Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bahraini Hunger Striker Speaks of Motives

Activist says her protest was intended to draw attention to authorities’ crackdown and the fate of detained family members.
By Zainab Al-Khawaja
  • Zainab al-Khawaja went on a ten-day hunger strike to raise awareness of her government’s attempt to crush dissent.
    Zainab al-Khawaja went on a ten-day hunger strike to raise awareness of her government’s attempt to crush dissent.

I went on hunger strike to protest the arrest of my father, husband and brother-in-law by the security services here in Bahrain. They are still being held, but I broke my hunger strike on the tenth day. I didn’t expect it to be so hard. My body was not used to food and I found even drinking juice difficult at first. For several days I felt weak; I can’t walk more than a few steps without feeling dizzy.

But the biggest thing I hope I have achieved through this hunger strike was to get the story of Bahrain out into the world. My family members have not been released and their situation is still very difficult, though people outside have been shown what is going on here. I hope that eventually this will bring some change. It is so important that the world realises what is happening here and get angry enough to do something about us.

I get emails every day from people asking what they can do to help us and the people of Bahrain. Messages come from countries as far away as Holland, Ireland, the United States and Kenya. Lots of people say they are praying for us and the country. Just the other day I got an email from someone in the US who said they were willing to do anything in their power that could possibly help.

I told them that, in truth, the only ones who can change the situation are the US administration and the Bahraini regime. But because they live in democracies, people in the US and Europe have much more influence than we do here in Bahrain. They can go out and protest – we can’t do that here any more. And they take fewer risks by doing so. My father simply called for human rights here and look what has happened to him.

If people speak out it means a lot to us. Most important is for Americans to put pressure on the US administration to stop backing the dictatorship in Bahrain. I have never called for intervention and never will; I don’t want to see the US military on Bahraini soil – just for Washington to stop supporting the dictatorship here. Without US support, they would be very weak.

Two weeks ago my husband was finally allowed to phone his mother, and asked her to bring him some clothes to prison. My father-in-law stood in a queue in the prison for two hours, there were so many people waiting to hand over bags for detained relatives. And this wasn’t even to see them for a visit – simply to pass over some clothes to the prison guards. That gives you an idea of just how many political prisoners there are right now.

My father’s situation is worse than my husband’s because he was put in a military prison, and it seems they wanted to try him in a military court. I managed to speak to him once. I was so, so happy at first to hear his voice – but then I realised he could barely talk.

I think he had been badly beaten on his face because his voice was very weak. My father has been detained and beaten before but he always has remained cheerful and been more concerned about not worrying us. He would always say that everything was fine.

But this time, when I asked him how he was, he said only, “The oppression is great.” In Arabic, it has even more depth of meaning. There was so much pain in his voice. I asked him again what he meant and he simply repeated, “The oppression is great.” I assume there was someone standing next to him so he could say little more.

Then he told me his trial was the next day and asked me to send a lawyer to the military court as well as some clothes for him to wear to the trial. My father didn’t even know that my husband and brother-in-law had been arrested, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him. He asked about them and I said they were fine. He asked about my 18-month old daughter - I said she was fine too.

My sister went that morning to hand in the clothes at the prison, giving my father’s name, and they guards accepted them. Then a lawyer and a human rights activist turned up and were told that there was no-one of my father’s name at the prison. It was clearly a lie as the regime wants to keep its military trials secret. So we know the trial took place but we have no idea of its result.

Physically, I am recovering from the hunger strike, although very slowly, but, emotionally, this gets tougher and tougher. I hope that the price my family has to pay for the freedom of this country is not too great. I hope we will all be united again soon.

Zainab al-Khawaja is a 27-year-old mother-of-one from Manama.