- Sarah Shourd
co-author of the new book, A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran. She spent 410 days in solitary confinement while held as a political hostage by the Iranian government in 2009-2010. She is currently a contributing editor at Solitary Watch and will be publishing an anthology as well as producing a play based on the nearly 75 oral and written testimonies she’s gathered from people who have lived through or are currently in solitary in the United States.
- Shane Bauer
co-author of the new book, A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran. He spent 26 months in Tehran’s Evin Prison, four of them in solitary. He is now back to being an award-winning investigative journalist. His work focuses on prisons in the United States, including a cover story for Mother Jones magazine titled “Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons.”
- Josh Fattal
co-author of the new book, A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran. Prior to his arrest in Iran, he taught in Asia, Africa and Europe about the political economy of healthcare and was co-director of an environmental education center in Oregon. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at New York University in history, with a background in environmental sustainability.
In a Democracy Now! special, Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal recall their harrowing ordeal as American hikers imprisoned in Iran. Detained after setting out on a hike in the summer of 2009 in Iraq’s Kurdish region near the Iranian border, Bauer and Fattal were held for 26 months, while Shourd — now married to Bauer — was held for 13 months, much of it in solitary confinement. The three tell their story in a new memoir, “A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran.”
AMY GOODMAN: Today, in a Democracy Now! special, I’m joined by three guests. They were friends who set out on a hike in the summer of 2009 in Iraq’s Kurdish region near the Iranian border. But their hike ended in their arrest. Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were held in Iran for more than two years, and Sarah Shourd—now married to Shane Bauer—was held for more than a year, much of it in solitary confinement. The three of them tell their story in a new book, released today. It’s called A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran.
I asked Sarah Shourd to take us back to the day in 2009 when they set out for their hike.
SARAH SHOURD: Shane and I had been living in the Middle East for more than a year, Amy. We were living in Damascus, and we traveled all around the region. And northern Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, was a new part of the Middle East that we were eager to explore. Josh came to visit, and we all agreed that it was an exciting prospect. We had done research in the area. Northern Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, is a semi-autonomous part of Iraq, and actually, in 2011, it was on the top 41 travel destinations in The New York Times. So, no American has been killed or captured there in recent decades. It’s not a war zone. And we went there because I had a week off work, and we wanted to enjoy ourselves, as—
AMY GOODMAN: Explain the work you were doing more in Syria.
SARAH SHOURD: I was working with Iraqi refugees. It was the Iraqi Student Project, helping Iraqi—young Iraqis who had been in college when the U.S.-led war started in Iraq, and they couldn’t continue their education in Syria. They were barred from higher education. So we were helping them get into schools in the U.S. and in Europe.
AMY GOODMAN: And Shane, you were?
SHANE BAUER: I was working as a journalist in the Middle East.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Josh comes to visit you, and you go on this week’s vacation to show him a good time.
SARAH SHOURD: Mm-hmm, exactly. Our other friend, Shon Meckfessel, was there. He decided to stay in the hotel, thankfully for us, because he was the one that later was able to inform the embassy in Baghdad that we had been captured. We came to a tourist site called Ahmed Awa, that had been recommended to us by several people. And it was full of people, teeming with life, hundreds of Kurdish with their families camping.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s waterfalls?
SARAH SHOURD: Yeah, yeah, it’s a small waterfall, but it’s a—you know, any water is a big attraction in that area. So, it was lovely. Someone pointed out a trail to us. And if we made any mistake, we hiked too far. We were maybe a bit overzealous and incredibly happy to be together. We saw a soldier in the distance. And he called for us to come to him. And, of course, our first thought was, “Oh, this is a Kurdish soldier. We’re going to have a cup of tea, an interesting conversation.” He—
AMY GOODMAN: Did anyone warn you at the hotel, “By the way, you’re going to be on the border. Be very careful”?
SARAH SHOURD: No one mentioned it. Yeah, we went through several checkpoints. We actually saw Kurdish soldiers when we were at Ahmed Awa, and no one mentioned our proximity to the Iranian border.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Josh, you’re along for the ride here. You guys are hiking. You’re seeing each other. It’s a reunion. You haven’t seen each other for a while. Talk about that hike.
JOSH FATTAL: I had been teaching at a university program in Switzerland, India, Africa and China.
AMY GOODMAN: What were you teaching?
JOSH FATTAL: It was a program—it was a program for American students studying international health, healthcare. And when that program ended in May, I figured I should travel a little bit more before heading back to the United States, so I went to the Middle East and visited these guys, ended up there a little bit longer than I expected. But so, when we were on the hike, we—when we got to the top, we soon realized that we were in Iran, and this is not what we had expected.
AMY GOODMAN: Can I just ask something? Do you think you actually crossed the border? I mean, was there a fence there? Was there some marker?
SARAH SHOURD: No.
SHANE BAUER: No.
AMY GOODMAN: So do you know if you had crossed the border before the Iranian soldier beckoned you?
