Getting free

Pub date January 25, 2011
WriterRebecca Bowe

Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal have been held captive in Evin Prison in Tehran for more than 540 days, and their friends and supporters in the Bay Area have been mounting an extraordinary campaign pushing for their release.

On July 31, 2009, Bauer and Fattal were hiking with Sarah Shourd, who is Bauer’s fiancée, through green mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan. The three UC Berkeley graduates had traveled from Damascus for a recreational visit. They were wandering nearby Ahmed Awa, a popular tourist destination where hundreds of people had flocked to camp, to visit a waterfall and enjoy the peace and quiet of the mountains.

They say they didn’t realize how close they were to Iran, which has no diplomatic ties to the United States.

Shourd told the Guardian she’s not sure whether they accidentally traversed the Iranian border, because it was unmarked. “We had no intention of being anywhere near Iran,” she said. “And if we were, we’re very sorry.”

Iranian officials surrounded them, speaking in Farsi, which they couldn’t understand. They were arrested on suspicion of spying and taken into custody. Before being taken to prison, one phoned a friend, Shon MeckFessel — who had been traveling with them but opted not to go on the hike because he wasn’t feeling well — to alert him that something had gone wrong. That would be the last communication any of them would have with close friends or family members for months.

Shourd was finally released on bail Sept. 14, 2010 on humanitarian grounds after spending 410 days in solitary confinement. She was reunited with family and friends — but Bauer and Fattal have remained in detainment ever since.

Since returning to the United States, Shourd has thrown her energy into advocating for their release — and she’s not alone. “Everyone in the family has been working tirelessly for all 18 months,” she said, “which is far, far longer than we ever imagined in our worst nightmares.”



While Shourd was still in prison, her mother, Nora, gave up her home and job to move in with Bauer’s mother, Cindy Hickey, and work for their release full-time. Fattal’s older brother, Alex, suspended his graduate studies at Harvard to dedicate himself to the campaign. His mother, Laura Fattal, stopped working to devote herself to the campaign.

“That’s just family alone,” Shourd noted. “If you start to look to how many people have contributed to our campaign and how many ways, it just blows your mind.” Soon after her release, Shourd put out a call for people to hang banners proclaiming the innocence of Bauer and Fattal and calling for their release. In response, nearly 60 banners were unfurled in 25 different countries.

Shourd has made countless media appearances since her release, and even put out an MP3 of a song she composed while in solitary confinement, which can be downloaded as a way to support the Free the Hikers campaign. Their story has drawn the interest of prominent figures. On Jan. 19, Noam Chomsky released a video offering to testify on their behalf if a trial is held, saying Bauer and Fattal “have dedicated themselves to advocating for social and environmental justice in Africa and elsewhere, and they truly embody the spirit of humanitarianism.”

Others who have publicly defended the trio include President Barack Obama, who issued a statement in July saying none of the hikers ever worked for the U.S. government, addressing Iranian accusations that they were there to commit espionage. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu have called for their release. A documentary has been produced about their plight, and a second one is in the works.

In San Francisco, artists and musicians have responded in droves to a call for support. An art auction that will benefit the campaign is planned for Jan. 29, featuring the work of more than 80 artists, plus live musical performances. As a nod toward Bauer’s work in photojournalism, the event will emphasize photography, and notables such as Mimi Chakrova, Taj Forer, Roberto Bear Guerra, Ken Light, the LUCEO Photo Collective, Susan Meiselas, Lianne Milton, Mark Murrmann, Alec Soth, and others have donated work. Among the artists who donated pieces are Marianne Bland, Mark Brecke, Teresa Camozzi, Andreina Davila, Eric Drooker, and former Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez.

In early February, a music benefit will be held at the Bottom of the Hill to benefit the campaign. Titled “They Sing These Songs In Prison,” the event will feature performances of The Nightwatchman — that’s Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine — plus Jolie Holland, accordionist Jason Webley, and Ryan Harvey & Lia Rose.

“The funding is to support the campaign to free Shane and Josh, and it goes to a wide array of needs that we have, like translation into Farsi, travel for media, and meeting with some various embassies and governments that are involved in advocating for Shane and Josh’s release,” Shourd explained. “Also, some of the money will probably go toward legal fees, and website fees, and materials for the campaign from flyers to business cards to t-shirts.”



The campaign to advocate for their release has been tagged Free the Hikers, but the identities of the three young people (Bauer and Fattal are both 28, Shourd is 32) go much deeper than that. They’re social-justice advocates, antiwar activists, writers, environmentalists, travelers, and creative thinkers with deep ties to the Bay Area.

Shourd, who lives in Oakland, was teaching English to Iraqi refugees when she was in Syria, as well as practicing some journalism. Fattal, who taught at Aprovecho — an education center in Oregon focused on sustainability and permaculture — had been traveling to India, South Africa, and other places through the International Honors Program to lead workshops on health and sustainable technology before visiting his friends in Syria.

“Josh is an environmentalist, he’s a teacher, he’s an incredible, incredible, generous and selfless man,” Shourd said. “As soon as you meet him, you feel what an extraordinary and unique human being he is. I was friends with him for years before he came to visit us in Damascus, and he decided to travel with us to Northern Iraq to Iraqi Kurdistan to learn about Kurdish culture, to see another diverse aspect of the Middle East.”

Bauer wrote for publications such as The Nation, Mother Jones, and the Christian Science Monitor. A photojournalist who has won multiple awards and had his work published internationally, Bauer has documented everything from tenant conditions in San Francisco SROs to conflict-ridden regions in Africa and the Middle East. Bauer also wrote an article for the Guardian about an Oakland residence that is famous among East Bay anarchists (See “Hellarity burns,” May 27, 2008).

