How We Survived Two Years of Hell As Hostages in Tehran
The nightmare began on July 31, 2009. I was living in Damascus, covering the Middle East as a freelance journalist, with my girlfriend, Sarah Shourd, a teacher. Our friend Josh Fattal had come to see us, and to celebrate, we took a short trip to Iraqi Kurdistan. The autonomous region—isolated from the violence that wracked the rest of Iraq—was a budding Western tourist destination. After two days of visiting castles and museums, we headed to the Zagros Mountains, where locals directed us to a campground near a waterfall. After a breakfast of bread and cheese, we hiked up a trail we'd been told offered beautiful views. We walked for a few hours, up a winding valley between brown mountains mottled with patches of yellow grass that looked like lion's fur. We didn't know that we were headed toward the worst 26 months of our lives.
JOSH (July 31, 2009)
"You guys," Sarah says with hesitancy. "I think we should head back."
"Really?" Shane sounds surprised. "How could we not pop up to the ridge? We're so close."
Shane knows I want to reach the top. "Josh, what do you want to do?" he asks.
"I think we should just go to the ridge—it's only a couple minutes away. Let's take a quick peek, then come right back down." Just as we're setting out, Sarah stops in her tracks. "There's a soldier on the ridge. He's got a gun," she says. "He's waving us up the trail." I pause and look at my friends. Maybe it's an Iraqi army outpost. We stride silently uphill. I can feel my heart pounding against my ribs.
The soldier is young and nonchalant, and he beckons us to him with a wave. When we finally approach him, he asks, "Farsi?"
"Faransi?" Shane asks, then continues in Arabic. "I don't speak French. Do you speak Arabic?"
"Shane!" I whisper urgently. "He asked if we speak Farsi!" I notice the red, white, and green flag on the soldier's lapel. This isn't an Iraqi soldier. We're in Iran.
The soldier signals us to follow him to a small, unmarked building. Around us, mountains unfold in all directions. A portly man in a pink shirt who looks like he just woke up starts barking orders. He stays with us as his soldiers dig through our bags. His eyes are on Sarah—scanning up and down. I can feel her tensing up.
I keep asking, "Iran? Iraq?" trying to figure out where the border lies and pleading with them to let us go. Sarah finds a guy who speaks a little English and seems trustworthy. He points to the ground under his feet and says, "Iran." Then he points to the road we came on and says, "Iraq." We start making a fuss, insisting we should be allowed to leave because they called us over their border. He agrees and says in awkward English, "You are true." It's a remote outpost and our arrival is probably the most interesting thing that has happened for years.
The English speaker approaches us again after talking to the commander. "You. Go," he says. "You. Go. Iran."
SHANE (August 2, 2009)
Beneath the night sky, the city is smearing slowly past our windows. Who are these two men in the front seats? Where are they taking us? They aren't speaking. The pudgy man in the passenger seat is making the little movements that nervous people do: coughing fake coughs; adjusting his seating position compulsively. Everyone in the car is trying to prove to one another, and maybe to ourselves, that we aren't afraid.
But Sarah's hand is growing limp in mine. Something is very wrong.
"He's got a gun," Josh says, startled but calm. "He just put it on the dash."
"Where are we going?" Sarah asks in a disarming, honey-sweet voice. "Sssssss!" the pudgy man hisses, turning around and putting his finger to his lips. The headlights of the car trailing us light up his face, revealing his cold, bored eyes. He picks up the gun in his right hand and cocks it.
Sarah's eyes widen. She leans toward the man in front and, with a note of desperation, says, "Ahmadinejad good!" (thumbs up) "Obama bad!" (thumbs down). The pistol is resting in his lap. He turns to face us again and holds both his hands out with palms facing each other. "Iran," he says, nodding toward one hand. "America," he says, lifting the other. "Problem," he says, stretching out the distance between them.
Sarah turns to me. "Do you think he is going to hurt us?" she asks. I don't know whether to respond or just stare at her.
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.
Each of us will fall, one by one, hitting the gravelly earth with a thud.
Sarah pumps Josh's and my hands. Her eyes have sudden strength in them, forced yet somehow genuine. "We're going to be okay, you guys. They are just trying to scare us."
JOSH (August 4, 2009)
My sandals clap loudly on the floor as I try to catch my momentum and keep my balance. After every few steps, they spin me in circles. My mind tries desperately to remember the way back.
The door shuts behind me. The clanging metal reverberates until silence resumes. I stand at the door, distraught and disoriented. Whatever script, whatever drama I thought I was in, ends now. Whatever stage I thought I was on is now empty. I dodder to the corner of my cell and take a seat on the carpet. There is nothing in my 8-by-12-foot cell: no mattress, no chair—just a room, empty except for three wool blankets. My prison uniform—blue pants, blue collared shirt—blends with the blue marble wall behind me and the tight blue carpet below.
