NCRM South West | 12.06.2002 08:13
by Neil Young 11th June 2002
On Thursday at 10am seven Iraqi Kurds went on hunger strike in Plymouth to try to get the Home Office to consider their applications for asylum. Several of the asylum seekers, who fled the horrors of Saddam Hussein's regime, have been in England for two to three years but still have not had a response. Now, they say, they are prepared to die for recognition of their human rights.
They are huddled together in sleeping bags in the back of a mini-bus outside the immigration office in Plymouth - seven Iraqi Kurds who, even as I write, are experiencing the ravages of hunger on their bodies and minds. Worsening headaches, muscle pains, disorientation, and despair as the body slowly, gradually, starts to shut down.THEY are huddled together in sleeping bags in the back of a mini-bus outside the immigration office in Plymouth - seven Iraqi Kurds who, even as I write, are experiencing the ravages of hunger on their bodies and minds. Worsening headaches, muscle pains, disorientation, and despair as the body slowly, gradually, starts to shut down.
This morning, if they have not heard from the Home Office, they say they will stop taking fluids. Then, it is anyone's guess as to hours, days or weeks before the first of them will have starved himself to death in protest for his basic human rights on the streets of a modern British city. It may already have happened.
Spend a few hours just listening to these men and you walk away with an aching heart. They are grateful to anyone who will listen to their stories - such terrible stories. Twenty-three-year-old Nazim Karem has an arm laced with shrapnel from a bomb blast suffered when he fought with the Kurds against Saddam's troops. The lumps are barely visible at first look. But touch his left arm and they are solid beneath the skin. He arrived at Dover last November desperate for medical attention. More than six months on, he has still not had an operation. He says it is because, as an asylum seeker - not even granted the precious title of "refugee" - he has no status; he is told he must wait.
Twenty-eight-year-old Ferhat Ali tells of a different anguish. "I want to live in peace, to be free. All people need to be free and we're the same," he says in broken English. Ferhat worked as a draughtsman in a gasworks in Kurdish Iraq. His father was shot dead in the street. He is vague as to how he arrived in England. "First to Turkey and then - I don't know, I had no maps. By train, by bus, or car, people helped me. I did not know where I would get out." He arrived in Dover over two years ago and was "dispersed", like the others, to live in various parts of Plymouth. Ferhat says he wants to study at college; he hopes one day to be an artist.
On Sunday night when I spoke to him he was already suffering muscle pains. Yesterday, there were headaches too. They came and went in waves. But still he smiles. There is something humbling about Ferhat. He smiles, speaks quietly and politely. He does not want much. "All I want is for the Home Office to reply. It has been so long. If we are sent home we'll be killed by Saddam. But this - how can we live like this, never knowing?"
On Sunday afternoon Isa Mala, 26, was rushed to Derriford Hospital after collapsing. Isa has had heart operations in the past. He was asked, he says, to stay in hospital until Tuesday. He was told what might happen if he did not start taking solids. But he insisted on returning to the hunger strike.
Yesterday, Isa was visibly in pain. But his will had not weakened. Today he would stop taking water or tea. "What is there left for us? I am waiting and waiting. I have had physical torture but this is a torture in the mind. I cannot even speak to my family on the phone. I'm afraid that Saddam's police might listen then kill them. I don't know if I will ever see my family again."
The seven men mark up the hours of their hunger strike on a banner draped across the ITV Digital centre. Mere numbers but here they mark out desperation and pain. Twenty-four hours from 10am Thursday to 10am Friday. Then 48 hours, 72 hours... This is a scene of striking contrasts. Down the road is Sippers wine bar; behind us a modern office complex. People stroll past to and from the city centre, booking tickets for the Pavilions, or on their lunchbreaks. And here by the pavement is a small and battered mini-bus which could be a death-bed. Here they wait for word from the Home Office that recognises their existence, that offers a date when they might be interviewed, for life or death.
Then there are the other passers-by. A round-the-clock rota has had to be set up to protect them from attack. On Sunday night, as the pubs turned out, I watched as another car sped by and a woman stretched out of the window screaming racist abuse. Yesterday morning three youths pulled up at the kerb for the third time to laugh and sneer: "Do you know the way to McDonald's?" And this is the mild stuff. The police arrive and are sympathetic. Take the car registration numbers, they say, and we'll do the rest.
Another visitor has arrived after seeing the men's story on the news. He is an Iranian doctor, living in Plymouth. He has come to give free medical counselling. The doctor, who fears to be named, fled Iran three years ago as a dissident with his 16-year-old daughter. She died of a blood disease. Even this skilled professional - he taught at university, in community medicine and as a GP - is not allowed paid work. He can pay thousands of pounds to resit basic exams and be registered, but as an asylum seeker he has no money.
"Waiting is a kind of torture when you cannot plan for the future," he says.
Others have taken up the men's plight, determined that their sufferings should not be ignored. Ratna Lashman, of the National Civil Rights Movement, says: "This is a humanitarian issue. These men are wasting away. Why aren't the Plymouth MPs - David Jamieson and Linda Gilroy - taking up their cause? We have made numerous requests and they have done nothing. I think this is a dereliction of their duty."
Darius Bahiraey, an Iranian who is supporting the men, points to the urgency of the matter: "The Home Office must get its act together. We need an immediate response, otherwise the lives of innocent victims will be in jeopardy."
Tony Staunton, of the union UNISON, enlarges on the point. "These are men who suffered under Saddam's regime and have fought against Saddam. It is time the Government and the Home Office started to recognise the sufferings of Iraqi Kurds and treated them with humanity. It is terribly serious and important what is happening here. These men could die because they are voiceless and ignored."
Today at 10am the seven men - Isa Mala, 26, Nazim Karem, 23, Ferhat Ali, 28, Abdul Mahmoud, 24, Aniat Namek, 38, Maged Kamil, 32, and Karwan Karim, 28 - will have gone 120 hours without food.
I do not know how their condition - physical or mental - will have worsened when I return this morning. What will this day hold for them if that call has not come? On thirst as well as hunger strike, one tortuous hour then the next, slipping towards death in a mini-bus on a roadside on West Hoe as if they were invisible, as if their lives counted for naught. Can it really be happening?
NCRM South West