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
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Hunger strikes have been a recurring news story in 2017. Among many high-profile cases, perhaps, the most notable is the ongoing strike of Guantánamo prisoners Khalid Qasim and Ahmed Rabbini. The prisoners have now refused food since the September 20. Both have been imprisoned for the past 15 years without charge.
The nonviolent protest of fasting has its roots in pre-Christian Ireland—there are legends of St. Patrick using hunger strikes—as well as ancient India, with reports documented between 400 to 750 BC. It's a form of protest that takes in the suffragettes, Irish Republicans, Gandhi, and Cuban dissidents. But what is it 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: Why did you go on your hunger strike?
Lateef Johar Baloch: I started my hunger strike on April 22, 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 March 18, 2014, in front of dozens of eyewitnesses. He still remains "missing."
So the hope was to raise awareness?
The purpose of the hunger strike was to get the attention of the media—both international and domestic—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; very disturbing figures have been confirmed by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other groups.
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 high. The area has been hit hard 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 many forms of protests, including token hunger strikes, shutter down strikes, public demonstrations, rallies, and long marches demanding immediate stoppage of human rights abuse. 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 a hunger strike until 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 first few days, I felt extremely hungry and had severe stomach aches. Sometime during the second week, the feeling of hunger subsided and I had 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 in, I would go unconscious every three to four hours, and after that, I would respond very aggressively to whoever was speaking to me. I had a lot of breathing difficulties in the last days. I suffered severe bleeding in my stool when I used the bathroom. I lost all energy in my body. I couldn't hear properly. I always had a severe headache. I couldn't sleep throughout the night. The only thing I did not fear was death.
I lost more than 53 pounds. I had no muscles. There was only a skeleton left.
I’m pleased you stopped.
I ended my strike after 46 days without food on June 6, 2014, after the request of relatives of the victims, human rights campaigners, friends, and politicians in Balochistan. They intervened to stop me from dying in front of a brutal and deaf state that Pakistan is.
Through your health have you felt after effects resulting from the strike?
Yes, the hunger strike not only left long-lasting physical effects, but also mental. 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 I ate a small piece of bread one day, it resulted in unbearable pain for days. I still can't concentrate on my studies properly. I get tired very easily. I forget things and can't memorize 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 in highlighting my hunger strike. My strike 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?
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 many are still quiet about 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 organization] 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.