SHANE BAUER: Well, we were told—you know, after we were arrested, we were kind of taken across the ridge, where there was kind of a hut, a kind of shack where the soldiers were. And there was one—one soldier spoke a tiny bit of English. And, you know, we said, “We want to go back to Iraq.” We asked him where the border was. And he pointed to this kind of path, you know, that we had been walking on, and he said, “That’s the border.” And there was kind of like a little—little mound alongside it. And so, you know, when they called us, we had actually crossed that path. So, you know, from what he was saying, we crossed the border when they actually called us over. And he actually contacted Sarah later on Facebook.
SARAH SHOURD: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: Really?
SARAH SHOURD: Yeah, one of the soldiers contacted me on Facebook. So many people from our experience, other prisoners that we were celled alongside, have contacted me on—and many of—all of us on Facebook. But he—at first I didn’t believe him. I said, “OK, you know, this is Facebook. Why should I believe you? Prove it.” And he gave me—he knew really specific details. And he convinced me that he was one of those soldiers. And I asked him, “Where is the border?” And he said it’s the trail that we were walking on. So, we were on the trail, and they called us off the trail.
SHANE BAUER: And he apologized. He apologized.
AMY GOODMAN: He apologized?
SHANE BAUER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to ask—through this broadcast, I’d like each of you to read a selection from A Sliver of Light. Let’s start with Shane.
SHANE BAUER: Sure. This was a couple days after we had been arrested. We were being transferred around western Iran. And we, at nighttime, were put into a car and were driven out in the countryside.
“’Where are we going?’ Sarah asks in a disarming, honey-sweet voice. 'Sssssss!' the pudgy man hisses, turning around to face us and putting his finger to his lips. The headlights of the car trailing us light up his face, revealing his cold, bored eyes. He turns back to face the front. The solitary lights of country houses stream by like little meteorites. The car falls silent again.
“He picks up the gun in his right hand and cocks it three times.
“Sarah’s eyes widen. Her posture stiffens. She leans toward the man in front and, with a note of desperation, says, 'Ahmadinejad good! Obama bad!' The pistol is resting in his lap. He turns to face us and holds his two hands out with palms facing each other. 'Iran,' he says, nodding [his head] toward one hand. 'America,' he says, lifting the other. 'Problem,' he says, stretching out the distance between them. He checks our faces to make sure his message registered, then drops his arms.
“Sarah turns to me and starts. What does she see? Her eyes are penetrating. 'Do you think he is going to hurt us?' she asks. I don’t know whether to respond [to her] or just stare at her. I am terrified. We walk into our fear together, letting it surround us softly like fog. The immediate prospect of death seems so different than I had imagined it. In my mind, I see us pulling over to the side of the road and leaving the car quietly. My tremulous legs will convey me mechanically over the rocky earth. I will be holding Sarah’s hand and maybe Josh’s too, but I will be mostly gone already, walking flesh with no spirit. We won’t kiss passionately in our final moments before the trigger pull. We won’t scream. We won’t run. We won’t utter fabulous words of defiance as we stare down the gun barrel. We will be like mice, paralyzed by fear, limp in the slack jaw of a cat. We will just stand there. Each of us will fall, one by one, hitting the gravelly earth with a thud.”
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Shane Bauer reading from his new book—I should say, their new book, A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran. We’re joined by Shane, Josh and Sarah. Shane, the selection you just read is chilling. So, talk about what happened from there.
SHANE BAUER: After the—after the section, we—
AMY GOODMAN: That was how long after you were beckoned by the soldier?
SHANE BAUER: I think that was two days after, if I remember right. And after that happened, we were actually taken to a jail out in the country, a small jailhouse. It seemed to be empty. And we were kept there for a couple of days. And, you know, we still thought we were going to be taken back to Iraq. We were near the border. And we were then, one morning, picked up, and they told us they were taking us back to Iraq. And we drove and drove and eventually realized that we were driving east, and we had been driving east for a few hours and realized that we were going to Tehran. And we got to Tehran and were put in a van, blindfolded and driven to what we later found out—months later, really, found out was Evin Prison, the central prison of Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: Where how many prisoners are held?
SHANE BAUER: I don’t know the total number of prisoners held there, but there’s hundreds of political prisoners. It’s a massive prison.
AMY GOODMAN: At what point did you start to understand what you would be charged with?
JOSH FATTAL: You know, up until the end, they weren’t telling us. It wasn’t until six or so months in we saw a news ticker saying that the American spies to be—to go to trial at some point. And then, they—we kept telling our interrogators, “What are we being charged with?” And they would say, “We don’t know.” And then, at that point, we said, “Well, it said it on TV.”
SARAH SHOURD: Yeah.
SHANE BAUER: And they told us that they knew—our interrogators told us, not long after we were arrested, in our interrogations, that they knew that we weren’t spies. They told us that our situation had become political and that it was going to take negotiations between our government and their government for us to be released, and we would just have to wait for that.
AMY GOODMAN: Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal, they’re speaking about their experience in Iranian prison after they were arrested in 2009. They tell their story in a new book released today, A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran. We continue our conversation in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Today, we’re spending the hour with Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal. Their book, A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran, is just out. At first, Sarah and Shane were held in neighboring cells, and Josh was separate. Then the men were put together, and Sarah was held alone in solitary confinement. I asked them about their interrogations and whether they were tortured. We start with Sarah Shourd.
