The battle for survival



An essay written in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh prison by hunger striker Bobby Sands, first published in January 1979.


The greatest part of each seemingly eternal day that I face is filled with thought. I have nothing else to help pass the time during the long, never-ending hours. Boredom and loneliness are terrible things, continual and unrelenting. I have but one weapon to overcome them: my own thoughts.

To pass the time and to keep warm I pace the floor. Sometimes I stand gazing out of the cell window at the grey barbed wire or simply just sit upon my dirty damp mattress on the floor in the corner of my dungeon-like tomb. But all the while I’m thinking of something, somebody, or some place. It may be deep, serious thought or daydreaming to escape the reality of my nightmarish situation.

Again, I might be, and often as not I am, worrying, thinking of what is going on around me, or what may lie before me. Each day my comrades and I face a psychological battle for survival. It is a very intense struggle and the enemy is unmerciful.

For someone who is contented, or unconcerned with any worry, living what is termed an everyday life, you may find my psychological circumstances hard to comprehend. For two reasons: firstly, my inability to describe the psychological struggle of myself and of my three hundred and fifty comrades; secondly, it is terribly hard, if not inconceivable, to conjure up in one’s imagination the pain and stress of psychological torture or to know its many forms or to understand its various effects.

Imagine how it would feel to be locked up naked in solitary confinement, twenty-four hours a day, and subjected to total deprivation of not only common, everyday things, but of basic human necessities, such as clothes, fresh air and exercise, the company of other human beings.

In short, imagine being entombed, naked and alone, for a whole day. What would it be like for twenty torturous months?

Now again, with this in mind, try and imagine just what it is like to be in this situation in surroundings that resemble a pigsty, and you are crouched naked upon the floor in a corner, freezing cold, amid the lingering stench of putrefying rubbish, with crawling, wriggling white maggots all around you, fat bloated flies pestering your naked body, the silence is nerve-racking, your mind in turmoil.

You are sitting waiting on the screws coming to your cell to drag you out to be forcibly bathed. You have heard and seen the horrible results of this from many of your comrades at Mass. You know only too well what it means: the skin scrubbed from your body with heavy brushes. The screws have told you that you are next. You wait all day, just thinking. Your mind is wrecked. Maybe they’ve forgotten, you kid yourself; but you know they never forget.

They don’t come. The next day is the same, and the next, and the next. You become more and more depressed. For days your thoughts have been the same, a mass of fear, fearing what lies ahead.

Consider being in that frame of mind every day! Knowing in your mind that you’re to be beaten nearly senseless, forcibly bathed, held down to have your back passage examined or probed. These things are common facts of everyday H Block life.

It is inconceivable to try to imagine what an eighteen-year-old naked lad goes through when a dozen or so screws slaughter him with batons, boots, and punches, while dragging him by the hair along a corridor, or when they squeeze his privates until he collapses, or throw scalding water around his naked body. It is also inconceivable for me to describe, let alone for you to imagine, our state of mind just sitting waiting for this to happen. I can say that this physical and psychological torture in the H Blocks has brought many men to the verge of insanity.

We are in a very, very bad state now. What will we be like at the end of the day, or in the years to come? My mind is scarred deep. It is as equally a worrying thought that we may end up unable to even think at all! With that in “your” mind, I will leave off. Think about it, but just don’t leave it at that.

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