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Opinion Meeting the Kurdish hunger strikers in Strasbourg has restored my faith in humanity

SARAH GLYNN of Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan travelled to France to witness extraordinary acts of solidarity

CONSTANT reports on the insurgent and brazen far right, alternating with stories of personal nastiness and bullying, can tempt us to believe the claim that human nature is naturally selfish, and to retreat from activity. But a glimpse into another way of being reminds us that we have a choice.

For me, as for many others from different parts of the world, the Kurdish movement has opened up that positive vision. Of course, we see many acts of individual empathy and support all around us, but our capitalist world builds on and promotes selfishness and competition. In a system that promotes social solidarity and mutual support, people rise to the challenge, and this can become the norm.

All familiar stuff to readers of this paper, but it is rare that one gets the opportunity to experience what level of selflessness human beings are capable of. I was hit by this in the cemeteries of Kurdish fighters in Northern Syria, and now I have been hit again in the Kurdish Community Centre in Strasbourg.

I have visited them twice, and whenever I look up the Kurdish news sites, I am fearful of the latest report on their health. The 14 Strasbourg hunger strikers — along with Imam Sis in Wales — reached their 70th day without food on Sunday. This campaign of hunger strikes, which now includes over 300 people, most of them political prisoners in Turkish prisons, was begun by imprisoned Kurdish MP, Leyla Guven, who stopped taking food on November 7.

The hunger strikers’ demand is modest. All they ask is that Turkey end the isolation of imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and allow visits from his family and his lawyer. Isolation is counter to international law on human rights, where it is regarded as a form of torture. It is also against the Turkish constitution.

The hunger strikers in Strasbourg are specifically calling on the Council of Europe, of which Turkey is a member, to fulfil the role it was set up for.

In particular, they are demanding action from the European Court of Human Rights and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture. Fine words are not enough. They explain that they have exhausted all other avenues to persuade these institutions to do their duty.

The fact that they feel the need to put their own lives on the line to back up their demands is a measure of the world’s failure to look and to act when that action doesn’t serve the vested interests of those in power.

Despite, or rather because of, the immensity of what they are doing, the building where the hunger strikers are staying is a joyful place.

When I first visited, four weeks ago, together with Fiona Napier from Aberdeen Trades Council, we couldn’t but be struck by the smiles all around us. I wondered if I would still see those smiles when I went back, but they were as strong as ever, although some of those smiling were visibly much weaker. I have read the doctor’s briefings, with their growing lists of symptoms, but the hunger strikers themselves choose to stress their strengthening morale. That morale is palpable. It is a morale that comes from conviction that their action is in the service of a greater cause.

The Kurds have a long history of hunger strikes — including many deaths. One of the hunger strikers is a young political philosopher and full-time activist whom I first met in Syria. Kardo Bokani told me, “Don’t worry about us. We are the students of Kemal Pir School. 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.’”

That is a difficult message to hear from a friend.

Yuksel Koc, co-chair of the Kurdish Democratic Society Congress-Europe, used similar arguments as he hugged his tearful daughter. He told us that he said to her that she shouldn’t cry because what he was doing would save future generations from crying, and that if he died, she should try to be happy. When I first met Yuksel his energy seemed to match his passion, but he seems to be physically shrinking — apart from that smile. He is one of several hunger strikers who has had to pay an emergency visit to the hospital, but their determination remains unbowed.

It can be hard for an outsider to understand how their hopes are so intimately linked to the fate of one man. Ocalan is more than an inspirational leader: he has come to symbolise the spirit of Kurdish resistance, so that his incarceration and isolation has become both a stab in the heart and a call to action for millions.

This reverence is inspired not just by Ocalan’s 40 years of political leadership (half of them from his Turkish prison cell), but by his contribution to the ideology of the Kurdish cause, democratic confederalism  – also known as “Apoism,” a reference to his movement nickname Apo – uncle.

This vision of a better future expounded in his prison writings has been the inspiration behind the revolutionary social movement that has turned Rojava, the predominantly Kurdish areas in northern Syria, into a beacon of hope for us all.

Similar changes were being attempted in eastern Turkey, until brutally crushed by Turkish forces.

Ocalan stands for grassroots democracy, where communes and assemblies meet at every level of society, a multicultural vision that guarantees representation and therefore protection for all religions and ethnicities, and most importantly and visibly, the rights of women: the Apoist and Apoist-influenced movements, from the HDP to the the PYD, from the PKK to the YPG, demand that women be represented as close to 50 per cent as possible – and there is never one leader, but “co-chairs” – one woman and one man.

He is seen as key to the peaceful future that Kurds long for and that he has been working for throughout his incarceration. With millions of Kurds recognising him as their leader, Ocalan can ensure a peace agreement becomes a reality, if and when Turkey is ready to talk.

Writing about the hunger strikers, I find myself using words that are more commonly associated with religion, but the faith that unites and inspires them is the belief in the possibility of a better future here on earth. Meeting people so dedicated to bringing about that better future was truly inspiring.

Coming to terms with the reality that some of them may not survive to see and contribute to any future is very hard indeed. Difficult though it is, I know I must respect their choice of action, which was freely and gladly given. It is our role to try and ensure that their action is noticed and is not in vain.

If you want to support of the hunger strikers, please check out our list of suggestions at mstar.link/HungerStrikeSupport.

You can see our recorded interviews with Kardo Bokanî and with Dilek Öcalan, Abdullah Öcalan’s niece who is one of the Strasbourg hunger strikers, at mstar.link/StrasbourgInterview.

Sarah Glynn is a committee member of Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan.

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