SARAH SHOURD: Well, the interrogations—I mean, in the beginning, we were hunger-striking. I was completely disoriented. But I still had a hard time taking the line of questioning seriously, because it was just a total farce. They were asking—one of the things they demanded of me is to draw a picture of the lobby of the Pentagon. And I said, “I’ve never been to the Pentagon. You know, I’ve never even been to Washington, D.C.” By this time, I’ve been there many, many times, but at that time, I hadn’t. And he said, “But you’re a teacher. You know, all educated people, all teachers, go to the Pentagon.” And if I didn’t, in some level, know that, you know, I was in serious danger, I couldn’t—I would have laughed out loud. But at the same time, it was, you know, impossible to laugh.
SHANE BAUER: There were times that they asked me—one question I was asked was to—they listed several countries in the Middle East and asked me to name them in order of what country is most subservient to the United States to least subservient. They asked me what newspapers are controlled by the CIA, these kind of things. I mean, sometimes it just seemed like whatever was coming to the top of the interrogator’s head, you know, he would ask.
AMY GOODMAN: And they wanted your passwords? They wanted to check your email?
SHANE BAUER: Right, yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Was this an issue?
SHANE BAUER: You know, I initially refused, in my first interrogation, to give them my passwords. And then I was taken back to my cell and was in solitary confinement. And, you know, my head starts spinning immediately, and I, you know, think I’m going to be here, sitting in here, as long as I don’t give them this password. So the next time I saw him, I gave it to him immediately. And, you know, I didn’t have anything to hide, really, you know? I mean, I don’t—
AMY GOODMAN: You were journalist, so you were communicating with people.
SHANE BAUER: Right, yeah, yeah. And, you know, they also managed to kind of wrap that into the narrative of being a spy. You know, they asked me how—how did I get in touch with, you know, defense think tanks in the U.S. Not anybody can do that. And I would tell them, “Just go to the website. There’s a contact button. You know, hit that button, and you can send an email.”
AMY GOODMAN: And, Josh, the questions they asked you?
JOSH FATTAL: They were—you know, the main question, the one that I got every interrogation at least once and had to—was: What is your full biography? And it’s kind of a tough question to answer in a few words, but that’s what they’d ask. And then, constantly asking, “What were you doing hiking there?” So these were the two main questions. But, for me, they seemed to really be asking about my heritage and any trips I took to Israel. My father is Israeli, and so half my family is in Israel, and they wanted to know what I did, who I met, what I—you know, and it was just like, “Well, I went to, you know, Aunt Yael’s house. We drank tea and then headed home.” I said, “We didn’t do anything.” So, and then they’d give me like a list of names, you know, to sort of identify, and I usually couldn’t—I couldn’t identify any of them. They were names that, to me, struck me as quite Jewish names, but—
AMY GOODMAN: Did you say you were Jewish right away?
JOSH FATTAL: Originally, no. I mean, originally, I didn’t know what to say, and I just was like, “I’m Christian.” You know, I guess I was just sort of scared and thought I’d just—might as well hide that in the Islamic Republic of Iran. But again, their questions were totally—one of the first questions they asked me was, “Well, look, if you’re really American,” because they were accusing me of being French at the first stop, was, “Please, spell supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” And, you know—and I was like, “Really? Is it”—so, it was very disorienting at the beginning. But at a certain point, that ended, and they—after two months, the interrogations sort of wound down, and they admitted that they knew we weren’t spies, but it had become political.
AMY GOODMAN: Were there beatings, psychological torture?
JOSH FATTAL: Yeah, I mean, we could hear the beatings, but we weren’t the object of those beatings.
AMY GOODMAN: You were considered high-value prisoners? Did you feel that protected you?
SHANE BAUER: Sure.
SARAH SHOURD: Eventually, yeah. I mean, I think we realized—in the beginning, I was afraid that we would be beaten, that I would be raped. I had heard stories of women being raped in Iranian prison, prisoners. But we soon realized that we were too valuable, that we were, you know, indeed like an investment for the Iranian government, that they were eventually going to cash in for some sort of—they wanted to look strong and defiant, the Iranian government, and—but eventually, they didn’t want to look cruel forever, so they would eventually let us go, and they didn’t want us to be harmed.
SHANE BAUER: And we used that to our advantage, you know, the knowing that we were valuable. We felt that we weren’t, you know, subject to the same kind of things that a lot of Iranian prisoners were subject to. We were pretty sure we weren’t going to be physically tortured. So we, you know, kind of, in a sense, had some power, knowing that we could push for better conditions. You know, if we went on hunger strike, they would worry, because they didn’t want us to come out harmed, like looking like we had been tortured.
SARAH SHOURD: And solitary confinement is psychological torture. I was in solitary confinement for 410 days. And the U.N. says that anything over 15 days can cause permanent and lasting damage and constitute torture. There have been scientific studies that say after two or three days, your brain waves start to shift toward stupor or delirium. It reduces you to an almost animal state. I spent hours and hours crouched by the small food slot in my door, just listening for sounds, pacing compulsively, eating my food with my hands. And there were times that I screamed and beat at the walls of my cell.
