An Egyptian Jail And The Brutal Toll Of A Hunger Strike

Mohamed Soltan lost 120 pounds during a hunger strike in Egyptian prison, where he landed for protesting against the military regime. The only American prisoner freed since the coup, he's home now. But the physical and pychological effects of food

Mohamed Soltan during his hunger strike in Egypt
Mohamed Soltan during his hunger strike in Egypt
Abigail Hauslohner

FALLS CHURCH â€" There were times in prison when Mohamed Soltan dreamt about food. He would wake up, his mouth watering or his jaw unconsciously chewing.

At the time, the former political prisoner â€" now a Falls Church, Va., resident â€" was starving himself to make the case for his release from an Egyptian jail. It was a far cry from his days as a food-loving Ohio State University student, when he used to invite his friends out to "fine dining" Fridays.

This past Thanksgiving was his first since his release and return to the United States six months ago, and he could eat anything he wanted.

Not that it was much: A 16-month hunger strike is not easy to recover from. Soltan, 28, is still grappling with the trauma, both physically and emotionally, of his imprisonment, including the loss of more than 120 pounds, the harrowing memories of solitary confinement and the painstaking days, weeks and months it has taken his body to recover from not having enough to eat.

"The physical pain goes away," Soltan says now. "The psychological stuff doesn't."

Jailed for speech

Soltan, an Egyptian American who had moved back to Egypt temporarily in 2013, was one of thousands of protesters, former politicians and military critics who were detained after the country's military coup that summer. His father, an Egyptian politician, was also detained and is currently on death row.

Soltan remains the only American citizen to have been freed since the coup, through U.S. diplomacy, and his family credits his hunger strike for drawing attention to his imprisonment. Soltan launched his strike in early 2014, four months after landing in jail, when he realized that his imprisonment â€" like that of many others â€" could be indefinite.

Crowded into a cell with about 20 other political prisoners and a smuggled cellphone, he read about the hunger strikes of Irish and Palestinian prisoners, and he researched their methodology. "The one piece of advice was: Don't just start it. Gradually bring your body into it," he says.

So for three months, Soltan weaned himself off food, first cutting out meat and fish, then carbohydrates, and finally dairy.

The human body is hard-wired to survive against staggering odds. Deprived of calories and nutrients, a body will adjust to conserve energy. The metabolic rate slows, as does the heart. The body temperature cools. The brain shrinks.

Andrea Garber, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco who has studied starvation and eating disorders, likens it to "a state of hibernation."

Soltan stayed alive throughout the strike by drinking huge volumes of water with added electrolytes and occasional doses of sugar. When he slipped into hypoglycemic comas, prison authorities hooked him up to intravenous drips.

Pushed to the limit

But the longer the food deprivation, the more pronounced the effects â€" including potentially irreversible organ damage or failure.

For Soltan, the impact was complicated by existing health concerns, including a congenital blood-clotting disorder that requires regular medication, balanced against a careful intake of vitamin K. For more than a year, he regularly slipped in and out of consciousness. Guards pushed him to his court appearances in a wheelchair. And five months into the strike, he suffered a pulmonary embolism in his right lung, which nearly killed him.

Since coming home to Falls Church, where he lives with his sister's family, Soltan's health has stabilized. Steroid injections to his legs helped him regain his ability to walk. The careful reintroduction of food helped him put on 25 pounds. Six months later, he continues to vomit almost every day, unable to hold down most foods. His sense of taste has dulled â€" something that Garber says could be attributed to a chronic deficiency in some micronutrients such as zinc.

The self-described former foodie no longer savors meals like he used to.

His gastroenterologist â€" who, like most, has little experience treating former hunger strikers â€" tells him to focus on keeping food down as long as possible. That way he at least absorbs some of the nutrients.

Soltan and his mother, siblings and sister's family drove to Michigan to spend Thanksgiving with friends and relatives. The day was like others that Soltan remembers from his youth â€" a gathering of extended family and a heaping portion of turkey, plus some immigrant family fare.

There was traditional Thanksgiving fare â€" as well as rice drenched in turkey drippings and drizzled with nuts â€" "because Arabs love rice with everything." There were cousins and in-laws from far afield; family jokes; and football rivalries. For Saturday's game, Soltan wore his Ohio State jersey â€" a bold move at a family gathering packed with Michigan fans.

Lingering health effects

On one recent night, Soltan's older sister Hanaa drove him to the emergency room after he began experiencing severe chest pain and shortness of breath. The family feared that he was having another pulmonary embolism, and the doctors ran a battery of tests and scans.

But his heart and lungs were fine, and Hanaa concluded is was "stress."

Soltan was held in solitary confinement for the last five months of his imprisonment. The guards took away his writing materials and books. They encouraged him to kill himself, slipping him razors and telling him where to make the cut. And they told him that they were abusing his father. One day, the guards abandoned a dying man in Soltan's cell â€" leaving him with the lifeless body for half a day.

The fact that his father, numerous friends and many others remain behind bars under Egypt's ruling military regime keeps him awake at night.

"That, to me, is: Do I waste another minute? How much sleep do I really need? And how much time can I be putting into doing something about it?" he says.

A few weeks ago, Soltan testified before Congress about human rights abuses in Egypt. A few days later, the family learned from the relatives of other prisoners that their father had been removed from his cell amid rumors that he was being punished for his son's testimony. Now they have no idea where he is, Soltan and his sister say.

Soltan says he plans to press forward, making the case for the release of his father and thousands of other political prisoners.

Little is known about the long-term physical and psychological effects of an extended hunger strike, particularly when experience is compounded by trauma and continuing stress. Soltan went from 279 pounds to 155 during his strike.

But experts say that an experience with starvation â€" self-imposed or otherwise â€" can drastically alter a person's attitude toward food, stimulating a lasting obsession. Garber has seen it in her patients. And researchers saw it in the subjects of the seminal Minnesota Starvation Experiment, developed in the 1940s to treat the deeply malnourished victims of World War II.

For Soltan â€" a man who once set a small-town record for eating a 24-inch sub and fries in under eight minutes â€" every bite in his post-prison life has become an exercise in resistance and focus.

In prison, he says, "they wipe the floor with your pride." Prisoners are made to understand that they have no more choices, no will to open the door or to speak to another person.

"So I made a decision to tie my craving of food to freedom," he says. For more than a year, it was the only thing he could control.

He says food still carries that meaning. "The choice is still mine," he says. "I can choose to eat, not to eat, what to eat." But it no longer brings the joy that it once did.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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