Rebecca Ratcliffe: Bring my sister-in-law Nazanin home and let us get back to our boring old life
'You don’t go into a hunger strike lightly. You don’t go into a second hunger strike lightly either.'
19 November, 2021 — By Rebecca Ratcliffe
Rebecca Ratcliffe, far right with red coat, in Downing Street with her brother Richard and their children
“SO no one told you life was gonna be this way.”
Those catchy lyrics sprung to mind when I saw a photo of us – me, my children, my brother Richard and his daughter Gabriella – standing outside a bizarrely garish fluorescent green Number 10 Downing street, donning our bright “FreeNazanin” umbrellas, very akin to the opening of the ’90s sitcom.
We’d just handed in the Change.org petition to call on the government to get Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, my sister-in-law, home from Iran; a petition that had amassed more than 3.6million signatures.
Yet just over five years ago we were a blissfully boring family, with no particular political leanings. Certainly no one had heard of any of us.
But here we were, and brother Richard, had just started his second hunger strike, this time on the steps of the Foreign Office with worldwide media attention.
You don’t go into a hunger strike lightly. You don’t go into a second hunger strike lightly either. Starving yourself on the streets in the winter, out of choice, will seem foolhardy to many but Richard felt he had no choice.
He was desperate to stop Nazanin being put back in prison. And with that, we were compelled to support him in every possible way we could. We owed it to both Richard and Nazanin to keep him and Gabriella as safe as possible until the day they could be reunited.
So my life moved to London for three weeks. I normally live and work in South Wales. Mornings started with mobilising seven-year-old Gabriella who, like my children, is not an early riser, and took progressively more and more persuasion to get out of bed and get ready to leave the flat as the weeks went on.
Richard Ratcliffe during his hunger strike outside the Foreign Office
I’d drop her at school, just scraping the school bell, and head down to camp. I’d arrive to find the bleary-eyed night team clinging to their lukewarm coffees, listening to their tales of the night before.
Richard, complete with woollen hat, always seemed pleased to see me – pleased, I suspect, as I represented yet another freezing night survived on the streets. As the day progressed, we would have more and more supporters, MPs and often media, coming down.
By about 11am, my mother, in her now trademark fake fur coat, would arrive and the two of us would be hopping round the crowds with badges and the visitor book, chatting to people waiting to speak to Richard, waiting to give those heartfelt words of encouragement, he so badly needed.
Many of these supporters, some of whom had travelled long distances, came down several times just to be with us, offering solidarity, and help out in the camp. It was very humbling.
Words of encouragement alone couldn’t keep him safe though. As the strike progressed it became harder to keep Richard warm. We relied on an army of volunteers traipsing through London with hot water bottles and flasks of boiling water throughout the day. The initial annoying fussing of a sister soon became a welcome relief for him as he got weaker and the temperatures dropped.
Richard and Nazanin before the nightmare began
I don’t think my feet have ever been so cold as they were over these past three weeks, standing on the pavement, chatting to supporters, trying to ignore the bitter wind.
“Oh yes, you never come down here without a jumper” one of the press happily told me one day. “Even in the height of summer it’s freezing. The sun can’t penetrate these streets.”
And he was right. Those beautiful crisp autumn days we could see tantalisingly at the end of the street didn’t translate to the camp. Astonishingly though, Richard made it. After three weeks of starvation on the streets, he came through the experience with apparently no lasting effects, not even a chilblain.
He has the government’s attention again and there is now real pressure back on Boris Johnson to resolve this.
Our family are now watching the prime minister closely to see if he honours the promises made back in 2017.
Rebecca Ratcliffe is a campaigner for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe