More than 3,000 nights camped out under the London sky can't be good for one's health. Nor can the cigarettes, a presence almost as ubiquitous in Brian Haw's left hand as the megaphone through which he has spent a decade speaking truth to power – and the traffic circulating Parliament Square.
Now Mr Haw, the protester and thorn in the side of the establishment whose peace camp today celebrates its 10th anniversary, cannot speak at all. In September he flew to Germany for treatment for lung cancer. According to his number two Babs Tucker, he is now unconscious and in intensive care.
Ms Tucker has spent the past five years living in one of the tents on Parliament Square, which faces Westminster Palace. She has recently returned from visiting Mr Haw in Germany, where she says he is receiving a combination of traditional and alternative methods that, she says, "aren't available in the UK". "I promise you he's coming back," she added. "He's been through so much, but I think he's turned the corner now."
When Mr Haw, a carpenter from Worcestershire, first travelled to Westminster, he protested against the ongoing sanctions against Iraq. Then 52 and with a wife and seven children, he erected a sign opposite the Houses of Parliament. "Stop killing our kids," it read. It was estimated that 200 Iraqi children a day were dying as a result of preventable illnesses while medical supplies were being deliberately withheld, the result of a UN resolution.
Mr Haw was not the only one who was angry. Saddam Hussein was re-arming, funded through the illegal sale of oil to neighbouring countries. Dr Hans Blix had recently been persuaded out of retirement to head a UN inspection unit with a mandate to monitor and disarm the country of its weapons of mass destruction.
Osama Bin Laden, exiled from his native Saudi Arabia, was in his camp in Afghanistan, under Taliban protection. A young Egyptian man, Mohammed Atta, had just been to visit, and was now learning to fly at an aviation school in Florida.
When Mr Haw rolled out his sleeping bag to bed down for the night, a police officer asked him how long he would be there for. "As long as it takes," he answered, though it hadn't occurred to him that it would be this long, and that he would become the leader of a peace campaign for a range of intensely controversial conflicts that were yet to begin.
Mr Haw's health is at best a microscopic footnote on a still growing list of casualties from the bloodiest decade most of us can remember. Nearly 7,000 coalition troops have lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq, 547 of them British. Estimates of civilian casualties in the two countries range from 150,000 to over a million. Terrorist attacks struck first in New York and Washington, then in Bali, Madrid, London, Bali again and Mumbai.
In this time, Mr Haw has become all but estranged from his family, a topic he has refused to address in recent years. Ms Tucker, a mother of two grown-up sons, says her children, while not quite proud, are "fine with it" and "they do not criticise". Since she arrived she has been arrested over 40 times, as she and Mr Haw have been dragged to and from police cells and the courts in increasingly complex attempts by the authorities to get rid of them. But what have they actually achieved?
"When the press backed the war in Iraq, when both sides of the house backed the war in Iraq, Brian stood up to the Government," she says. Pink Dr Martens and 40 arrests notwithstanding, she has an easy-going charm. "And he turned out to be right, didn't he? If you believe in democracy, Brian is what democracy looks like."
Ms Tucker says she "can afford five years" to stand opposite the Houses of Parliament, but doesn't want to be there for another 10. Events in the Middle East have been a cause of hope. "These young Arabs have said to the West, 'Take back your dictators, take back your torture.' The winds of change are blowing, and they'll blow this way in the end."
That the West has helped to save the lives of many of these young Arabs in Libya, who are fighting for a way of life we already enjoy, is an argument she does not accept. "Nato in Libya, this is the same Nato that just killed 14 civilians in Afghanistan – 12 women, two children. Are we supposed to believe these people are suddenly concerned about civilian lives?"
On 9 May, the latest court case, pertaining to their right to sleep on the pavement, was pushed back to October. She is currently concerned about new legislation outlawing 24-hour protest. It would not be the first law seemingly tailor-made to evict them. If they are moved on, where would she go? "You can move us on, but to where? You'd have to bury our bodies. Either you believe in democracy, or you don't. We are living it."Reuse content