AMMAN- With a weak, wavering voice, Brita Haji Hassan describes, over a Whatsapp voice message from his hospital bed in Switzerland, on July 4, how his health is “unstable,” a result of 26 consecutive days without food.

Haji Hassan, the former head of the opposition-affiliated Aleppo’s local council, protested in front of the UN headquarters in Geneva with signs announcing his hunger strike last Monday.

His purpose is “purely humanitarian,” and seeks to “provoke people to pressure their governments [by] shedding light on the true suffering of civilians in Idlib and Hama,” he explains to Syria Direct.

Idlib province and the northern countryside of Hama have been subject to an intense bombing campaign since April 2019, as Russian and Syrian government forces attempt to root out the last remaining opposition stronghold in the country.

At first, Haji Hassan was the only one participating in the hunger strike, but as news spread of his protest, the hunger strike turned into an international movement, dubbed the “empty stomachs” campaign (“empty intestines” is the literal translation from Arabic). At the time of publication, 60 people were participating in the strike worldwide. 

There are participants in Belgium, Switzerland, Turkey, France, the United States, Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, and other countries, according to Abdul Qader Bakkar, a Syrian activist living in Turkey. Bakkar first announced his hunger strike last Tuesday the 2nd of July.

“What we are doing is crying [out] to the international community to stop the killing and the systematic destruction of Hama, Idlib and other areas in Syria,” Bakkar tells Syria Direct. 

Juma’ Musa and Musab al-Khalaf, two Syrian activists, are also participating in the strike from their places of residence in the countryside of Idlib. 

“I see massacres every day with my own eyes, and pull corpses out from under the rubble,” al-Khalaf tells Syria Direct. “I decided to fight the regime in a different way so that it stops [committing] crimes against civilians.” 

“When I see any revolutionary [fighting on our behalf] in order to stop the [regime’s] killing I have no objection to joining him, adding my voice to his and doing everything that’s necessary.” 

There are also at least three non-Syrian participants in the hunger strike, including the Italian activist and poet Francesca Scalinshi. 

Between international silence and the opposition’s ineptitude 

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the current military escalation in northwest Syria has led to over two thousand deaths, among them 145 children. The bombing campaign has also forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes in north Hama and south Idlib to areas close to the Turkish-Syrian border, which are relatively safer. Further, many hospitals, clinics and medical centers have shut down due to damage, insufficient supplies or staff shortages.

The international silence over the military campaign, in addition to the inability of the Syrian political opposition to offer any solution, has pushed Syrians to protests to alternative ways of protest. 

“The UN took measures in terms of humanitarian relief for our people, but this isn’t enough,” Haji Hassan says. “The [UN] cannot stop what’s happening in Idlib, but it has the ability to influence those who are able to [such as the regime and Russia].” 

Nada al-Khash, a 63-year-old Syrian refugee who is living in the city of Irbid in north Jordan, says that the United Nations is “responsible for and shares [the blame] for what is happening,” as “the [forced] relocation was done under the UN’s supervision.” 

“Why would they allow fighters to keep their light arms and transport [both the civilians and fighters] to an area that isn’t safe,” al-Khash asks, implying that the Syrian government let fighters keep their weapons so that they would not be considered civilians in future military action against the area. 

In January 2016, the UN Security Council agreed to supervise the evacuation of tens of thousands of civilians from East Aleppo, which at the time was under the control of revolutionaries, to nearby opposition-controlled areas. This was just the first of several evacuation agreements executed to transport opposition members from Damascus and Homs, as well as Daara and Quneitra, to northwest Syria, the latter being in July 2018.

Brita Haji Hassan sits in front of the UN headquarters in Geneva, July 01, 2019 (Facebook)

Al-Khash has been participating in the hunger strike for seven days, “despite having cancer and being old, in order to stop the massive holocaust [in Idlib].” 

The Syrian opposition has also been subject to criticism. According to al-Khalaf: “When we saw the political opposition unable to do anything to stop the regime’s killings and the daily crimes committed against our people, we began to take actions as individuals.”

For Haji Hassan, “The [Syrian] political opposition does not represent the Syrian people, it represents itself. I say this with respect to some [of its members]. It doesn’t give anything to the Syrian people. All of the conferences that they participated in have just had a negative effect on the Syrian people, such as the Astana talks.” 

Sympathy is not enough

Since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Syrian activists have gone on several strikes, as well as participated in demonstrations and protests, both inside and outside the country. According to several participants in the “empty stomachs” campaign, the hunger strike is a new idea and peaceful action that Syrians had not previously utilized in their peaceful struggle against al-Assad.

“The campaign is getting bigger,” Haji Hassan tells Syria Direct. “We now have a media team, an administration, and an organizational structure, as well as translators in multiple languages.” However, despite international sympathy, the participants in the hunger strike refuse to let up until they see their demands met. 

“We haven’t received any real reply [to our campaign]. We’ve received thousands of letters expressing solidarity, but that’s not enough. We need actions, not words. We want humanitarian protection.”

Haji Hassan invited Syrian refugees, wherever they may be, to participate in the campaign and go on hunger strike. “We have to start with ourselves and support each other in placing pressure on others to stand with us,” he says. “Each does so in their own way and in accordance with their own abilities. We must turn the issue of humanitarian protection into a global issue.”

“Many countries were liberated by peaceful protests. There are [numerous] examples of hunger strikes having positive results.” 

Bakkar tells Syria Direct that “Brita [Haji Hassan] is continuing his hunger strike; this will be his [31st day]. We want him to stop his strike, but he refuses to do so despite the doctor telling us that he will be in danger if he continues.” 

Medical tests show that Haji Hassan has a critical shortage of electrolytes and minerals. “I’ve lost 18 kilos during 26 days of the strike,” he says. 

“We are crying out for the people to put pressure on their governments, for any government to help [us] on this issue.”