And what people need to understand is that this doesn’t only happen in places—in countries like Iran or places like Guantánamo. This is a widespread and prevalent practice in our own country. We have 80,000 people in solitary confinement on any given day, many of them for years, many of them for decades. And these are not the most violent prisoners. Some of them have done violent things. A lot of them are in for arbitrary reasons. There’s no oversight. Petty prison infractions.
AMY GOODMAN: Describe what happened the day you thought you were hearing someone screaming.
SARAH SHOURD: Yeah, that was the worst breakdown I’ve ever experienced. I lost—I lost a sense of who I was. And I heard screaming, and it sounded—all I could think is I wanted it to stop. And it sounded far away. And then the doors of my cell burst open, and one of the guards came in and started shaking me. And I looked at her, and through her eyes I could see myself, and I realized that I had been screaming. And I had been beating at the walls.
AMY GOODMAN: And they were streaked with blood.
SARAH SHOURD: Yeah, my knuckles were bloody. That was a dramatic moment. You know, the majority of time in solitary confinement is spent pacing, trying to stop repetitive thoughts that just play again and again, trying to calm your fears and phobias and to focus on reading a book. When I eventually got books, I would have days where I’d read the same pages over and over again and understand nothing, and get so frustrated I would just throw it at the wall.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the meetings you would have in the courtyard. This was your one moment, Sarah, in the day of coming out of solitary confinement. What was the courtyard called?
SARAH SHOURD: Hava khori.
AMY GOODMAN: Which means?
SARAH SHOURD: It means “eating air.” Yeah, my whole life was oriented around those visits. I would plan my entire day just counting down the minutes, with an activity to fill, you know, every hour, every minute, until it happened. And then, as it got closer and closer, I would get more and more nervous and agitated and always afraid that somehow it wouldn’t happen. I never—you can never let your guard down; you’re always hypervigilant. And there would be days where, because of weather or random reasons, they would refuse it. And I’d start pacing in my cell and wringing my hands together, crying sometimes. And it just—because I was anticipating the one relief I had. And we made the most of that time. We—
AMY GOODMAN: How long would you have together?
SARAH SHOURD: Oh, it changed. In the beginning, it was only a half an hour a week, and then it was a half an hour a day, and eventually an hour a day. At the very end, it was two hours a day. And I think, specifically, I have the U.N. to thank for that. The special rapporteur against torture démarched the Iranian human rights—government about my case. And officially, solitary confinement is 22 to 23 hours alone a day. So I think they tried, at the very end, to get me out of solitary confinement. But according to the U.N., you know, 22 hours a day is still solitary confinement.
So, that time was—it was often really difficult for me to come out of my numbness and connect with them. It was hard to make eye contact. Sometimes I just wanted to stay in my own little shell, my own, you know, box. But Shane and Josh would draw me out. They would make me laugh. They would make just special moments happen again and again, and it brought me back from the edge of sanity countless times.
AMY GOODMAN: Before it was Josh and Shane in one cell and you, for that long haul, in solitary confinement. When you work side by side, you actually managed to get out of your cell one night.
SHANE BAUER: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain.
SARAH SHOURD: Yeah, yeah.
SHANE BAUER: Well, there was one night that I think one of the guards was sick, and so the section that we were held in, there was only one guard. And it was—there were female guards in that section. They actually put me in the cell next to Sarah in the female part of the prison, and—but since—the men would always come up and bring me food. One night, they left open the little door on my cell, the little window, and I reached down, and the key was in the door, and I could open it. So I, late at night, opened the door and kind of peeked out, and they were still out there. And there was a vent between mine and Sarah’s cell. And I said to her, just kind of jokingly, you know, “What would you say if I said I could sneak into your cell through this vent?” And she said, “I would tell you to do it immediately.” And then I said, “OK, I’m going to do it.” And she—I was serious, and she was kind of like, “Wait a second. I don’t know if you should do this. You know, this is kind of crazy.” But we waited late into the night until the guards were sleeping, and I snuck out of my cell and went into her cell.
SARAH SHOURD: Yeah. And, of course, it was, you know, amazing to be—we’d been talking through a vent for the majority of days, for weeks and weeks, but hadn’t seen each other. And, of course, it was wonderful to be able to touch and have physical intimacy. But it’s also being able to get around the restrictions imposed on you as a prisoner. All prisoners do this. You’ll spend every waking moment coming up with a plan on how to beat them, you know, how to get around their insane, horrible control. And that’s how you resist. That’s how you stay sane and how you stop from becoming institutionalized.
AMY GOODMAN: It was hard to smile reading A Sliver of Light, but when you both went back to your rooms, and you found you were wearing each other’s pants, I have to say—what did that mean to you, that moment, since you were feeling so isolated, alienated from your own selves, let alone each other, to be able to get together like that?
SARAH SHOURD: It meant that they couldn’t break us. They couldn’t—they could never tear us apart, that no matter how long it was until we saw each other again, until we were able to touch like that, we would—you know, nothing could break that, the bond between us.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah, talk about the moment when one day you saw Shane, but you didn’t see Josh. At first, you were alarmed?
