In Turkey, an academic and a teacher have been on hunger strike for over two months to protest a government purge that cost them and tens of thousands other civil servants their jobs in the wake of the 2016 failed coup.
Surviving on a diet of lemon and saltwater and sugar solutions, Nuriye Gulmen, a literature professor, and Semih Ozakca, a primary school teacher, have held daily demonstrations in the capital Ankara since they began their hunger strike in March.
Wearing surgical masks to reduce the risk of infection in their weakened state, they hold placards with a simple motto: “I want my job back”.
Nearly 150,000 civil servants have been sacked across Turkey since the July coup attempt, which Ankara blamed on supporters of the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Gulen denies any involvement, and the purge has been criticised by human rights groups as a sweeping crackdown on dissent.
Ozakca and Gulmen say the purge has stigmatised them and made it almost impossible to find work. “Being fired by decree labels you as dishonourable,” said Ozakca.
He has lost 17 kg since the beginning of her hunger strike. Gulmen has lost 8 kg. Their defiance it taking its toll: Doctors say their health is seriously deteriorating and may suffer permanent damage.
“Both of them are experiencing issues regarding perception, mood disorders, mental and motor activities,” said Vedat Bulut, board chairman of Ankara Chamber of Medical Doctors.
He said those symptoms were early signs of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a condition which leads to death in 10-15 percent of patients. “Seventy-seven percent lose their lives due to infections in the long run,” Bulut added.
Both Ozakca and Gulmen have refused treatment, saying they were aware of the consequences of their resistance.
“Nobody can be fired from their jobs like this. We want to show that,” said Gulmen. “We want the decrees to be annulled. We don’t want a single worker to be sacked by decree ever again.”
On Thursday, four lawmakers from Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) observed a 24-hour hunger strike in support of Gulmen and Ozakca, the Anadolu news agency reported. One of the lawmakers urged the government to consider the protesters’ demand “before they die”.