about the Kurdish hunger strike. I want to shout from the rooftops – wake up world!

We like to read about historic heroes, but these are the heroes of today.

They are struggling in Turkish prisons and Syrian villages, and round the corner from European institutions that produce fine words, but not the vital actions to back them. Talking with those 14 men and women has restored my belief in humanity.


The National: Hunger striker Kardo Bokani, pictured last weekHunger striker Kardo Bokani, pictured last week

WHEN I told Kardo that I wanted to write a piece that focused on the path that led him to be a hunger striker, he told me firmly that this wasn’t about him. I insisted that this could help outsiders, including myself, begin to comprehend what the hunger strikers are doing – so I hope I am right, and that he will forgive me.

Kardo grew up in Iran under the ayatollahs. Although he spoke Kurdish at home, his schooling was in Persian, and Persian TV was beamed into their living room.

His outlook changed in 1995, when he was 12, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) set up a TV station. For the first time he was exposed to news and culture from a Kurdish radical-left perspective. With his school friends he would go out and paint slogans on the walls at night.

In 1999, Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s leader, was abducted back to Turkey in an international plot that included the CIA, and the Kurds in Iran went out into the streets to demonstrate. Their protest was brutally supressed, and many protesters were killed. Some of Kardo’s close friends were sent to prison, where the torturers left them mentally destroyed.

Kardo could see no possibility for achieving the changes he craved in such a repressive society, and decided to escape across the border into Turkey.

It meant breaking ties with his family so as not to put them into danger. He couldn’t even say goodbye.

His plan was either to join the PKK, or go to Europe to study the Western philosophy that so fascinated him and he felt would make him more useful to society.

After a month in Van, in Eastern Turkey, he escaped across the Turkish border, and spent the next five years living illegally in various European countries before claiming asylum in Ireland.

This was a place with which he already felt a connection. His childhood reading of Nehru’s Letters from a Father to his Daughter had introduced him to the Irish freedom struggle before he knew of the PKK. He is now an Irish citizen and regards Ireland as his second home.

He began studying philosophy and politics in 2007, and by 2016, when he finished his PhD, he was lecturing at University College Dublin and had published a couple of books.

He was also very active in the Kurdish cause, but, for him, this wasn’t enough. He decided to dedicate his whole life to being a professional activist. He has not only given up a well-paid and interesting job, he has also abandoned a personal life.

I asked Kardo to explain Ocalan’s importance and this is what he said: “Ocalan is important not only for the people of Kurdistan but for the international community.

‘‘First, and most importantly, Ocalan is a political figure that is revered by millions of the Kurds internationally as their rightful leader: a leader who dedicated his entire life for the freedom from brutal colonialism ...

‘‘In a signature campaign that ended in 2015, more than 10 million people, mostly Kurds, said that we recognise him as our political leader and we demand his freedom.

‘‘Secondly, Ocalan is a political theorist and has contributed to modern philosophy on a wide range of issues.

‘‘We should point out that it was his political philosophy that gave shape to what we see now in Rojava: a multicultural, feminist and ecological society.

‘‘Thirdly, Ocalan has been the most vocal voice in the whole of Turkey demanding peace.”

Ocalan is Kardo’s intellectual father, to whom he dedicated the book of his PhD, and, while he stresses that theirs is a democratic movement always open to criticism, he sees this action as a contribution to “the huge debt that we owe to Ocalan”.

This is Kardo’s fourth hunger strike, though the previous ones lasted only a few days. He explained how they have been forced to resort to such extreme measures: “In the last eight years … we’ve tried all avenues, all ways. We’ve knocked all doors and we’ve done a lot of demonstrations – long marches, from Brussels to Strasbourg, from Germany to Strasbourg, from Luxembourg to Strasbourg.

‘‘We’ve been engaged in a lot of diplomatic relations with different institutions, but none of them produced any concrete result, other than the hunger strikes.’’ I can’t hide my concern for Kardo’s well-being. In a recent email he told me, ‘‘Don’t worry about us. We are the students of Kemal Pir School [one of the founders of the PKK}. He died in the hunger strike of 1982. During the hunger strike he said: ‘We aren’t in this strike for dying. We love life, so much so that we are ready to die for it.’’’ While it has hardly stopped me from worrying, this statement provides a window into the mindset of dedication and selfless hope that is shared by all the hunger strikers.

We have been in daily contact, messaging on Whatsapp, but on Friday he wrote; “My eyes have started to pain. My doctor advised me to avoid computer and phone, to save my eyes if the hunger strike ends.”


The National: Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party who is held isolated in a Turkish prisonOcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party who is held isolated in a Turkish prison

SINCE they found themselves divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria following the First World War, the Kurds have faced 100 years of discrimination and persecution.

In Turkey, the birthplace, in 1978, of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the state defines itself according to Turkish ethnic nationalism, and has no place for Kurdish identity – or even Kurdish language and music.

The PKK has morphed from a Marxist-Leninist separatist movement to a force for local autonomy and cultural freedom, but it is still seen as unacceptable by the Turkish state.

For the past 19 years, the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has been held in a Turkish prison.

He was originally sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life imprisonment because Turkey was seeking eligibility to join the European Union.

In prison, Ocalan applied himself to political philosophy, and his prison writings have been central to the development of the Kurdish movement.

He has also strived towards a peaceful settlement with the Turkish state. Many times, access to him has been restricted, and in the last years his isolation has been total.

While the PKK has fought a guerrilla struggle, their ideas on grass-roots democracy, women’s rights and multiculturalism, in which Ocalan has played such a formative part, have also been pursued through constitutional politics.

However, even the predominantly-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), which keeps firmly within the legal framework, has faced constant harassment and violent physical attacks – and has seen most of its MPs and mayors arrested.

Attempts to realise some of these ideas within Eastern Turkey have been brutally crushed, but the political vacuum created by the Syrian civil war allowed the development of autonomous control in predominantly-Kurdish Northern Syria, and the establishment of a society that has lessons for us all. The area came under attack from Daesh, but was able to turn the tide of the advance.

Now they are under constant threat from Turkey, which invaded the formerly peaceful canton of Afrin early last year and wants to drive every Kurd from the region.

This hunger strike is taking place at a time of rising Turkish oppression both within Turkey and across its borders.

For suggested actions in support of the hunger strikers, see