Trapped in a Political Wilderness
By Mimi Dwyer
Update: American hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were freed on September 21, 2011.
SIERRA magazine sat down with Sarah Shourd, an American peace activist and environmentalist. She and her fiancé, Shane Bauer and friend Josh Fattal are waiting the verdict of their long-awaited trial for crossing into Iran accidentally. They were arrested and charged with espionage. Sarah was detained in solitary confinement for 410 days before she was released for health reasons. Shane and Josh remain there.
Sarah Shourd does not relax.
But just this once, she would try. She lay down on the table, breathed in the musk of the room. These past months had been the longest and worst of her life. Now, she stopped for a moment.
"You have to take care of yourself," she says, her steely voice suggesting that's not something she's used to doing. "That's the hardest thing to realize."
Just this once, she let her guard down, closed her eyes. The lights dimmed and masseuse's hands kneaded her back. She drifted, reluctantly, to somewhere serene.
Distantly, her phone began to beep. Just this once, she did not answer it.
Later, she heard the voicemail. "That was it," she says. "That was the one time Shane called."
Now, her phone does not turn off. Not for a shower, not for a meal, not for sleep. She glances at it reflexively every few minutes. Calls from Iranian prisons don't come often, and she'll be there if one does. She should know: in July 2009, Sarah went hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan with her boyfriend, Shane Bauer, and their friend Josh Fattal. They accidentally crossed an unmarked border into Iran, where they were captured, charged with espionage, and imprisoned. Sarah was detained in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin Prison for 410 days. Shane and Josh remain there to date.
The Iranian government has produced no evidence corroborating the charges against the three. Officials have delayed their trial date twice without explanation; the latest date scheduled is July 31, the two-year anniversary of their imprisonment. In the courtroom, Shane and Josh will meet their lawyer for the first time. Sarah will not be present for her trial.
Sarah, 32, sits down in the grass of the Tilden Park hills, a few miles away from her Oakland home. The expression on her fine-featured face is guarded, and she speaks with rehearsed composure. She knows the media well.
She rolls a burr across her palms, looks out over the Berkeley campus where Shane, Josh, and she met years ago. These hills are her past. "I have great memories of coming up here to watch fireworks, hiking up here with my mom," she reflects.
Hiking was a central component of Sarah's upbringing. "I've always loved nature," she says. "My mom instilled that in me." She grew up with a strong environmental ethic, became a vegetarian at 11 after watching Gorillas in the Mist and crying all night. But after the past few years, Sarah can't enjoy the stillness of the outdoors. She can't release there like she used to. Today, she goes out, but only with a reporter-- there's no respite from the cameras and microphones. They're a necessity. She has work to do.
She hikes cautiously, worries about poison oak, double-checks for it each time she sits down. "I'm really allergic," she explains. "It gets in my bloodstream." She slows her pace, forms her words carefully in her head before releasing them: "I just want to get Shane and Josh back. I don't want people to forget."
A lifetime ago, Sarah was just another activist living in Berkeley. Her connection to nature and the holistic worldview her mother cultivated in her had evolved into political activism. In 2007, she met Shane Bauer amidst a hail of rubber bullets as they shut down the Port of Oakland, protesting its military weapon shipments to Iraq. He was like her-- an idealist, a vegan, a passionate writer and photographer. After he graduated, he moved to Darfur, reported on the atrocious environmental conditions there. "He has a deep care for the things he reports on," says Kim Komenich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer involved in the Free the Hikers movement. "You can see it in his work-he was pushed not by wanderlust, but by real care. That's rare in a journalist. It's ideal."
Shane, 28, continued to travel, moved to the Middle East. He wanted to build understanding between the United States and the Middle East, to use his fluency in Arabic to help to mend the deep cultural rift between the regions. Back in Berkeley, Sarah kept track of him. "I was in awe of him," she says.
Unbeknownst to her, he was keeping track of her, too. When he moved back to Berkeley, she contacted him, and they fell in love.
Together, they moved to an Iraqi refugee camp in Damascus, Syria, and didn't look back. They had plans to visit every country in the Middle East. Shane worked as a reporter and Sarah took a job teaching English with the Iraqi Student Project, a nonprofit that aims to give Iraqi refugee children a shot at an American education. Through the school, Sarah brought Iraqi refugee children into the Syrian desert to pick up trash. It highlighted one of the countless cultural rifts between her California upbringing and the world she'd moved into. The kids complained at first-- how could they ever finish? "There's very little consciousness of environmental destruction in the Middle East right now," says Sarah.
