Diary of a news reporter: Hunger Strikes Outside the US Embassy

| Feb. 22, 2010 |

Published by Student Direct: Mancunion

Around 3pm one of the Guardian’s News Editors showed me a press release about a woman who was staging a hunger strike outside the US embassy. She had been for seventeen days but had just announced that she would no longer be drinking any fluids as she was being ignored by everyone: the US government, the British government and the media. Not a single media outlet had spoken about her plight.

I read around her demands a little. There was a massacre at Camp Ashraf, Iraq, near the Iranian border, a few weeks ago. Her sister had been there and had begun her own hunger strike. I tried to find out more about the Camp. It’s a refugee camp which has been inhabited since 1986 by an Iranian dissident group, protected by Saddam Hussein.

The US passed it over to the Iraqi government on 1st January 2009. The massacre took place on the 28th July. As soon as Fatemeh Khezrie, 44, heard of her sister’s hunger strike, she flew to London and began her own outside the US embassy on Grosvenor Square, just south of Oxford Street. She did not drink any fluids for the first week.

I rang up the US embassy who would ring me back, the Foreign Office who gave a short statement about the camp but nothing about the hunger strike in particular and also the number at the bottom of the press release which turned out to be a friend of Fatemah’s. She spoke at huge, rambling length on the background but little of it was useful as I needed more pertinent facts quickly.

I decided to head down there. I arrived to see about forty people protesting outside the huge embassy concealing the ten beds that held the hunger strikers. I wandered into the encampment and met the lady I’d spoken to on the phone. She took me straight to Fatemeh, who looked double her age of 44. She struggled to speak and would close her eyes every few seconds.

I asked how she was feeling. “Nauseous, dizzy and I can’t see you properly,” she said. “I can tell that you are good looking though.” We spoke for a little while.

She showed me the letter she had sent to the US charge d'affaires, Richard LeBaron, after he had refused to speak with her. The letter had been hand-delivered and signed by the ten hunger-strikers, who had all been present for at least two weeks.

They told me about the massacre and then showed me a video of mobile-phone-type footage put together to tell the story. It was horrific. Nine people had been killed (according to her, “at least seven” according to Human Rights Watch which I used in the article) and the camera lingered on their dead bodies for a good few seconds while describing the cause of death: a bullet to the head, the neck, the chest, beaten by a stick, with a nail embedded in it.

I realised this story was going to be bigger than I had imagined (why did the lady on the phone not tell me ten people were on hunger strike and not just one?!) so called up the editor who had handed me the piece. He seemed to agree. I asked what the deadline was. The story I had written before leaving was already with the subs so I asked if I could get a cab back. “Yes, keep the receipt,” he said. So I explained to the strikers that I wanted to get this in tomorrow’s paper so would have to run. I got my cab and went straight back.

Unfortunately I was too late for print but did get the story up online. Stripped of its emotion and background, I was disappointed not to give the full picture as I have in part here. The woman’s friend left a voicemail for me which, harking back to my idealism, reminded me why I am doing journalism. “They wanted for you to be their voice. They wanted you to let the people know the situation across Ashraf,” she said. “You the media are our voice,” she said in a text later. I was the only journalist to have spoken to the women which is pretty terrible considering what they’d been through, but from a purely selfish point of view for the papers, how terrible a news month August is anyway.

I told them that I would do my best to get them into print. They were happy with the article I did write. I said I would return tomorrow with a camera. The thing is, they won’t get into print unless something changes—i.e., someone dies from the hunger strike. I’m not going to tell them that but I’m sure they know it.