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How I Felt After a 46-Day Hunger Strike

Lateef Johar Baloch ate nothing for a month-and-a-half to protest enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
Lateef during his hunger strike. Photo courtesy of Lateef Johar Baloch

Hunger strikes have been a recurring news story in 2017. Among many high profile cases, perhaps the most notable is the ongoing strike of Guantanamo prisoners Khalid Qasim and Ahmed Rabbini, who have now refused food since the 20th of September. Both have been imprisoned for the last 15 years without charge.

The non-violent protest of fasting has its roots in pre-Christian Ireland – there are legends of St Patrick using hunger strike – as well as ancient India, with reports documented between 400 to 750BC. It's a form of protest that takes in the Suffragettes, Irish republicans, Gandhi and Cuban dissidents. But what’s it's like to starve yourself for a cause, potentially to death?


I asked Human Rights activist and student, Lateef Johar Baloch.

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VICE: Hello Lateef. Why did you go on your hunger strike?
Lateef Johar Baloch: I started my hunger strike unto death on the 22nd of April, 2014. It was to highlight the issue of my friend Zahid Baloch's enforced disappearance by Pakistani security forces in Quetta, Balochistan. Zahid, a student leader, was picked up on the 18th of March, 2014 in front of dozens of eyewitnesses. He remains "missing" until this day.

So the hope was to raise awareness?
The purpose of the hunger strike unto death was to get the attention of the media and international bodies regarding the alarming situation of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of students, human rights workers and political activists in Balochistan by Pakistani security forces. The humanitarian situation in Balochistan is beyond appalling, with disturbing figures confirmed by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other rights bodies.

Why choose hunger strike as a form of protest?
I am a native of Awaran, one of the poorest and remote areas in Balochistan, where illiteracy and malnutrition rates are highest. The area has been worst hit by military operations conducted by Pakistani paramilitary forces targeting civilians. There is a media blackout in Balochistan. The Pakistani Army does not allow access to any international media to report on Balochistan. New York Times journalist Declan Walsh was asked to leave the country by authorities for his reporting on Balochistan.


So you needed something that really cut through?
On our part, we had practiced all sorts of protests, including token hunger strikes, shutter down strikes, public demonstrations, rallies and long marches demanding immediate stoppage of human rights abuses. It was not helping, and Pakistan continued targeting Baloch teachers, professors, academics, lawyers and others. Myself and colleagues were convinced that an extreme decision like hunger strike unto death was the only way to highlight these abuses.

"The only thing I did not fear was death."

So when you started your strike, what actually happened to you?
In the beginning days I felt extremely hungry and had severe stomach aches. Sometime during the second week the feeling of hunger eventually died and I went through extreme pain all over my body. The most unpleasant and unbearable pain I felt was in my bones. I couldn't sit down straight. I also couldn't concentrate and would get anxious when someone tried to have a conversation with me. Three weeks later I would get unconscious after every three to four hours, and after that I would respond very aggressively to whoever was speaking to me. I felt a lot of breathing difficulties in the last days. I suffered severe bleeding in my stool when I used the washroom. I lost all energy in my body. I couldn't hear properly. I always had a severe headache. I couldn't sleep throughout the strike. The only thing I did not fear was death.


I lost more than 26kg (53lb) of my body weight. There were no muscles. There was only a skeleton left.

I’m pleased you stopped.
I ended my strike after 46 days without food on the 6th of June, 2014, after the request of relatives of the victims, human rights campaigners and senior friends and politicians in Balochistan. They intervened to stop me from dying in front of a brutal and deaf state that Pakistan is.

Healthwise, have you felt aftereffects resulting from the strike?
Yes, the hunger strike not only left long-lasting physical effects, but also mental. I still feel many difficulties due to the strike. It affected my stomach, my memory and my sense of tolerance. I couldn't eat anything other than light food for two months after the strike. If one day I ate a small piece of bread, it resulted in unbearable pain for many days. I still cannot concentrate on my studies properly. I get tired very easily. I forget things and cannot memorise well.

What was the media response to the strike?
The media response was phenomenal. The strike was covered by many local and international media, including AFP, BBC World, Al Jazeera News, Pakistan's own Dawn News and many others. However, social media played the greatest role to highlight my hunger strike. It was all over Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites. During the strike I was told that there were people living in different parts of the world who were tweeting support day and night. It was very encouraging.

How successful do you feel the strike was in achieving what you set out to?
The strike got the attention of the world, and the issue of enforced disappearances in Balochistan also got recognition internationally. Many international bodies issued their concerns regarding enforced disappearances in Balochistan. But the practice of enforced disappearance and killings by Pakistani security forces continues, and international bodies are quiet on the issue. The most recent incidents of enforced disappearances are abductions of Baloch women and children from Quetta and Karachi. The Pakistan Army raided a house in Quetta, abducting three women, along with their children. The other recent happening was in Karachi. The Pakistani Rangers [a paramilitary law enforcement organisation] broke into three apartments and abducted a well-known human rights activist, Nawaz Atta, along with eight other teenage students. They are still missing. Our struggle to protest these brutalities is still going on. I will continue this for the rest of my life.

Follow Lateef at @LateefJohar