Samu (left) with the author
A few years ago, Chevron Oil bought up two million acres of land in Romania for a new fracking operation. Unsurprisingly, there's been a lot of opposition to the plans, notably in Pungeşti – a small village standing directly in the way of Chevron's shale gas enterprise, which, last year, hosted 600 farmers forming a human chain in a bid to stop the company's bulldozers from destroying their land.
The Romanian government, again unsurprisingly, are on Chevron's side, and have helped the company commit a number of abuses against Pungeşti in order to make sure the fracking operation goes ahead. The main abuse of power was declaring the village a "special public safety risk area" for the indefinite future, which basically means that no one can get in, other than Chevron employees, without being checked by the police first. Villagers can't even feed their cows without showing some form of ID.
In protest against both the fracking itself and Chevron using Romania's police as its own private enforcers, a 45-year-old man called Alexandru Popescu (or "Sandu" to his friends) went on hunger strike in front of Bucharest's National Theatre. His self-starvation started on the 21st of December and ended after 22 days. Thirteen farmers from Pungeşti also joined him in solidarity for a while, but they were sent home by riot police.
Considering the situation in Pungeşti has upset a lot of people here and abroad, I decided to join Sandu for a day on his hunger strike to see exactly what it takes to raise public awareness. I learned a few things that day, which I've converted into handy tips and compiled here in case you ever feel like going on your own hunger strike in a very cold country. You're welcome.
WRAP UP WARM
￼The day I chose to spend with Sandu was the 26th of December. It was two degrees. Because I was afraid of getting hypothermia, I looked like a walking beer barrel, swaddled in a wool cap, mittens, a shirt, a tracksuit, two wool sweaters, two pairs of trousers, three pairs of socks, a pair of boots and a winter jacket.
Sandu looked like he was ready for an avalanche, wrapped up in two ski jackets that he left unzipped so everyone could see his Save Roşia Montană T-shirt. The T-shirt refers to another region of Romania that's being destroyed for its natural resources (gold, in this case). Last autumn, Sandu travelled to Bucharest every other day to join the protests against mining in the Roşia Montană region .
The only moments I actually froze were when I peed. We used the toilet in the subway during the day, but at night the bushes around the National Theatre had to suffice. The main downside was the lack of toilet paper, but that was mostly OK considering I hadn't eaten anything.
If you have any friends, have them bring you bottles of hot water to put in your sleeping bag. And if the sun shows up, get all up in its rays and soak up all that goodness. Sandu would always sit against the wind with his eyes closed to absorb every beam, which you could also try.
MAKE YOURSELF AT HOME
Samu's Christmas tree and banners showing his demands
￼There were two police officers watching Sandu at all times. They forbade him from setting up a tent because they wouldn't be able to watch him while he was inside. They also feared that, out of sight, he might decide to self-immolate – possibly the only form of protest more extreme than starving yourself. Besides those more practical concerns, he also didn't have permission to erect a structure on public property.
"If they want me to show them that I can resist under the clear skies, then so be it. Everyone is welcome here – have a seat," he told me when I first arrived.
He had set up a sort of a living room on the stairs near the theatre, with chairs, wool blankets and his sleeping bag. He even had a tree, given to him on Christmas Eve by a supporter, that had "tree of national unity" scrawled over it. "Did you see what they wrote on it?" he kept asking me, proudly. He also often received bags filled with bottles or thermoses of hot tea as gifts.
I set up my sleeping bag and blanket one step under Sandu, just so I could hear him snore. With my backpack as a pillow, I read until 3AM, then slept until the morning. I didn't have the best night's sleep, because weirdly it's quite hard to doze off while you're lying on a freezing cold marble step in the middle of a city centre.
BE FAT BEFORE YOU START
Since he started striking (16 days before I arrived), Sandu had only consumed 60 litres of sugarless tea, and lost seven kilos as a result. He called an ambulance once every few days and they were obliged to come and check his pulse, blood pressure and blood sugar. He felt OK for most of the protest, but said he would have refused the hospital’s help anyway, even turning down the vitamins they offered him. "I'm on a hunger strike – I won't do that," he said.
I suppose the 24 hours I spent with Sandu weren't really enough to feel the hunger pangs too badly. My stomach growled a little, but no worse than it has done countless times before on public transport or while I'm sitting in a very silent room full of strangers. I drank a lot of hot sugarless tea because my physician had told me that sweets accelerate your metabolism and make you highly aware of the fact your stomach has nothing in it. This leads to acidosis, which in turn leads to much nastier stuff, like comas or death – two things you want to try and avoid.
So it helps if you're already on the chubby side when you start your hunger strike. I mean, I'm no doctor, but I'm guessing the insulation and extra weight to shed before your body is running completely on empty come in handy somewhere along the way.
CHAT TO PASSERS-BY, THEY'LL KEEP YOUR SPIRITS UP
￼Sandu was visited by hundreds of people. "I have many friends who support me – that's all I need," he said. "They give me the energy to keep going."
While I sat with him, about 50 people came to visit. One guy brought him a candlestick holder so he could decorate his new home. Some other guy offered him cash, but Sandu refused ("We're not beggars – I'm on the street to regain my dignity, not lose it").
Unlike those in Pungeşti, the Bucharest cops were actually pretty friendly. They asked if we wanted any tea and ensured us that they would offer their help if we needed it. Which, after listening to Sandu's stories, was a very welcome promise. The night before I'd joined him, Sandu had a visit from a homeless person: "I don't know if it was a man or a woman, but the person sang to me all night, cursed me and said they would throw rocks," he recalled.
I also got my own brief taste of some of the more undesirable passers-by. One guy yelled: "So you think you're smart because you're reading?" Which was kind of bizarre, but I'm guessing his anger stemmed from somewhere other than a hatred for people who read books in public. Someone else asked me for a cigarette, and I made the mistake of giving him one. By way of a thank you, he told me about his son, who wasn't allowed to build an orthodox cathedral in America, complained about how shitty Romania's football team is and thought out loud about how he wished Romania would become a monarchy again.
Conversations like that can be kind of energy sapping when you haven’t eaten anything all day – or, in Sandu's case, 22 days – but it's clear that, in order to have others take notice of your protest, you have to do it in the middle of a large city, surrounded by the kind of people who want to have those conversations.
Banners also help, to an extent. Sandu explained that "50 percent of people who pass by" actually read his signs. "After they understand, most of them look the other way in shame, but some stop to talk to me."
MAKE SURE YOU'RE MENTALLY PREPARED
A weak-minded person couldn't handle a hunger strike for any longer than a day; you need a strong psyche to get past the starving stomach and the cold. My doctor told me that determination and willpower are the decisive factors in a hunger strike, and it seems that Sandu has plenty of both.
"I was in Pungeşti when I made this decision. I saw how human rights were being violated there," he said. "I think it's worth enduring something like this for the mistakes of your generation, and I'm trying to send out an alarm to people who see me.
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I don't think I could have handled the hunger strike for more than a few days; I was exhausted by the end, and I'd only been there 24 hours.
I visited Sandu again at the beginning of January. He was cheerful, but visibly weaker than when I'd spent the day with him. What hadn't changed one bit was his determination; I asked him if he was afraid of dying, and he replied: "I don't think about that – I guess we all die at some point. I don't care what happens to me; my message is important."
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