SARAH SHOURD: Yeah, yeah, I—as much as I knew that it was good for Shane and I to have time alone together, the three of us were a unit, you know, an unbreakable team. And I was always conflicted about whether or not Shane and I should have time alone, because I wanted Josh there. And I thought maybe something had gone wrong. I was worried. But it was—it definitely caught me off guard. It was an unusual place to be proposed to, but Shane is not a usual guy.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you did, Shane.
SHANE BAUER: Well, I had decided, while I was in solitary, actually, that I wanted to marry Sarah. It was—we had have been together for a few years, and after she was taken away from me, it was very clear to me that I wanted to be with her for the rest of my life. But I had thought I would do it when we got out of prison. You know, I didn’t—it wasn’t an ideal place to make a wedding proposal. But, you know, we started getting a sense that Sarah might be released before us, and I didn’t know when I would see her again. And so, I made a ring, you know, in my cell out of thread. It was one of many examples of kind of using what we had, you know, to get by. And I didn’t tell Josh what I was doing, because I didn’t know if I would go through with it. You know, whether I was in prison or not, I was still nervous, you know? And I went outside and, you know, gave her this thread ring and asked her if she would marry me.
SARAH SHOURD: I mean, it gave us something to hang onto. It gave us one guarantee that we would have a life together. And when you have absolutely no certainty and everything has been taken from you, it means a lot.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd. They’ve just written a book about their experience in Iranian prison, their experience in solitary confinement, called A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran. Sarah, can you read your selection from A Sliver of Light?
SARAH SHOURD: Sure.
“I decide to ring for the guard and ask for my nightly shower. 'Nah,' she says, [exasperated], 'kaar daaram.' I’m busy. I begin to pantomime, performing like a trained monkey, smelling my armpits and crinkling up my nose. 'Okay, enough, Sarah, quickly!' I grab my towel, hastily tie my blindfold around my head, and charge down the hall toward the showers.
“I slam the bathroom door behind me and quickly begin undressing. I crank the hot-water knob as high as it will go, steaming up the room like a sauna. …
“Suddenly I hear the door open in the small room next to the showers. I hear voices—then the door shuts. Is someone out there? A barred window is usually kept unlocked so we can vent excess steam. I quietly unlatch it, peering into the small courtyard. And a young woman stares back at me.
“Think fast, I tell myself. It’s been several months since one of the guards has made such a slip. I grab the bars between us, bringing my face as close to hers as I can, and begin to speak. 'I Sarah. American. Long time here, no freedom,' I whisper in my ridiculous, infantile Farsi. 'You please phone mother Sarah. Sarah no spy, Sarah love Iran people, Sarah teacher, Damascus. Please you freedom phone mother Sarah, okay?'
“The woman looks straight at me. 'I know you, Sarah,' she says in awkward but good English. 'I am sorry, but I am not free, and I cannot help you.'”
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about who she was.
SARAH SHOURD: I actually never saw this woman again. It was one of dozens of interactions I had with other political prisoners. Many of them were brief and much more brief than this. They would shout “I love you” down the hall, or they would say, “Just wait, you’ll be free,” or give me information about my mother and news from the outside.
One of the most profound and lasting interactions I had was with a woman named Zahra Bahrami, who was Dutch Iranian. She was a dual citizen. And she was arrested during the Ashura protests, which was following the huge protests for human rights and democracy that exploded in Iran in 2009 shortly before we were captured. Just, we thought that the Green—it was often referred to as the Green Movement. We thought it was over, but the Ashura protests were huge and very intense, and there were lots of—there was a lot of violence and repression. People died in the streets. And the prison filled with new people. And Zahra was one of them.
In the beginning, she would just call out to me, and I heard her crying, but I was—I had already been caught talking to other women, and I was terrified of being caught again, so I tried to block it out. One day I was sitting in the corner of my cell trying to read a book, and I heard a voice. I heard someone say, “Sarah,” and I didn’t know if I was imagining it, I didn’t know if it was real. And I looked around me, and there was no one there. And I heard it again: “Sarah.” And I realized that above my sink there was a vent, and I remembered how Shane and I used to talk through the vent. So I jumped onto the sink, and I was able to talk to this woman. She told me that she hadn’t been allowed to see her embassy, that she had been beaten at the bottom of her feet and tortured, and she was barely able to stand. And she said that she saw my mother on BBC and that my mother was fighting for me, that, you know, the world was fighting for me. And at that moment, the guard barged in and caught us. And she was transferred.
I never thought I would see her again. But months later, she came back, and we were actually able to devise a clandestine way of communicating through letters. We would hide them in the bathroom trash. We both—I had devised a small pen from a piece of metal. It wrote like a pencil. And we—she mostly just said, “Iranians don’t hate Americans. I love you. We should meet in the Netherlands. We’ll dance. We’ll become best friends.” The incredible thing about Zahra and so many of the women there was they taught me how to be a political prisoner. But they never charged her with her political crimes. They only charged her with the drug crimes. And she was executed months after my release.
AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned your mothers. And I wanted to play clip from May 2010. This is after you were allowed, all of you, to meet with your mothers.
