WASHINGTON (Associated Press)–Kathryn Cameron Porter–a human rights activist and congressman’s wife–has spent most of her days in recent weeks keeping a vigil outside the US Capitol with Turkish Kurds staging a hunger strike. Porter began her own fast on Oct. 20 with five others. A diabetic–she became ill and was forced to break off her fast after six days. She is still eating just one small meal a day–and joins the two remaining hunger strikers for as much of their 10 -hour-a-day vigil as she is able.
"Sitting out here is nothing compared to what real people are experiencing," said Porter–49–who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations. "I hope it touches people’s hearts."
The group is protesting Turkey’s imprisonment of Leyla Zana–a Kurdish woman elected to Turkey’s parliament who was convicted of treason after telling Congress of Kurds’ plight. Turkey also has been criticized for mistreating its 12 million Kurds through forced evacuations and bans on their language.
Three other hunger strikers became so sick they had to drop out. The two left subsist on vitamins and electrolyte-replenishing fluids. Kani Xulam–the American Kurdish Information Network’s director and organizer of the fast–said the protest will move to Lafayette Park in front of the White House now that Congress has adjourned for the year. He called Porter’s involvement "an act of solidarity I can never forget."
Porter served as the Energy Department’s special assistant for international affairs in the Reagan and Bush administrations before turning full time to human rights issues. She founded The Human Rights Alliance last year. Her husband–Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.)–co-chairs the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. The couple has five grown children and one grandchild.
Porter–a veteran of 10 terms in Congress–said he fully supports his wife’s effort–but worries about the toll he sees it taking on her. "I can’t tell you how proud I am of her," the congressman’said.
"I think hunger strikes are very effective … but you have to live to fight another day."
Namik Tan–a spokesman for the Turkish Embassy–said Xulam’s group is a political front group for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Xulam and Porter denied the allegation.
A State Department official said the United States is in "continuous dialogue" with Turkey about human rights and that Zana’s imprisonment has been raised. A few members of Congress have delivered floor speeches on the subject. On Oct. 30–153 congressmen’sent a letter to President Clinton demanding he seek Zana’s immediate–unconditional release.
Bill Richardson–US ambassador to the United Nations–visited the protesters and promised he would meet with them. Porter said Kurds and other minorities in Turkey are "just being systematically done away with."
"We could stop it if we wanted to," she said.