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Hiker imprisoned in Iran describes ordeal, pleads for companions' release

A new film tells the story of three Americans who were hiking in Iraq but ended up being detained by Iranian soldiers. Sarah Shourd spent 410 days in Tehran's Evin Prison; her companions, including her fiance, are still there.

February 05, 2011|By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times
  • Nora Shourd and her daughter Sarah Shourd at USC before a screening of "Free Shane and Josh: An Urgent Plea for Compassion."
Nora Shourd and her daughter Sarah Shourd at USC before a screening of "Free… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

There were days when Sarah Shourd couldn't bring herself to get out of bed. She didn't eat. She wanted to disappear.

But even in the most difficult moments, alone in an Iranian prison cell, her mind would drift back to her mother.

"I just knew that I had to pick myself up, and I had to go on, and I had to be strong for her," Shourd says in a 25-minute film in which she offers new details about her 410 days in Tehran's Evin Prison.

Her mother, Nora, was at her side late last month when the 32-year-old American visited USC for a screening of "Free Shane and Josh: An Urgent Plea for Compassion."

Shourd was released in September on $500,000 bail. But her fiance, Shane Bauer, and their friend, Josh Fattal, both 28, remain in Evin Prison and are scheduled to go on trial Sunday for espionage. Iranian officials said the court has summoned Shourd to attend the hearing. Shourd has not said whether she plans to return to Tehran.

The three UC Berkeley graduates were on a hiking trip in a scenic part of northern Iraq when they were accused of illegally crossing into Iran. A leaked report posted by WikiLeaks in the fall suggested that U.S. military officials believed the hikers were still in Iraq when they were detained.

"We may have hiked a little bit too far that day, but we had no intention of being anywhere near Iran," Shourd said during a panel discussion organized by the USC Gould School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic. "This whole thing has been a huge misunderstanding."

Shourd has been cautious about speaking to the media while her companions remain imprisoned. But she agreed to share her experiences with filmmaker Jeff Kaufman, who has done work for Amnesty International.

Family members who spoke on film described the three as committed humanitarians who campaigned against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Shourd, who lives in Oakland, had worked with indigenous women in the Chiapas region of Mexico. Bauer, who is from Minnesota, produced a documentary on rebels fighting in Sudan's Darfur region. Fattal, who is from Pennsylvania, was part of a sustainable living community in Oregon.

In July 2009, Fattal visited Bauer and Shourd in Damascus, Syria, where the couple had spent a year together working and studying Arabic. Shourd was teaching English to Iraqi and Palestinian refugees, and Bauer was working as a photojournalist. She calls the experience "one of the best years of my life."

During Fattal's visit, the three decided to take a trip together. Friends in Damascus recommended the Kurdish region of Iraq, which is semi-autonomous, relatively peaceful and a local tourist destination.

Shourd describes in the film what happened next.

After spending a few days in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniya, Shourd said they asked their hotel manager about a good place to go hiking. He suggested the waterfall at Ahmed Awa, a popular picnicking spot among Kurdish families.

They set off by bus, leaving behind a traveling companion who was ill that day. The place was packed, Shourd said. The next morning, they followed a trail recommended by a "friendly tea salesman." They had been hiking for several hours when they came across a soldier armed with a rifle, but she said he motioned for them to continue down the trail.

"There was no fence, no flag, no indication of a border of any kind," she said.

They then met another soldier who motioned for them to approach. "So we stepped off of the trail and walked towards that soldier," she said. When they reached him, "he said, 'Iran' and pointed to the ground where we were standing. And then he pointed to the trail that we had been on, and he said, 'Iraq.'"

She said they tried to turn back, but the soldier insisted they come with him.

"Up to the last minute before we came to the doors of Evin Prison, they told us we were going to an airport, and they were going to put us on a plane and send us back home," Shourd said. Instead, "they blindfolded us, and they tore us apart and threw us into different cells."

She said her interrogators would ask her to write about her work in Damascus, then tear up the pages and make her start again. At night, she would wrap a shirt around her eyes because the light in her cell was always on.

About halfway through the third month, the three were allowed to spend time together in a courtyard — just half an hour every two days at first, then an hour a day, Shourd said.

To help keep their spirits up, she would compose songs to sing to the others. (One is posted on the website , along with the film)

One day, Bauer arrived in the courtyard alone.

"We were sitting on this blanket, holding hands with our arms around each other, and Shane just looked really serious, and he said: 'Will you marry me?'" Shourd recalled. "I was so stunned. So he said, 'Is that a yes?' And I was like, 'Yes, yes, that's a yes.'"

From that day, she said, "our marriage became a symbol of our future together, and Josh was very much part of that because Josh is going to be our best man."

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