Ten days into Mia Farrow's Darfur hunger strike
Five days into her hunger strike in solidarity with the people of Darfur, Mia Farrow posted a video on . The 64-year-old actor and Unicef goodwill ambassador, her granddaughter on her knee, said: "I'm fine. I'm feeling not at all hungry." She added: "A doctor is coming to check me out. And I was thinking, gee, the people in Darfur don't have doctors because Doctors Without Borders [aka Médecins Sans Frontières] was expelled. The well pumps are breaking because Oxfam isn't there to do maintenance."
Farrow is striking now to raise awareness of how she believes the Sudanese government has risked the lives of many in Darfur's refugee camps by expelling aid agencies from the region. For her, it is the latest miserable twist in since violence erupted between the Sudanese government and rebels in 2003, the catalyst for what the UN has described as the "world's greatest humanitarian crisis" in which up to 450,000 people have died and millions have been displaced from their homes. According to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, the expulsion of the agencies had put "over one million people at life-threatening risk" in the region. The UN calls the expelled agencies a lifeline for 4.7 million people.
"I can't imagine, as a mother, what it would be like to watch a child die," says Farrow. "As a Unicef ambassador, I know that it's the children under five who die first."
The crisis, she argues, has arisen because last month Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir expelled 16 aid agencies from Darfur. This was in response to the International Criminal Court's issuing of an arrest warrant to face charges for his alleged role in the murder, rape, torture and displacement of millions in . Sudanese authorities argue that at least some of those workers had been collecting evidence to be used against Al-Bashir.
How is Farrow faring with no food, just water? Three days ago, she posted on her website (): "At this point I don't think about food. I am weaker and I am mostly in bed. I am clear-minded. I sleep less." As if she wasn't suffering enough, Farrow reported that the previous night she had watched Schindler's List and couldn't stop crying. She has been reading Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha and Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi - Thomas Moore's Care of the Soul is next up - and listening to the slow movements of Bach and Mahler. "Alongside my bed is a large window through which I can see the sky, a lake, trees, birds and, at dusk, the deer. I am at peace and busy with my thoughts."
Farrow has been a high-profile activist on behalf of Darfuri refugees since 2004 and has visited the region 11 times. This time last year, she was campaigning against what she called the "genocide Olympics" in Beijing, accusing the Chinese government of failing to use its position as Sudan's largest oil customer, and its major supplier of arms, to put sufficient pressure on the Khartoum regime.
"I'm just an actress," she told reporters before starting her fast. "I'm not presuming anybody will care whether I starve to death or whether I go on a long hunger strike or what. But it's a personal matter. I can't be among those [who] watch - and I honestly couldn't think of anything else to do." It may, sceptics suggest, be one of the world's less effective hunger strikes, since, 10 days in, only now is it becoming widely known about.
What does a relatively pampered Hollywood celebrity best known for her appearances in Rosemary's Baby and Hannah and Her Sisters, not to mention her marriages to Frank Sinatra and André Previn and her relationship with Woody Allen, hope to achieve? The hunger strike is certainly not, despite what Farrow says, just a personal matter. On day eight, she posted another video on , saying of her fast: "I really hope it results in action. You guys can make a difference." She has blogged: "I hope human rights advocates and citizens of conscience around the world will join me in some form of fasting, even if for one day. And when I can no longer continue, I pray another will take my place, and another." So far, 75 people have signed up on her website to join her fast. Some said they would, like Farrow, only drink water; others said they would eat the same rations as those in Darfur.
Farrow hopes her fast can increase pressure on Barack Obama to ensure that the expelled agencies return to Darfur. "No one voted for President Obama with more excitement and passion than I did, but he's really been lagging and the people of Darfur can't wait. So please contact the White House and say you need him to get the 16 aid agencies returned or the gap filled somehow. The word from the camps is that they're already suffering from hunger. There isn't any time to waste."
Farrow's fast is unusual. Many who go on hunger strike for a political cause do so while in custody, facing the risk of force feeding (which suffragettes contended was such a violation of their bodies that it was a form of rape). Farrow's fast isn't like that: it is being conducted from the comfort of her home in rural Connecticut and will end after 21 days, rather than at her death. Many of those blogging and tweeeting their views about Farrow's fast doubt that, historically speaking, hunger strikes have ever achieved their objectives. Farrow might want to take succour from Mahatma Gandhi who, on 8 May 1932, went on a 21-day hunger strike against British rule. As part of his campaign of civil disobedience, it helped undermine colonial rule. But it is difficult to find an example of a hunger striker whose protest has been directly responsible for achieving a humanitarian goal such as the one Farrow is fasting for.
Unlike some hunger strikers, Farrow is not prepared to fast to death. "I'm still a parent," she said before the hunger strike began, "and I don't want to die." Indeed, she has 14 children. But Farrow is consciously playing fast and loose with her future health: "I looked it up online just to see kind of what to expect, and the reason I'm gonna try to go for three weeks is because you do permanent, irreversible damage, possibly to your organs."
In preparation, Farrow took vitamins and ate a diet mostly of fruit and vegetables, gaining 9lb in the process. Her doctor tried to talk her out of her strike. Friends did, too. Gabriel Stauring, co-founder of , said: "You've seen Mia's size. There's no way she can go that long without doing permanent damage. We want to convince her that if we have somebody else [who] is famous and [who] would draw attention, that she should stop."
Farrow carried on regardless. She has been taking advice from David Blaine, the illusionist who once spent 44 days with no food in a Plexiglas case hanging over the Thames, losing 34lb in the process. "He told me about how to prepare and what to expect," Farrow said. "He said after six days I won't feel hunger." In her latest YouTube video, Farrow certainly looks gaunter than she did at the beginning of her fast. Last night, she was due to appear on The Larry King Show by video link.
Her hunger strike has divided opinion. Typical of hostile blogosphere comments was one on the New York Daily News site yesterday: "She's a crackpot." On YouTube, another wrote: "Beautiful thing to do Mia ... Please ignore the habitually negative people that hide behind internet anonymity and hurl insults."
As for the Sudanese authorities, they are sceptical about the protest. "We appreciate Mia Farrow's intentions and we respect her for her interest in the welfare of the Sudanese people," says Khaled al-Mubarak, media councillor at the Sudanese embassy in London. "She is a good actress and a good human being, but as a politician she is only a beginner. She is like George Clooney, who has also got involved in the Darfur question. He is good looking but ignorant. She is ignorant too."
Al-Mubarak says that Farrow is unaware of a recent agreement made between the Sudanese government and the US special envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, and Senator John Kerry. "This ensures that there will be no gaps in the distribution of food." He says that his government is committed to the "Sudanisation" of aid agencies operating in there. "In the meantime, some western agencies have not been expelled. Oxfam US can operate in the Sudan but not Oxfam UK, for example."
Farrow could not be contacted yesterday to give her opinion on the Sudanese government's response. So far, no other celebrity has offered to take her place so that she can stop her fast.
"I don't know what will happen," Farrow said earlier this week. "But it is a punishment to the body for sure".