WHEN STAR­VA­TION IS A WEAPON

Sunday Tribune - - NEWS&VIEWS - Sunny Singh

THIS week, a num­ber of our cab­i­net min­is­ters showed their sol­i­dar­ity with the Pales­tinian po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers who are cur­rently on Day 35 of a hunger strike in Israeli jails. For 24 hours, our Deputy Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa and a num­ber of other min­is­ters en­gaged in a sym­bolic hunger strike in sup­port of the de­mands of the Pales­tinian po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers.

A num­ber of min­is­ters stated pub­licly that the Pales­tinian strug­gle was en­tirely rem­i­nis­cent of the strug­gle against the apartheid state, and against apartheid prison con­di­tions in our own coun­try.

Health Min­is­ter Aaron Mot­saoledi ex­pressed con­cern about the dam­age to the in­ter­nal or­gans of the Pales­tinian pris­on­ers, and the pos­si­bil­ity that many of the 1 100 hunger strik­ers may die.

Winnie Man­dela also ex­pressed sol­i­dar­ity with the moth­ers of those jailed who sit in an­guish as their sons wither away. Ebrahim Is­mail Ebrahim, who was with me on Robben Is­land, has spo­ken of the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the tor­ture he was sub­jected to in the late 1980s, and that be­ing ex­acted on Mar­wan Bargh­outi.

The Israeli author­i­ties are sub­ject­ing Bargh­outi to sharp and con­stant noise daily for hours on end, which is a tried-andtested tor­ture method of sen­sory de­pri­va­tion.

Ebrahim was also sub­jected to such men­tal tor­ture in John Vorster Square, which desta­bilises a per­son’s ner­vous sys­tem to the point they can no longer sit or sleep.

The strug­gle of the Pales­tinian po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers is one against soli­tary con­fine­ment, abuse by prison of­fi­cials, a lack of ad­e­quate med­i­cal care, and for the right to vis­its from fam­ily mem­bers.

These are the very same de­mands that we as po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers on Robben Is­land made to the apartheid prison author­i­ties. This has prompted me to speak out against what is hap­pen­ing to the Pales­tinian po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in Is­rael.

The apartheid state used its pris­ons in a very men­ac­ing man­ner to take away the fun­da­men­tal rights of pris­on­ers, which are en­shrined in the Geneva Con­ven­tion.

For us on Robben Is­land in the early 1960s, there was a strug­gle for ev­ery imag­in­able thing – against abuse, and for cloth­ing, blan­kets, medicine, vis­its – but, most im­por­tantly, it was a con­stant strug­gle for food.

The 1949 Geneva Con­ven­tion says in ar­ti­cle 26 that the ba­sic food ra­tions for pris­on­ers shall be suf­fi­cient in quan­tity, qual­ity and va­ri­ety to keep pris­on­ers in good health and to pre­vent loss of weight or the de­vel­op­ment of nu­tri­tional de­fi­cien­cies. Ac­count shall also be taken of the ha­bit­ual diet of the pris­on­ers.

But with­out fail, as po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers we were left hun­gry, if not starv­ing.

The author­i­ties used their so-called reg­u­la­tions to dis­crim­i­nate and hu­mil­i­ate pris­on­ers, by even grad­ing black pris­on­ers.

As many who have vis­ited Robben Is­land will know, the African pris­on­ers were graded “F Diet” and the coloured and South Africans of In­dian origin were graded as “D Diet.”

If you had F Diet you had the worst deal as it con­sisted of break­fast por­ridge with soup, mealies and a drink called phuza­mandla for lunch, and din­ner was again por­ridge with very old veg­eta­bles, and only twice a week, 2oz of beef was in­cluded.

D diet was only slightly bet­ter with por­ridge with black cof­fee for break­fast, meilie rice with veg­eta­bles for lunch, and a quar­ter loaf of brown bread for din­ner.

The veg­eta­bles and meat were bought in bulk quan­ti­ties, and so by the time it was cooked and served, the meat be­came green or blue in colour and ut­terly taste­less. We had no choice but to eat it in or­der to sur­vive.

The D diet pris­on­ers usu­ally shared their bread with the African pris­on­ers.

The Red Cross from Geneva vis­ited the is­land on a few oc­ca­sions, and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the pris­on­ers would out­line their griev­ances such as in­ad­e­quate and poor-qual­ity food, lack of fam­ily vis­its and the like. The Red Cross never seemed to take the griev­ances se­ri­ously, which made us quite sus­pi­cious. It took a year or two for the diet to marginally im­prove when chicken was in­tro­duced once a week, which was con­sid­ered a vic­tory.

But to im­prove the quan­tity and qual­ity of our food in any mean­ing­ful way, we were forced to en­gage in hunger strikes as the most peace­ful means to fight for our rights as pris­on­ers.

In or­der to main­tain sol­i­dar­ity among pris­on­ers on hunger strike, we en­forced strict dis­ci­pline so that no one should break the strike no mat­ter how weak or hun­gry they be­came. The hunger strikes were al­ways suc­cess­ful and never lasted more than a week be­fore the prison author­i­ties ad­dressed our griev­ances.

We were still forced to sup­ple­ment our level of pro­tein through other means. Not far from the stone quarry where we worked chip­ping stones dur­ing the day, there were bushes full of game such as rab­bits, guinea fowl and par­tridges.

One com­rade found fish­ing line on the shore and set up a trap along the barbed wire fences and threw mealies there to at­tract the game. In that way we were some­times able to catch rab­bits and guinea fowl, which would then be cooked over the black­smith’s fire­place.

The prison author­i­ties did even­tu­ally catch us, and put an end to this source of pro­tein. But these were some of the clan­des­tine meth­ods we used to sur­vive the harsh con­di­tions.

The strug­gle for food may not be the main griev­ance of the Pales­tinian po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers to­day, but their griev­ances are per­haps even more im­me­di­ate.

We were beaten by our cap­tors, but never ex­pe­ri­enced the type of abuse and tor­ture that some of the Pales­tinian pris­on­ers com­plain of.

It was rare that we were put in soli­tary con­fine­ment, but this seems com­mon­place in Israeli jails.

De­mands for fam­ily vis­its and ad­e­quate medicine are the same de­mands we made over many years to the apartheid prison ser­vice. At the end of the day, if we were ig­nored, the only thing we could re­sort to was the hunger strike.

For so many Pales­tinian pris­on­ers to have en­gaged in a pro­tracted hunger strike of well more than a month means they are not only res­o­lute, but they are des­per­ate.

It is time the Israeli gov­ern­ment and the world lis­tened to their de­mands. At the end of the day, even po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers have ba­sic hu­man rights.

My mes­sage to the Pales­tinian pris­on­ers is – don’t let the author­i­ties break your spirit, it is a hard and painful strug­gle, but your fight is for the most ba­sic of hu­man rights, and that is some­thing worth fight­ing for.

Sunny Singh is a for­mer Robben Is­land po­lit­i­cal pris­oner who was on the Is­land from 1964-1974.

Pales­tinian ac­tivists stand around a mo­saic por­trait of Mar­wan Bargh­outi near an Israeli mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tion in the West Bank city of Ra­mal­lah. Pic­ture: AP

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