Shane and Sarah are probably sulking in the corners of their cells too. We agreed we'd hunger strike if we were split up. Now I don't feel defiant. I just feel lost.
Sarah's glasses are in my breast pocket. She gave them to me to hold when they made us wear blindfolds. She didn't have pockets in her prison uniform—they dressed her in heaps of dark clothes, including a brown hijab. I empty my other pockets: lip balm from the hike and a wafer wrapper—the remnant of my measly lunch.
I don't know what I'll do in here for the rest of the day. I sense the hovering blankness—a zone of mindlessness that looms over my psyche and lives in the silence of my cell.
SARAH (August 6, 2009)
"Sarah, eat this cookie."
"Not until I see Josh and Shane."
I'm sitting blindfolded in a classroom chair. A cookie is on the desk in front of me.
"Do you think we care if you eat, Sarah?"
They do care. I know that much. I've been on hunger strike since they split us up two days ago. At first it was difficult, but I'm learning how to conserve my energy. When I stand up, my heart beats furiously, so I lie on the floor most of the day. Terrible thoughts and images occupy my mind—my mom balled up on the floor screaming when she learns I've been captured, masked prison guards coming into my cell to rape me—but I've found ways to distract myself, like slowly going over multiplication tables in my head.
"Sarah, why did you come to the Middle East to live in Damascus?" the interrogator asks. "Don't you miss your family? Your country?"
"Yes, of course I do. But it's only for a couple of years. I can't believe you're asking me this—do you realize how scared and worried my family must be? Why can't I make a phone call and tell them I'm alive?"
There are four or five interrogators. The one who seems like the boss is pacing and talking angrily in Farsi. They tell me if I eat their cookie, I can see Shane and Josh.
"Let me see them first—then I'll eat."
"Sarah, you say you are a teacher. Have you ever been to the Pentagon?"
"No, I've never even been to Washington, DC."
"Please, Sarah, tell the truth. How can you be a teacher, an educated person, and never go to the Pentagon? Describe to us just the lobby."
"I've never been to the Pentagon. Teachers don't go to the Pentagon!" I almost have to stop myself from laughing, partly because I'm weak from not eating and partly because I can't really convince myself this nightmare is real.
JOSH (August 18, 2009)
In my mind I am already running. My feet patter quickly on the brick floor. All day, my energy is dammed up, but in the courtyard, energy courses through me. They take me for two half-hour sessions per day. I'm allotted a single lane next to other blindfolded prisoners. It's the only time I feel alive all day—when I'm out here and thinking about escaping.
Once, when I heard a helicopter whirring near the prison, I deluded myself into believing freedom was imminent. I decided US officials must be negotiating our release and that I'd be free within three days. Now I cling to the idea of being released on Day 30. In the corner of my cell, the corner most difficult to see from the entryway, there are a host of tally marks scratched into the wall. I check the mean, median, and mode of the data sample. The longest detentions last three or four months, but most markings are less than 30 days. I remember an Iranian American was recently detained and released from prison. How long was she held? Thirty days seems like a fair enough time for the political maneuvering to sort itself out.
JOSH (August 30, 2009)
Suddenly, the metal door rattles. A guard signals me to clean my room and gather my belongings. I am prepared for this. The floor is already immaculate—sweeping the floor with my hands is one of my favorite activities. I grab my book and three dried dates stuffed with pistachio nuts to share with Sarah and Shane. I wasn't crazy. Day 30 is for real.
When we're in the car, I can hardly control my joy. I turn to Shane and Sarah, and we start giggling—nervous laughter—at the comfort of our companionship. Now that we're together again, the weeks of solitude I've just endured seem like a distant memory. Was it really a month? Somehow this is funny to us.
Sarah tells me that she and Shane spoke to each other through a vent. They what? Sarah says, "I promise we didn't do it much." I can't believe they were near each other. They had each other! I had nothing.
These guys don't have a clue what I experienced. I would have done anything for a voice to talk to. I push the idea of them talking as far from my mind as possible, trying to convince myself of what I'd always assumed—we are in this together.
In the rearview mirror, I make eye contact with the stoic driver.
He slows to a stop, then lifts the emergency brake. His gaze, knowing and pitiless, conveys the truth. Shades and bars cover every window of the dirty, gray building before us. This is another prison.
JOSH (September 2, 2009)
In this prison, guards don't hide their faces like they did in the last one. Some even talk to me. One guard, who speaks a little English, taught me the Farsi word for the courtyard we go to, hava khori. He told me that it literally means "eating air."
I've even grown friendly with a guard I call "Friend." I treated him amiably and he has responded in kind. He speaks awkward English and tries out colloquial expressions on me. He makes small talk, which can be the most significant event of my day. Friend gave me a bed and mattress, pistachios, bottled water, and crackers. He even gave me a small personal fridge that he put in the hallway in front of my cell. With snacks in front of me, I allowed myself to feel how hungry I've been, and how my stomach shrank after 11 days of hunger striking and four weeks on a prison diet.