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Held Captive

Arrested for trespassing in Iran, three American hikers tell their terrifying tale in a new book.


Mia NakanoIt was an innocent—some would say careless—mistake.

They were three young Americans, UC Berkeley graduates, two men and a woman, on vacation in Iraqi Kurdistan, a pro-American region largely untouched by the chaos in the rest of Iraq.

They stopped at a popular tourist attraction, the Ahmed Awa waterfall, where they found themselves among hundreds of campers. They went for a hike on a recommended trail, and walked for hours before arriving at a ridge—as it turned out, a ridge too far.

As they started up the trail, they saw a soldier with a gun. He waved them forward. At the top of the ridge, soldiers captured them, and they realized—from the red, white, and green flags on the soldiers’ uniforms—that they had accidentally crossed, or been lured, into Iran.

So began the ordeal of Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd, and Josh Fattal, the so-called American hikers, as vividly recounted in their new memoir, A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran, published this spring.

Sitting in a café near their home in Oakland, Bauer and Shourd, who are now married, told Diablo magazine about their time in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, and how the experience has redirected their life plans.

“I thought as soon as I got out of solitary confinement that everything would be OK,” Shourd says. “But it takes years for the nervous system to get back to normal.”

THE THREE YOUNG globe-trotters expected to be released within days of their capture. But the days turned to weeks, then months. For the men, the ordeal lasted two years.

Bauer says it felt like he was “falling into the waste bin of history.”

At first, they were held in solitary confinement. But after a few months, the men were put in a cell together, though Shourd remained alone. They were given plenty to eat and a few books to read (although no paper and pencil), and the three were even allowed brief daily visits together in an open-air courtyard.

The privileges helped, but didn’t quell the anguish they felt, particularly for Shourd, who was locked up alone in a tiny cell for 23 hours a day.

“I could feel myself losing my grip on reality,” she says at the café, looking bright and confident in a leopard-print jacket, red cowboy boots, and blue fingernail polish—not at all the way she looks wearing a hijab in the YouTube videos filmed during her time in prison.

In the book, Shourd recounts weeping for hours curled up on the floor of her cell and pounding the walls with her fists. One day, she thought she heard someone screaming far away. A guard burst into her cell and found her bloodying the walls with her fists, and Shourd realized she had been the person screaming.

“So many times, I went to the edge and almost went over,” Shourd says. “The only thing that pulled me back was that I knew I wasn’t going to be forgotten. I knew people were fighting for me.”

In September 2010, Iran released Shourd on humanitarian grounds. She had been held for 14 months. Once she got home, she took a lead role in the Free the Hikers campaign, meeting with dozens of U.S. and foreign officials, including President Obama, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then president of Iran.

“So many times, i went to the edge and almost went over. the only thing that pulled me back was that i knew i wasn’t going to be forgotten.”

She says Clinton was the most helpful.

“You could have a frank, direct conversation with her, and she didn’t try to distract and placate you with a lot of sweet nothings,” Shourd says. Obama, on the other hand, “wasn’t really willing to talk about what he was or wasn’t willing to do.”

Privately, Iranian officials said they were open to releasing the Americans if the United States made some kind of goodwill gesture, Shourd says. Proposed gestures included a letter from Obama expressing his wish for improved relations between the two countries. But the Obama administration wouldn’t budge.

“Obama hadn’t been reelected yet and couldn’t risk doing anything that would make him look weak,” Shourd says.

Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin HarcourtMeanwhile, still imprisoned, Bauer and Fattal hoped for a speedy trial. They knew Iran had a pattern of releasing foreign prisoners after trial regardless of the sentence and hoped they would be next. But their trial was continually delayed.

As the months ground on, the men started to argue over little things, like where to store their water bottles and how many books to keep. They partitioned their cell with a blanket hung from a clothesline, quit sharing food, and drew a line under the bed to keep their belongings separate.

“It was frustrating because we didn’t know when it would end,” says Bauer, who is tall and thin and, sitting in the coffee shop, wears a flat wool cap, a gray hoodie, and black plugs in his earlobes.

Finally, in July and August 2011, the men were tried and, without being able to dispute the charges, were convicted of illegal entry and espionage. They were sentenced to eight years in prison but were released September 21.

Since then, the American hikers have gone on with their lives with a renewed sense of purpose.

Fattal, now 31, is a graduate student of history at New York University and lives in New York City with his girlfriend and their infant son.

Shourd, 35, and Bauer, 31, moved back to Oakland, where they had lived together after graduating from UC Berkeley. Eleven months after Bauer’s release, they got married.

Bauer proposed to Shourd while the two were in prison. He had expected her to be released first and wanted to make it clear that she was the most important person in the world to him, he says. So he fashioned engagement rings from pink and white threads he pulled from a towel and a pair of underwear, and proposed to her in the open-air courtyard. A few weeks later, she was released.

Their wedding in Half Moon Bay was attended by hundreds of family members, friends, and Free the Hikers supporters. Fattal was best man.

Since his return, Bauer, a journalist, has shifted his focus from foreign reporting to prisons. A year after his release, he wrote a piece for Mother Jones about the use of solitary confinement at Pelican Bay Prison in Northern California.

“I feel connected to prisons in a real way, and it is shaping my day-to-day life,” he says.

Shourd has also shifted her focus to prisoner rights advocacy. Formerly a teacher, she is now a contributing editor for Solitary Watch, a group opposed to the use of solitary confinement. She is also a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley in the Center for the Study of Law and Society.

In the past two years, she has traveled around the country interviewing inmates being held in prolonged solitary confinement. Solitary Watch plans to publish a compilation of the interviews. Shourd is also writing a play based on some of the stories she’s heard.

“Having spent over a year of my life in solitary, it is obvious to me that it is torture,” Shourd says. “What happened to me was in Iran. But this is my home, and this is where I feel most invested and most responsible.”

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