THERE are now more than 7000 Kurds on hunger strike, though you won’t read about this in the papers. Most are political prisoners in Turkish jails, where their protest actions are met by a harshening of the prison regime, but there are individuals and groups in many of the places where Kurds have settled, including Wales and London.

We would expect this news to be suppressed in Turkey, where hundreds of journalists have been arrested and thousands have been removed from their jobs, but the way the rest of the world has been kept in the dark is as alarming as it is depressing. The Welsh Assembly opened up a chink of light on Wednesday when they voted to support the hunger strikers, but Wales is the first nation to do this.

While every hunger striker is ready to die for the cause of a better world, as envisioned by Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, the demand at the centre of their strike is a modest first step that could realistically be met.

All they ask is that Ocalan, who has spent the past 20 years in a Turkish island prison, be allowed regular visits from his family and his lawyers, in line with international human rights laws and Turkey’s own constitution. This is unlikely to happen without external pressure on Turkey, which is why 14 hunger strikers have based themselves in Strasbourg, the home of the Council of Europe, of which Turkey is a member.

Last weekend I made my third visit to the Strasbourg hunger strikers, who on Tuesday will have been 100 days without food. I admit that my motives for going are personal as well as political – my friend, Kardo Bokanî, is one of the 14 – but if I harboured doubts over the value of my international visits, the welcome that I received soon blew them away.

The cause goes on, and support is needed now more than ever. I admit, too, that visiting people of such integrity and commitment is hugely inspiring. Their physical strength may be waning, but they impart mental strength to all who meet them.

Three weeks on from my last visit, the health of the hunger strikers was visibly diminished. They no longer held court to visiting delegations in front of the Ocalan banner. Instead, visitors were allowed through into their makeshift dormitory rooms. Most of their time is spent in bed, apart from some slow and painful walks round the front courtyard, and, for the smokers, cigarette breaks.

I found Kardo hidden behind thick curtains as light on his eyes was causing him severe pain. The glasses that had given him some relief three weeks earlier were no longer enough.

My academic friend was unable to read and was joking with his comrades that he would have to become a revolutionary bard – though, as he said, his singing might serve to put people off. I have since heard the welcome news that an eye specialist has discovered no serious damage, but other health problems are life-threatening, or could cause long-term harm when – if – the hunger strike ends. As Yuksel Koç put it, “most of us have different health problems but our morale is very high”.

This time I was able to talk at length both with Yuksel and with Mustafa Sarikaya – or rather listen, as they were so keen to talk that they hardly stopped for me to ask questions. Yuksel had been taken by ambulance for specialist investigation not long after my first visit. He is very visibly weaker and spoke to me from his bed. When I observed that he was still smiling, he told me cheerfully that he would be smiling to the end. Mustafa looked gaunter than I remembered, but preferred to sit in a side room where he could chain smoke as he talked. Both wanted to praise Ocalan’s philosophy – with its commitment to women’s rights, democracy, multiculturalism and ecology – and to describe how Ocalan and the movement he leads have enabled millions of Kurds to resist Turkish attempts at humiliation and assimilation.

Ocalan helped them discover pride in their own culture – or, as we might say in Scotland, reject the Kurdish cringe. Yuksel described how, when he was young, they would strive to be better Turks than the Turks themselves, and he recounted how his cousin was adamant that she would not get married according to Kurdish ritual, until Kurdish guerrillas visited her village and taught her not to be ashamed to be a Kurd.

The first hunger strike for Kurdish liberation was undertaken by political prisoners in 1982.

Four men died in that protest, and many more have died in subsequent hunger strikes, but these pivotal events have galvanised the wider Kurdish community. This time too, as Kardo observed, their action has the important, unspoken wider aim of strengthening the Kurdish movement.

Ocalan has made many attempts to negotiate a peaceful settlement for the Kurds in Turkey and is seen as key to a peaceful future in Turkey and beyond.

As Mustafa put it, ending Ocalan’s isolation would remove the block on progress. Behind the scenes, people are working hard to try to put pressure on Turkey to respond to the hunger strikers’ demands, but for international governments to act they need to feel pressure from below.

Yuksel explained that they chose to go on hunger strike so as to touch people’s hearts and to encourage them to action in support of a struggle that is for everyone who wants to see peace, love and freedom. We don’t have much time. Every night, Agit Ural, the oldest of the Strasbourg hunger strikers, gets a call from his six-year-old daughter. She used to ask him how he was. Now she asks if he is still alive.

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