“Shane has an incredible passion for pursuing truth and complicating our ideas about other parts of the world, about conflicts around the world and at home,” Shourd noted. She added that many of his stories serve to highlight “some of the very specific ways that the U.S. presence in Iraq has taken a toll on innocent people.”

Before their ill-fated excursion, Shourd said she’d heard from multiple westerners and her Arabic tutor that Iraqi Kurdistan was a safe and enjoyable place to visit. “It’s often referred to as ‘the other Iraq’ because it’s a semiautonomous region designated as a no-fly zone by the U.S. government,” she explained. “It’s actually a part of the Middle East that has a very positive fingerprint from the U.S. government because they helped protect the Kurdish people from Saddam Hussein. So Northern Iraq is not a dangerous place for Americans or westerners to go, and no American has ever been killed in Northern Iraq, which is just phenomenal after a decade of war and occupation.”

She said Bauer, Fattal, and MeckFessel were all enthusiastic about the trip, and after researching it online, the four felt they had enough information to travel there. “We ordered a special Lonely Planet guide of Northern Iraq, and a friend of ours who went a month before we did borrowed it and lost it, so we didn’t have the Lonely Planet guide,” she noted. “But we still felt we had enough information about it to travel there and really believed we had nothing to fear.”



Shourd credits her fiancé and her friend with helping her through “every minute of prison,” even though she was alone in her cell for 23 hours a day. At first she wasn’t allowed to see them at all, but after some time had passed, guards allowed her to visit with them in an outdoor courtyard for 30 minutes a day. Later, that brief time together was increased to an hour.

“There’s no way I could have maintained hope and maintained my own sanity and the strength that it took to get through every day of isolation and depravity and uncertainty and fear,” she said. “The emotional strength that that took, and the discipline that it took, really Shane and Josh and I all created together in the little time that we had, through the unconditional support and love we had for each other.”

Since they didn’t speak Farsi and the guards spoke very little English, it was difficult to communicate basic needs, and Shourd described the experience as being surrounded by hostility.

“Whenever I just started to slip away mentally, Shane and Josh would bring me back, and the knowledge that they were going to be there for me was the only thing that got me through 410 days of solitary confinement,” she said. The three thought up activities to give themselves something to look forward to, like marking time with small courtyard celebrations and special food they saved to share together or discussing topics in an organized format. “We had almost like a curriculum that we followed of study, and sort of intellectual exploration,” she explained.

They were only allowed to have pens for one month — that was the easiest month, Shourd said. But the rest of the time, even though they weren’t permitted to write things down, they were allowed to read. “Books were our lifeline. We read the same books in concert, we took turns reading books and passed them back and forth when we saw each other in the courtyard. And we would memorize dates and memorize poetry and recite poetry to each other and test each other on dates,” Shourd said.

“Josh would give me math problems to do in my head because he knew I was trying to get better with algebra. We had a dictionary that we passed back and forth, and we would make stories from words in the dictionary and tell each other these really intricate fantastical stories that we came up with. Anything to keep your mind busy.”

Beginning in her second month in prison, Shourd also passed the time by composing songs. A month went by before she was able to share the first one with Bauer and Fattal, but when she did finally sing it for them, they learned the words and sang it with her. “When we were together in the outdoor courtyard, they would just tell me to sing louder,” Shourd said. “I know they’re singing those songs now.”

The intellectual drills, storytelling, math problems, and singing weren’t merely a remedy for boredom. “You have to really keep your mind strong and busy so that you don’t get sort of swallowed up by the abyss of fear and loneliness that encroaches on you day by day in that kind of situation,” she said.



Despite the time, energy, and effort spent on the campaign to free all three, no one can say for sure just when Bauer and Fattal will finally be reunited with family and friends. In November, Iranian authorities said that a trial previously scheduled for that month had been postponed, but the Free the Hikers campaign is calling for them to be released without a trial.

“They don’t deserve to be there one minute longer than I was, and they never deserved to be there in the first place,” Shourd said. “They should be shown the same kind of humanitarianism that they have put into action in their lives, through their work.”

Amnesty International is among many of the groups that have called for the Iranian government to release the two young men. “One year after their arrest, the Iranian authorities’ failure to charge them with illegal entry into Iran or more serious charges, such as espionage, has fueled speculation that the Iranian authorities are holding them as a bargaining chip,” notes a statement released July 2010 by Amnesty International, an international human rights organization.

Meanwhile, Shourd has been contemplating what her experience would have been like if the U.S. and Iran actually maintained diplomatic ties, and she published an opinion piece on CNN International calling for greater communication between the governments.

“I think it’s their responsibility to their people to do that, and I think it’s a tragedy that there’s been 30 years of practically no relationship between Iran and the U.S.,” Shourd said. “It’s a tragedy for countless Iranian Americans in this country who have a hard time visiting their relatives in Iran, sending them money, even just getting information about them or visiting their homeland.”

She began her opinion piece by recounting the time that a prison guard brought her freshly picked roses, an uncommon gesture of kindness during her incarceration. “In the worst of circumstances, the most extraordinary acts of human kindness emerge,” she told the Guardian. “They were rare. The vast majority of my experience was empty and desolate. But the times that the guards were kind to me … will stay with me for the rest of my life.” *


Saturday, Jan. 29, 7 p.m.

SomArts Cultural Center

934 Brannan, SF

Musical performances by The Ferocious Few, Devon McClive and Sons, Grant Hazard and Lorin Station


Featuring The Nighwatchman, Jolie Holland, Jason Webley, Ryan Harvey & Lia Rose

Thursday, Feb. 10, 8:30 p.m., $12–$18

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17 St., SF

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