After a few months, their friend Josh Fattal, 28, came to visit. An environmentalist they knew from Berkeley, Josh worked for the nonprofit Aprovecho on global health and sustainability. He'd traveled across the world to different indigenous communities giving workshops on how to build wood-conserving stoves and minimize the cancer-causing particulates they emit.
Sarah, Shane, and Josh had similar ideas about politics and the environment. They rejected traditional party divisions as too simple, too divisive. "We wanted to be bridges," says Sarah. "We wanted to bring back a more human and nuanced view of the Middle East." The three of them believed they would change things at home, where, they'd found, people were far more closed-minded than the people they met abroad: "Through our work as educators or journalists or activists we are trying to bring an international perspective to people in this country," adds Sarah with her practiced eloquence. "Everyone's choices and actions should be informed by an international consciousness."
More than anything, they wanted to explore. So when Sarah got a week off teaching, they left arid, populous Damascus.
"Some people play video games," she says. "But me and my friends, we hike. Shane, Josh and I, that's what we do. We hiked all over the Middle East-Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria." This time, they made for the Ahmed Awa Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, which friends said were quiet, verdant, full of life.
Kurdistan was the only portion of Iraq deemed safe for tourists by the American government at the time, notable for its sympathy to the Bush regime-- the president had instituted a no-fly zone in 1991, and, Sarah says, the Kurds are largely grateful to him for creating a buffer from Saddam Hussein's oppression.
Iraqi Kurdistan was "not that different from the landscape of Southern California," says Sarah. It was another way to link the foreignness of her surroundings to home.
"The beautiful green mountains were a bonus," she notes. "We went to Iraq to learn about Kurdish culture."
It was quite a bonus. The river around the Ahmed Awa was majestic, roaring, the waterfall stunning. "All along the river there were families camped out, with fires and dancing and music," says Sarah, pushing back her cropped brown hair. She pauses. "That put us at ease, I guess. In the Middle East, in a new place, you do the research, but you also see what the locals do."
They settled into the familiar pace of backcountry life, spent a night drinking tea with the dozens of other tourists. They ran their fingers over moss, marveled at great starry expanse above them. It was a rare luxury-- they felt at home.
They grew restless, wanted to explore. They asked their new friends where to hike. But in the Middle East, says Sarah, hiking is a utility: "People asked, 'You do this for fun?'"
Here, the cultural divide turned dangerous. "The concept of a hike in the Middle East is a ten or fifteen minute stroll," says Sarah. But she, Shane and Josh missed the lushness of the mountains, the satisfaction of a long, strenuous hike, and they pushed on for hours, wandering deeper and deeper into the wilderness.
Sarah flicks a stone in front of her, pauses and lays her phrasing out in her head, the first break in her eloquence all morning. "If we made a mistake, that was it."
As the sun crept closer toward the horizon, the trio debated whether to head back or push on.
Then they saw a man in the distance. It was a soldier. He was calling from the next crest, off the trail, in the distance, a machine gun slung across his chest. He gestured with his arm over his head, pointing in the direction he wanted them to go, away from the waterfall.
"We assumed we were doing nothing wrong," says Sarah. "We assumed he was Kurdish."
They approached him, stepped off the trail and walked towards him. He was gesturing at them from the top of a hill in the vast backcountry. As they got closer, they heard his voice-- he was speaking a language they didn't understand.
For the first time, the hikers sensed something was wrong. "Are you Kurdish?" they asked. "No," he said, "Farsi, Irani." He pointed to the trail they'd wandered from and said, "Iraq." Then he pointed to the ground below all of their feet.
"Iran," he said.
It was a snap decision, to walk towards him. Their choice has been explained, justified and criticized by all sides of the global political spectrum.
Iran called them spies. At home, their countrymen called them agitators. After all, they shut down ports and protested and lived in Berkeley. They must have wanted to stir up political turmoil-- that's what an Army official suggested in a document dumped by WikiLeaks.
"There's a lot of blame," says Sarah. "But that's what happens when something bad happens to you. People like to feel like it wouldn't happen to them."
The guard pushed them down the other side of the hill, to a larger camp with other guards. They bickered amongst themselves over where the border was located-- no one was sure. The trail was the only blemish on the virgin wilderness, and their captor argued it was also the border between a region that embraced Americans and a country that reviled them.
Confused and terrified, Sarah, Shane and Josh tried to break free and make their way back towards the waterfall. Their resistance set the guards off.