SARAH SHOURD: Our treatment is—is decent. It’s really difficult being alone. Shane and Josh are in the room together, but I’m alone. And that’s the most difficult thing for me. But I see them twice a day. So, we have good food, and we have medical care, which is appreciated. And we have reading materials, television.
SHANE BAUER: We hope that—that Iran can continue with the humanitarian gestures, like letting our mothers come, by releasing us on humanitarian grounds.
AMY GOODMAN: There you are, Shane and Sarah, with your mother. Talk about that moment for both of you.
SHANE BAUER: As amazing as it felt to be with our mothers, it also felt, you know, like kind of a cruel gift. We were—you know, they were essentially using us to show that they were—you know, put us in front of the cameras and showed that they were treating us well by allowing our mothers to come and visit. And, of course, we weren’t going to turn anything like that down. We wanted to see them more than anything.
AMY GOODMAN: I now want to go to all of your mothers coming into the studio here in New York soon after they saw you in Iran. First you’ll hear Nora Shourd, then Cindy Hickey, then Laura Fattal.
CINDY HICKEY: You know, my main goal to go there was to fill them with hope, let them know what’s happening here, and bring them home, which we didn’t get to do.
AMY GOODMAN: Nora, can you describe seeing your children? Where were you? Did you go to the prison?
NORA SHOURD: No, we weren’t allowed to go to the prison. We were in a hotel in Tehran, which was, I think, close to the prison. So the kids were brought there. They did not know we were there. So when they walked in this room—I’m sorry—they were just completely shocked to see us. It was really overwhelmingly emotional for us. I mean, for hours we didn’t want to let go of these kids. We couldn’t stop crying. I mean, it was like very difficult. Every time we think of the images again, this happens to us. I can speak for myself: It’s very hard to forget what we went through.
LAURA FATTAL: This has been going on since October. We have heard the words “espionage,” and we’ve heard the words “prisoner swap” from October. The kids were taken the last day of July. So it is not news. It arrives, it disappears, it comes forward, it disappears, and nothing has come of it.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Laura Fattal and Nora Shourd and Cindy Hickey just after they had returned from Iran. I want to jump forward to when you were released. How did you ultimately get out, Sarah?
SARAH SHOURD: Well, I give a tremendous amount of credit to our families and friends and the campaign, the really brilliant strategy they devised. Our story so easily could have fed into the animosity between the U.S. and Iranian governments. You know, the total breakdown in diplomacy was the reason that we were being held in the first place. But our families upended that narrative. They never—they, again and again, made it clear that Iran is no enemy to us, nor is Iran an enemy to the American people. And they—my mother devised a brilliant strategy, with the support of everyone else, to really push my health issues. And after that visit, she knew that I had no health problems. The Iranian government knew that I had no health problems. I had concerns that were never addressed, but my mother knew that she could use that as a way for the Iranian government to save face, for them to let me out without looking weak, without looking like they were giving in to U.S. pressure. But, of course, what they were really giving in to was international pressure.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to that moment in 2010, shortly after you were released from prison in Iran. This is one of your first statements to the media, Sarah.
SARAH SHOURD: I know how much effort has gone into this, and I’m extremely grateful. I feel, myself, I have a huge debt to repay the world for what it’s done for me. And my first priority is to help my fiancé, Shane Bauer, and my friend, Josh Fattal, to gain their freedom, because they don’t deserve to be in prison anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: So there you are right near the airport as you’re about to leave and saying ultimately that you wouldn’t feel free until Shane and Josh were free. Talk about your organizing over that next year and what people did, and the countries involved in your release.
SARAH SHOURD: The only way that I could in any way justify being free—I didn’t want to leave without them. I hated every minute of it. But the only way I could justify it is that I knew I could make a difference, that I believed I could make a difference and I could get them out sooner. And I worked very closely with the Omani government. Later, I was able to enlist the—both the Iraqi government and the Venezuelan government, which is—are both amazing stories in and of themselves.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, tell us, quickly. For example, Oman, which was so pivotal to your release, as well as Shane and Josh.
SARAH SHOURD: Well, Oman was involved from the very beginning.
AMY GOODMAN: Why Oman?
SARAH SHOURD: They play a very important role as mediators on many issues between the U.S. and Iran. They have—they play an important role in the Middle East. And they knew that this is not going to be good for either country. And Oman has been very involved in the nuclear deal, the recent historic temporary agreement between the U.S. and Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel this negotiation paved the way for the current negotiations?
SARAH SHOURD: Well, we do know that the same envoy that advocated for us and paid our bail and worked on our behalf for years, he arranged high-level meetings between U.S. officials and Iranian officials on Omani soil. And those meetings started as a platform to talk about our case, and then that opened doors for the nuclear negotiations.
AMY GOODMAN: How much was paid for your release?
SARAH SHOURD: Half a million dollars for each of us.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, then, a million to get the two of you out about a year later. I wanted to go to Josh and Shane addressing reporters at the news conference in 2011 in New York. It was quite amazing to see the three of you there. These, your first comments since being released.
JOSH FATTAL: It was clear to us from the very beginning that we were hostages. “Hostage” is the most accurate term because, despite certain knowledge of our innocence, the Iranian government has tied our case to its political disputes with the U.S. Thank you.
