How long can one live without food and water? It’s a question that I never considered until it became more than an answer on a TV quiz program. It was a very personal matter of life and death.
Two-and-a-half months ago, I was living the day-to-day peaceful life of a resident of Camp Ashraf in Iraq. It’s a place you probably never heard of. It’s about 60 miles north of Baghdad and is home to some 3,500 Iranian dissidents - exiles like me who want nothing better than to return to Iran when it is free of the mullahs who oppress the people, preach hatred and export terrorism.
After I left Iran in search of freedom, I lived in California, Texas, Kentucky and Tennessee for some time. Then, 20 years ago, I became a resident of Ashraf, along with others who support the People’s Mojaheedin of Iran (PMOI), the principal Iranian opposition movement and dream of returning home one day.
Since the American-led invasion of Iraq, we lived - unarmed and in peace - under the protection of U.S. forces and the Geneva Conventions. But since the United States agreed to withdraw its forces from Iraq, we’ve been at the mercy of Baghdad, which is more and more becoming good buddies with Tehran.
The situation came to a head July 28, when some 2,000 Iraqi forces stormed Ashraf, and to add insult to injury, used American Humvees and weapons to do so, while the Americans stood by and watched. The attack left 11 dead and 500 injured - and the Iraqis took 36 Ashraf residents as hostages. I was one of them.
At first, we were held outside Ashraf. During the first days of captivity we were severely beaten, and went through physical and psychological torture. Some of us who were run over by Humvees and hit by bullets were in excruciating pain.
Then, we were transferred to the local prison in the city of Khalis. From there, they took us to an Iraqi military intelligence detention center and finally to the prison at al-Muthana airfield.The goal was to break us down. But we refused to give in.
In protestof the raid and being taken hostage, we went to a hunger strike and refused food for weeks, and we prayed for deliverance. We had no idea what was happening or why we were being held. And we had no idea of the support we were getting around the world.
It was only after our release that we learned of hunger strikes outside the White House and the U.S. Embassy in London, at Ashraf and other places in Europe - all in support of our cause and of justice.
Our release was ordered three times by the court in Khalis, our initial stop. Iraq’s prosecutor general sent out the order for our immediate release to all the police stations throughout Iraq. Yet, the Iraqi police and the government refused to implement the order due to pressures and demands from Tehran.
Finally, after 65 days, and with hope almost gone as we were transferred to Baghdad we decided to refuse not only food, but water as well.
As the days went by - one, then two, then three - hope faded even more. But we were adamant. Some of my friends went into comas, and were taken away by Iraqi guards. We found out later that they were taken to a hospital. And then, on the 72nd day of our hunger strike - and the seventh day of dry hunger strike as we were struggling between life and death - our prayers were answered.
We were freed. We were taken to Ashraf medical center. The doctors told me that several of us probably were only hours from death.
How we survived, I’ll never know. It had to be God’s will - that we should live to tell our story, so that incidents like this should never happen again.
We also learned of the worldwide support we received from organizations like Amnesty International, the International Federation of Human Rights, the World Organization Against Torture, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, and countless parliamentarians, international figures, and committees around the globe.We might have owed our lives to their efforts.
But that doesn’t mean Tehran will stop trying to wipe out Ashraf and its opponents anywhere it can reach them. That’s why the world community must act.
To prevent a repetition of what happened to me and other Ashraf residents, the U.S. government, the United Nations, and the European Union must step in.
The U.S. government, which signed an agreement with every single Ashraf resident, must guarantee secure protection of Ashraf residents at least until the end of 2011, while U.S. forces are present in Iraq.
The United Nations should deploy a permanent monitoring team in Ashraf to prevent further violence and a repeat of the attack or forced displacement of these people. And the fundamental rights and protections of Ashraf residents under the Fourth Geneva Convention must be recognized as stipulated in the European Parliament resolution adopted last April.
This would be a fitting time for President Obama to fulfill the Nobel Peace Prize committee’s faith in him by using his “bully pulpit” in the cause of peace and security for the peaceful resident of Ashraf.
I don’t want anyone else to find out firsthand how long one can go without water and live.
Jamshid Karegarfar is an manufacturing technology engineer, with expertise in safety. He was educated at Kentucky’s Murray State University and became a resident of Camp Ashraf in Iraq 20 years ago.