They were forced into a Jeep, driven further into the country. In the first town they passed through, they pulled over and bought Sarah a headscarf. She placed it on her head and entered the throes of Iranian culture and tradition. They were in trouble.
Four days later, Sarah, Shane and Josh were locked in Evin.
Inside the prison, silence pervaded everything. "The isolation leads to extreme depression. You're cut off from the world, cut off from everything that's beautiful," Sarah says quietly, looking at the ground. "It's not hell, like the hell that was described in religious texts of fire and brimstone. But there's so little heaven that I don't know what's worse."
Sarah contends that she was never beaten or physically abused in prison. But Evin's notoriety derives from more psychological tactics-- most prominently white torture, an isolation method particularly painful for people with an intense connection to the natural world. It involves extreme sensory deprivation, no due process and no rights.
Sarah was kept in solitary confinement in a rank, windowless, grey room, never allowed to interact with Shane, Josh, or any of the other prisoners. She would bang at the walls, scream for hours, refuse to eat. She needed to see Shane and Josh, who were doing the same in their cells. Their backgrounds of activism had been a primer for this sort of solidarity.
Eventually, the three became distant, emaciated. They were wasting away. So the prison guards budged: Shane and Josh were placed in a cell together, and, for the first time in three months they were allowed to see Sarah for a few minutes a day, in a small roofless room at the center of the prison. The sky, crossed only by a few metal bars, was unfalteringly, desolately blue. "It's where you can 'eat fresh air,' says Sarah. "That's what the room is called in Farsi."
Conditions were bleak, but they appreciated them. The time together was the "only thing that kept [them] going," and the tiny reminders of the world outside kept them tethered to reality. "Shane has this wonderful story of blackbirds that were living outside of his window," Sarah says. "His sisters' favorite bird is the blackbird, so he felt very connected to them."
In that tiny room under the vacant sky, Shane proposed to Sarah, gave her a ring made from some string that he'd hidden. She still wears it.
The guards prohibited the other prisoners from speaking to the hikers. But they tried anyway. Where once locals had pointed in direction of border, now they pointed to Sarah, whispered to her. They knew who these hikers were, knew about the international campaign to free them happening outside the confines of the prison. Women would call out to Sarah as they passed her cell, crying, "I saw your mom on TV!" and "I love you, Sarah!"
Once, when a health concern sent Sarah to the prison clinic, a woman broke past the guards and embraced her. "There's a
real solidarity between prisoners," Sarah says. It was the sort of solidarity she'd dreamed of building between countries.
By September 2010, Sarah fell so ill (she suspected cancer) that Iran released her on humanitarian grounds. She was free. "To have to walk out alone," she says, "That was probably the most traumatic thing that has ever happened to me."
She arrived home, greeted by a media storm that has not relented, and by doctors' diagnoses of PTSD and depression. She took it all in stride-- prison toughened her spirit as much as it weakened her body, and she cannot think about stopping. She gave interviews, campaigned for the Free The Hikers movement their mothers had started, even released a song she'd written in prison as a single on iTunes. Leaders from President Obama to Desmond Tutu to Ban Ki-moon joined her cause.
Eventually, she even won a meeting in New York with a man she thought could change things: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"Ahmadinejad is not in any way threatening," she says, trained in diplomacy. If she harbors bitterness, it's not evident: "The media portrays him as a monster, but he's a soft-spoken, humble-seeming guy." During their meeting, he congratulated Sarah and her mother, who showed him piece after piece of evidence of Shane and Josh's innocence.
He turned to Sarah. "I know, I know," he said. "You're good kids. Hopefully you'll be married very soon."
But political relationships are not personal ones, and nothing has changed.
"I am a little overexposed," says Sarah, adjusting the microphone on her shirt. The July 31 trial date looms, and she muses that maybe this time, their story will be heard. Maybe this will be her last interview. She says her name three times for soundcheck: Sarah Shourd, Sarah Shourd, Sarah Shourd. She's done this before.
She sits in the same hills in a world where everything is different. In some ways, hiking is a utility for her now, too. She has a duty, and everything else is on hold indefinitely. Her freedom is corporeal, and she'll use it to get Shane and Josh back, maintain an image of determination. But the person beneath the image is another question.
She makes an appeal: "If you can, make the story about Shane and Josh. Every time I say 'I,' if you could just change it to 'we'..."
She picks up a dry reed, snaps it in half. "I don't want to speak for Shane and Josh," she says. "But I need to."
Mimi Dwyer is an intern at Sierra Magazine.