SHANE BAUER: We will always regret the grief and anxiety that our fateful hiking trip led to, above all for our families. But we would like to be very clear: This was never about crossing the unmarked border between Iran and Iraq. We were held because of our nationality.
AMY GOODMAN: The scene of you before that, at the airport in Oman, when you greeted your families, and Sarah and Shane, you were together again after a year—what was that moment like?
SHANE BAUER: It was like being shot out of a cannon. I mean, Josh and I, the doors opened, we ran down the stairs, just to see the people that we had thought about every day there, to see Sarah there looking so strong. You know, she looked like a free woman; the last time I saw her, looked like a prisoner, you know? And it was just amazing to be there, to embrace them, to breathe fresh air. It was the best day of my life.
AMY GOODMAN: Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal. Their book, A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran, is just out. When we come back, they talk about what they have dedicated their lives to since their release from prison. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Today we’re spending the hour with Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal, the authors of their new book, A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran. I asked them about the focus of their work since their release. I began by asking Shane.
SHANE BAUER: Once I left prison, it wasn’t—it didn’t feel over, you know? I thought about the people I was in prison with. I thought about prisoners, you know, around the world. And it made sense to me to start looking into prisons in this country. We have the largest prison population in the world. We have 80,000 people in solitary confinement. We have some that have been in for decades, you know? And it’s this part of our society that I think goes unseen. And as a former prisoner, I had a very different perspective on it, and it was something that was always at the top of my mind.
AMY GOODMAN: Last year, more than 12,000 prisoners in California went on a hunger strike in a push to end long-term solitary confinement, which they call a form of indefinite state-sanctioned torture. Shane, you went to Pelican Bay.
SHANE BAUER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And you took a tour of the facility for Mother Jones magazine. This is a clip from a video that accompanied Shane’s report, when officials gave him a tour of one of the 11-by-seven-foot solitary confinement cells in the security housing unit, or SHU.
SHANE BAUER: Why don’t they have windows here?
LT. CHRIS ACOSTA: Just the way it was designed.
SHANE BAUER: But why?
LT. CHRIS ACOSTA: I don’t know. I can’t explain that.
DAVID BARNEBURG: The inmate will be in the cell, and then a food tray will be passed through the cell.
SHANE BAUER: If they ever leave the pod, prisoners have to strip naked, pass their hands through a food slot to be handcuffed, then wait for the door to open.
DAVID BARNEBURG: Inmates come out to, you know, get some exercise. There’s more room to run out here.
SHANE BAUER: Prisoners only get an hour in this concrete dog run every day.
AMY GOODMAN: How did it feel to return to solitary confinement, if only to tour through it now in the U.S.?
SHANE BAUER: You know, when I walked into that cell, I was shocked. I was shocked that there was no window in that cell. You know, I—the smallest things, when you’re in solitary confinement, are the world, you know? And not having an access—no direct sunlight for years on end was just mind-blowing to me. And you have to remember that some of the people that are in these cells, you know, they didn’t necessarily commit acts of violence. Some of them are there because of—they had a picture with somebody who was a gang associate, or somebody who had drawings, or even one person I knew that was—had spent years in the SHU had a journal, where he had written kind of bits of African-American history, the number of hangings of African Americans in a given time period, and this was considered gang material, writings by Mumia Abu-Jamal. So, you know, people were put in these conditions that, to me, were even more severe, in a way, than conditions that I had been through in Iran. And it was shocking to me. You know, it was really shocking to me to step into that.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah, you’re now working with Solitary Watch. Explain what it is.
SARAH SHOURD: Solitary Watch is an organization that is bringing stories of people in prolonged solitary confinement in our country out for the public to look at. It’s—
AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip from Opening the Box, which is this play that you’re writing based on the real story of people talking about their experiences.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: [written by Jafar Saidi] “The real world is not a place in the hole, but the hole is nonetheless really here. The first time I did 18 months in the hole, I saw only three or four colors. I felt only concrete and steel.”
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: [written by Jafar Saidi] “In the hole, painful memories begin to throw out shoots and sprout like brittle weeds until finally the weeds choke to death everything else in the garden. You are left with a cold wasteland of scrubby weeds, flinty stone and dusty soil.”
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s a clip about the play that you’re doing, Opening the Box.
SARAH SHOURD: Yeah. With Solitary Watch, I’ve already gathered over 75 oral testimonies and written testimonies through in-depth letter correspondences with prisoners in solitary all over the country. And really, for me, this has been a very important part of my own—of making sense of my own experience. When I first got out of prison, I felt extremely alone. One of the worst things about post-traumatic stress is there’s—there was no one around me that understood what I had gone through. And prison is, for some people, in this—in certain communities in our country, it’s a shocking, rare event. Particularly in affluent communities or mostly white communities, it’s not considered a common thing. But in our country as a whole, prison is anything but not uncommon. One in every 100 people in our country will go to prison at some point in their lives. Our prison population is the size of Boston, D.C. and San Francisco combined. So, for me, hearing stories from other people that had experienced the same kind of torture that I’ve experienced really helped me.
AMY GOODMAN: Shane Bauer, how does Guantánamo fit into this picture?
