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Is the Man Fasting for 55 Days over the Armenian Genocide Risking His Life?

Even though California resident Agasi Vartanyan is experienced at hunger striking and doctors are keeping tabs on him, there's some danger in going almost two months without food.

A memorial in California marking the 94th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in 2009. Photo via Flickr user Arev G

On April 4, Agasi Vartanyan of Glendale, California, started what he intends to be a 55-day fast in hopes of pressuring the American and Turkish governments to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide as a genocide. Ever since, he's been living in a roughly 12-foot-by-12-foot enclosure with a glass viewing window for passersby out front of Burbank's St. Leon Armenian Cathedral. It's equipped with a cot, TV, clothes, and images of purple forget-me-not flowers, the symbol used by the Armenian diaspora to commemorate this year's centennial of the mass killing.

Most nations, including Turkey, acknowledge that from 1915 to 1923, during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, nationalistic Turks committed a series of brutal forced relocations of Christian citizens, including Armenians, Assyrians, and Pontic Greeks. Accused of collaborating with the Ottomans' foe, Russia, during World War I, these poor souls were labeled enemies of the state. However, only two dozen countries (and 43 US states) officially label this event a "genocide." Those who've hesitated to apply the term here usually point out that it's hard to pin down whether Ottoman Turks intended to eliminate their Armenian population. The Turkish government insists today that while what happened was a tragedy, it's been overhyped (it claims commonly cited death tolls of 1.5 million are inflated), as there was no intention of outright extermination.

To date Vartanyan's fast has drawn only limited media attention. But the occasional reports by Armenian and local Californian outlets show that this protest starvation is having a significant effect on his body. When Vartanyan entered his enclosure, the 55-year-old man (he chose a 55-day fast both to beat his personal record—a 50-day fast he says he conducted while living in Russia—and to represent his age) weighed 224 pounds. But after only 28 days of eating nothing (and drinking a gallon of water a day), he'd already lost nearly 40 pounds.

Vartanyan—who's being regularly monitored by a nurse and physician so long as he remains on his fast—has stayed upbeat with reporters.

"I can't comment on what Turkey or President Obama are doing," ArmRadio quoted him as saying one month into his protest, "but I can talk about my efforts, which I won't stop."

"You cannot harm your body in this way," he told the Los Angeles Daily News earlier in his strike, "if you're doing it for a cause."

But Vatanyan is taking a risk by protesting in this way. Quite a few people have died while on principled hunger strikes in the past. Yet just how long one can go on fasting before the human body starts to shut down is surprisingly tricky to establish. After all, it's no simple matter to assess the conditions in which people starve without simultaneous dehydration—which will kill you in under 20 days—or other environmental stressors or health conditions. And there's a lot of variability in how long a body can go without food based on general health, genetics, and weight. Apocryphal accounts of years-long fasts aside, we know of cases where hunger strikers made it up to 73 days before they died—but we also know of incidents where people died in just over 40 days.

To get a grip on just what such a lengthy hunger strike is doing to Vartanyan's body, I reached out to Dr. David L. Katz, the director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, and a nutrition specialist. Upon hearing the details of Vartanyan's case, Katz told VICE that the activist is currently undergoing a process called catabolism, in which his body will break down its own fat and muscle tissue to provide itself with energy. At this stage of starvation, your metabolism slows down as your body shuts down less essential bodily functions. Vartanyan will especially be suffering from decreased immune system functionality, fertility, and gastro-intestinal activity.

Catabolism, once the non-vital tissues are eaten away, can begin to take its toll on progressively more important bodily materials, eventually leading to permanent or lethal damage. First, the body will start to lose bone density and there will be observable bruising. But eventually this internal auto-cannibalism will start to go after vital organs as well, doing major damage.

"[Serious damage] can result when the body leaches proteins from vital organs, such as the heart," says Katz. "That can produce fatal dysrhythmia."

Katz suspects that the absolute longest such a fast could go would be three months (much longer than Vartanyan has planned), but adds that this is highly dependent on how much non-vital body mass his body has to break down. However, Vartanyan is not yet displaying telltale signs of immediate distress. Nor does he appear to be anywhere near the 60- to 80-pound (or 12-to-12.5 body mass index) danger zone past which anorexia sufferers often start to suffer lethal organ failure and heart attacks. So Vartanyan will probably make it out of this hunger strike looking a good deal slimmer than he did at the start and perhaps with some bruising, but mostly sound of mind and likely capable of making a complete recovery.

Whether Vartanyan's fast ends in illness or silent completion, neither outcome is likely to have an impact on policymakers or diplomats in Turkey or the US. Many protests, some of them violent, have preceded his solitary vigil—and nothing has yet persuaded the two countries to change their minds.

"The hunger strike is a powerful weapon under the right circumstances," Ronald Grigor Suny, a historian at the University of Michigan and author of "They Can Live in The Desert But Nowhere Else": A History of the Armenian Genocide , tells VICE. "But I cannot envision political leaders reacting in this case. There have been demonstrations, terrorist events, and still no reaction that has led to recognition."

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