The Palestinian football player Mahmoud Sarsak walks freely in Gaza’s streets and alleys, breathing victory among the steadfast people of the Gaza Strip. He acquired his strength to hunger for 96 days from Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Gandhi’s promise came true, and Mahmoud actually won the battle of empty stomachs. Read my account of visiting Mahmoud Sarsak after his release.
Mahmoud was released from the Ramla Hospital Prison on July 10 after he revealed Israel’s crimes against humanity and made it submit to his demands. But his happiness remained incomplete. His thoughts are still in a place he described as “a hospital for torture, not for treatment,” with his comrades he left there, especially Akram Rikhawi, Palestine’s longest hunger striker in history.
About 6:00 pm on Thursday, the 99th day of Akram Rikhawi’s hunger strike, I saw a tweet: “Help us in spreading the truth about Prisoner Akram Rikhawi who might die at any moment #PalHunger”. As I read it, I felt anger at the world’s silence. I called Mahmoud Sarsak to ask for Akram Rikkawi’s home address. He kindly answered, saying, “Come to Rafah and I’ll take you there.”
Excited, I called some friends to join me, quickly got ready, and hurried to Rafah. The one-hour drive to Rafah felt like it took ages. We arrived there around 8:30 to find Mahmoud waiting. “Is it too late already to visit Akram’s family?” I asked him. He shook his head and said, “Their part of Rafah camp is filled with Yibna refugees. They stay up very late, especially Akram’s family. I don’t think they ever sleep!”
Before Mahmoud’s release, the Israeli Prison Service sent him to Akram to pressure him to break his hunger strike. Mahmoud took it as an opportunity to meet Akram for one last time, and to carry messages he wanted to deliver to his family. Akram was very happy for Mahmoud, and had faith that his victory would follow Mahmoud’s sooner or later.
The camp was very dark. I could barely follow Mahmoud’s steps. As we walked through one of the alleys, I recognized our destination from the huge banner of Akram hanging on his house. I could feel his family’s indescribable strength and faith from the way they welcomed us in with hopeful eyes and big smiles. There wasn’t any light in the house, but the smiling faces of Akram’s children filled it with light. Shortly after we arrived, we received word that Friday would be the first day of Ramadan. For Akram’s family, the news held some bitterness, as according to his wife Najah, it is “the eighth Ramadan without Akram.”
We all sat on the rug close to a lantern, the only light in a sitting room filled with photos of Akram. As his wife Najah started speaking, I learned that Akram is the son of a martyr, the brother of another martyr, and has a brother detained in Nafha Prison: a typical Palestinian family’s sacrifices for the sake of freedom and dignity. His father died in the First Intifada, while his brother was killed in the 1990s during a ground invasion by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) in Rafah. His detained brother, Shady, became disabled after he refused food for 22 days during the mass hunger strike in Israeli prisons which began this year on Prisoners’ Day, April 17.
Akram Rikhawi has chosen to shoulder the responsibility for hundreds of disabled and ill political prisoners who grieve daily behind Israel’s bars and suffer its medical neglect. He also decided to rebel against the racist treatment that he received at the hands of some Ramle doctors. That was the main reason for his hunger strike. “After more than 100 days on hunger strike, Akram is in a wheelchair and cannot move either his left hand or leg,” Najah said. “Hunger has perhaps overtaken his body, but can’t easily defeat his will.”
“Before he started refusing food,” she continued, “he wrote a few articles on the suffering of sick prisoners and the medical neglect they endure, describing Israeli Prison Service violations against Palestinian detainees. He hoped they would pay his critical health conditions more attention and care. Instead, they punished him for speaking out by placing him in solitary confinement.”
Akram’s family described the Ramla Hospital Prison as “a slaughterhouse, not a hospital, with jailers wearing doctors’ uniforms,” using Akram’s situation as their best evidence. “He was detained at Ramla from the first day of his detention,” Najah said. “Before his arrest, he suffered only slightly from asthma. His health started to deteriorate when he was given the wrong medication.” She explained how this caused him severe health complications. “He had only one health problem, but medical neglect in Ramle Hospital Prison caused him six, including high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic problems, and osteoporosis, sight problems, and queasiness.”
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-IL) previously reported that its doctors had found an “alarming deterioration of Akram’s asthma, which continues to be unstable,” adding that they believed he “has been given very high doses of steroids as treatment, which can cause severe long-term and irreversible damage.”
Najah managed to visit him twice. But since the ban on the family visits for the families of Gazan detainees in 2006, which followed the capture of Gilaad Shalit, they no longer can. “We can neither visit him, nor receive letters or phone calls from him. Our two main sources of information we rely on have been the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and released prisoners, who coincidentally met him after being sent to Ramla because of health problems they suffered.”
My admiration reached its utmost when I learned that Najah was actually the wife of Akram’s martyred brother. “I was a young widow of five children when my first husband Mo’taz was killed with cold blood by the IOF,” she said. “Akram was still single, and decided to take responsibility for his brother’s orphaned children and widow. So he married me. Allah blessed us with eight more children.”
Then a young woman interrupted our conversation. “I’m Yasmeen, my mother’s eldest daughter,” she said. “My father died when I was four years old. I can barely remember him. But I recall very clearly how tenderly my father Akram raised me. I never felt like an orphan around him. He always treated his children and his brother’s alike and loved us all the same.”
“He was always like a best friend to me,” Yasmine continued. “I was having my high school exams when he was arrested. During my final exams, he used to stay up with me to study. He never allowed me to prepare anything. He would bring food to my room. He used to wake me up for the Fajer prayer. Allah has made everything up to me when he guided Dad Akram to marry my mother.”
“I was the dearest to his heart, and he sometimes teased me, saying that I was the reason for his detention,” she said. “On June 7, he walked me to school in the morning before my exam. He spent the entire trip reminding me that I should have faith in Allah and not worry. Then he headed to Gaza City. On his way home in the afternoon, the IOF stopped the vehicle at the Abu Ghouli checkpoint between Gaza City and Rafah and demanded to see all the passenger’s IDs. After handing over his ID, Dad Akram was immediately arrested. In his first letters from prison, he wrote that his friends had warned him that the situation was worrying, and that he should remain in Gaza. He refused, saying he needed to check how I did in my exam.” Yasmeen said this with a slight smile on her face. After Akram’s detention, she could barely continue her examinations, and finished them with an overall score of 55.
Then a 17-year-old girl walked in, looking very upset. “This is Akram’s eldest daughter,” Yasmine said as the girl sat silently in the corner. “She’s repeating the same experience I had since Dad’s detention. This morning, the high school results were announced. She is sad that she got 75%, while she has been always one of the brightest students. It was difficult for her to concentrate on her studies while expecting that she might wake up any morning to mourn her father’s death.”
The family’s situation was heartbreaking. I listened carefully to their sad stories and struggled to hold my tears. I felt most moved when his wife pointed at her twin youngest sons and said, “A little while ago, they came to me asking what their father looked like. Was he tall or short, fat or slim? Their age equals the years Akram served in detention. They only know him from photos.”
I could feel the family’s anger and disappointment with popular and international solidarity. “What are the human rights organizations, Hamas, the PA waiting for before they move?” his daughter Yasmine asked severely. “Are they waiting for him to return to us in a coffin? Would they be happy for eight children to become fatherless, and five others to be orphaned for a second time? If Dad dies, we will never forgive anyone who could have done something, but chose to look away.”
Don’t choose to look away. Akram Rikhawi is in desperate need of your urgent actions to save his life. It is late, but it is not over. You can still do something, anything, to contribute to his survival.