SHANE BAUER: Well, you know, we were held—Josh and I were held for two years without trial, you know, and there were times in prison that, you know, I—when I was in solitary confinement, I asked my guards, you know, “Why am I in solitary? Why won’t you let me out?” And I remember one guard saying, “Well, what about Guantánamo? How long are they held in Guantánamo?” I said, “When can we go to trial?” “Well, how long have people been held in Guantánamo without trial?”
And, you know—and there were other times when we heard prisoners getting beaten. And Josh and I pounded on the door, and the guards would come running. And we learned that the way to get them was to say, “What is this? Guantánamo?” And they were so insulted by that. You know, in their mind, being compared to this prison, which to them was the worst prison possible, was an insult, and they would actually stop beating people.
And, you know, I think that, really, it’s simple. I mean, we—I was held for two years without trial, and there was no evidence against me. And I think very few people in our society would think that’s justified. We believe in trial by jury in this country. And we should, you know, apply that everywhere. This should be applied all over the world, including in Guantánamo Bay, where people have been held for years, some over 10 years, without trial.
AMY GOODMAN: Josh Fattal, could you read your selection from A Sliver of Light?
JOSH FATTAL: Yes. This is while I was in solitary confinement.
“A tall well-built guard charges down the hallway. … [He clashes] a few feet from my door [with a prisoner]. I hear a single smack. I rush to [the] door to listen as I cringe at the cruelty of this place. The prisoner releases a desperate yell. Then the drizzle turns to thunder. I hear each blow as they rain down on him just eight feet from where I stand. He screams as if [being] impaled [by] stakes. The whole prison must be able to hear him. A nearby inmate bangs on his door in solidarity. Almost immediately I chime in along with everyone else—all of us banging on our doors to protest the beating. The uprising is contagious, and the sense of rebellion has my blood rushing. This is our moment of power, our moment of instantaneous and blind solidarity. The guards can’t [stop us. They can’t] shut us up, though they run frantically up and down the hallways trying. They seem scared and uncertain—emotions usually felt only by us prisoners.
“We continue banging and yelling [even] after the beating stops.
“The belligerent guard bursts into my cell. Fire rages in his eyes. His fists clench by his side. He’s the one [who’s done] the beating and he’s wound up like a bulldog on a leash. I take a few steps away from the door. He charges forward, fuming. Facing the beast eye to eye, I feel calmer [and] more alive than I have for weeks. 'I DON'T WANT TO FIGHT!’ I yell at him even though I know he doesn’t understand English. He stares at me, deciding my fate.
“He backpedals out of my cell as though yanked by a leash.
“By late afternoon the sounds are long gone. The fight [unleashes] the violence that always simmers just below the surface [in prison]. On my way to hava khori, [the courtyard], I see the bulldog guard with his back against the wall, arms crossed and [his] head [is] bowed. He is now a contrite puppy. He raises his head slowly and [gently] takes hold of my arm. He enunciates slowly as if he’s rehearsed the English [apology], 'Excuse me.'”
AMY GOODMAN: As you go out on the road now, the three of you with your book, you relive all of this again. How do you cope with it?
JOSH FATTAL: You know, it doesn’t—it doesn’t fully leave me. I mean, even last—you know, recently, with the nuclear negotiations going on, I was up all night thinking about it. It’s important to me that these countries can come together and sort of end this mutual hostility that ended up stealing two years of my life.
AMY GOODMAN: I know you all have to leave to move on with this book tour, as you travel the country talking about both your own experiences and solitary confinement, in general, but I wanted to end where you begin, and that’s with the title of the book, A Sliver of Light. Why did you choose that title?
SHANE BAUER: I think there’s a different reason. One is the literal interpretation, is, you know, when we’re in our cells, especially before we have any way of noting time, when we’re in solitary confinement, the way that we measured the passing of the day was the light that was cast through our window. And since we’ve named the book this, whenever I mention it to somebody who’s been in prison, they know immediately what it means. You know, there were cells that Josh and I were in where there were actually marks on the wall with numbers written by them that would mark the time of the day. You know, it’s—but, for me, sometimes it was the time—you know, by this corner, this might be when the interrogator comes; by this corner, it’s dinnertime. And, you know, that’s what kind of—what carried us through.
SARAH SHOURD: The importance of our book, for me, personally, is it’s a story of freedom. I mean, it’s a story of the horror of losing your freedom and the miracle of getting it back. But it’s not just about our story; it’s also about all the people that we had to leave behind, the people that helped us in prison, and the people in our own country that don’t have that sliver of light, that don’t have the hope of getting out.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal. They tell their story in their new book, released today, A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran. You can read an excerpt of the book on our website, democracynow.org. We’ll also link to all of our coverage of the hikers over the years at democracynow.org. Sarah, Shane and Josh are speaking tonight at Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. They then head off to Philadelphia, to Cambridge, Baltimore, Cambridge, Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, Berkeley and Seattle.
I’m speaking tonight at the Socially Relevant Film Festival here in New York at the Quad Cinema on 13th Street at 7:15. Then on March 29th, I’ll be in St. Louis at the Gateway Journalism Review’s First Amendment celebration.