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How We Survived Two Years of Hell As Hostages in Tehran

Kidnapped by Iran

—By , , and | March/April 2014 Issue


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?"

Shane and Josh hiking
Sarah hiking
Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal, and Sarah Shourd hiking in the Zagros Mountains, shortly before their capture.

"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.

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."

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."

Illustrations by Owen Freeman
Illustrations by Owen Freeman

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.

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Friend shows up at my cell to escort me down the hallway to hava khori. "Do you know what a honey is?" He smiles goofily. "Do you have a honey?" "No," I say dismissively, "and I don't want a honey in here." I regret talking to him about English expressions. Why is he asking me about a honey? Why did he give me a bed last week? I push away the thought these questions raise.

SHANE (October 2009)

Solitary confinement is the slow erasure of who you thought you were. You think you are still you, but you have no real way of knowing. How can you know if you have no one to reflect you back to yourself? Would I know if I was going crazy? The longer I am alone, the more my mind slows. All I want to do is to forget about everything.

But I can't do it. I am unable to keep my mind from being sharply focused on one task: forcing myself not to look at the wall behind me. I know that eventually, a tiny sliver of sunlight will spill in through the grated window and place a quarter-size dot on the wall. It's ridiculous that I'm thinking about it this early. I've been awake only 10 minutes and I should know it will be hours before it appears.


They take everything from us—breezes, eye contact, human touch, the feeling of warm wet hands from washing a sink-load of dishes, the miracle of transforming thoughts into words on paper. They leave only the pause—those moments of waiting at bus stops, of cigarette breaks. They make time the object of our hatred.

I try not to look for the light.

Eventually, I pull myself up and out of bed. I take the few steps to one end of the cell, then back to the other. For a while, I had a few books to transport me out of this prison. The interrogators gave us Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Edith Hamilton's Mythology, the Persian poet Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, and—without irony—Orwell's Animal Farm. But recently, they took them all away. Now I just have Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I recently memorized "To the Garden the World," so I recite it over and over again as I pace, jutting my finger into the air at the line "Curious here behold my resurrection after slumber."

As I walk, my finger taps against my thigh in alternating short and long pulses, each accompanied by high-pitched vocal beeps. I recite the poem in Morse code, tapping out the lines, "By my side or back of me Eve following,/Or in front, and I following her just the same." I've been studying Morse code in the dictionary Sarah convinced the interrogators to give us by saying she wanted to learn it like Malcolm X did when he was in prison. We take turns with it for a week at a time, passing it to one another through our interrogators.

Somehow the study of Morse code seems useful to me. It makes me feel like my life isn't seeping down the drain for nothing. Maybe someday I'll be stranded somewhere with a flashlight and will be able to code my way to safety. Actually, I know that's bullshit. I study Morse code because I need challenges like this to survive.

I slide under my bed on my back and lift the end as though it were a bench press. I do sit-ups and pushups. I jog in place on a stack of blankets and do high head-kicks back and forth across the cell. I give myself a sponge bath in the sink and look at the wall again. The light is there now—a trickle of diagonal dots. The day has begun. I am hopeful that today my interrogator will come. Then, at least, I will have some human contact.

After lunch, the hours pass blankly until the light is on the long wall. The two large rectangles of 10 vertical bars of light have fully gone around the corner. The day is at its midpoint. My interrogator isn't coming. He never comes after lunch. All that's left of the day is stagnation. All I can do is wait for sleep. I've already juggled oranges and swept the floor clean with my hands. I do make one discovery: The color red is absent from my life, but if I close my eyes and put my face in the patch of sun, I can see it.

Then, still pacing, I start thinking of books. The titles comfort me: The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, A People's History of the United States. I'm afraid that when the time comes to tell somebody what books I want, I will forget one, so I recite them occasionally to remember. I know that if that opportunity arises, I will only have one chance. I've decided to keep a list of 10. Why 10? I don't know.

Eventually I realize how quickly I'm bouncing from one end of the cell to the next. I'm not walking so much as striding. And I'm speaking out loud. I stop and look around. How long have I been doing that, repeating these titles out loud and counting them on my fingers? Something about realizing that I've been hearing my own voice—merely hearing it, not commanding it—frightens me.

SHANE (November 2009)

At the end of each hallway, there's a small open-air cell. The guards sat me in one of those today. I've been in here, listening to Sarah's voice in a nearby room for a while now. "You have to let me call my mother!" she is shouting. "You can't do this!" Her cries sound desperate.

I am boiling inside. What are they saying to make her wail like that? The interrogators haven't come to me yet, but these sounds are making me nervous. We were caught a week ago using illegal pens and leaving notes at hava khori for one another to find. Ever since then, I've been waiting for them to come.

An interrogator comes in. He's the tall, oafish one I sometimes hear speaking to Sarah while she is being interrogated. He is always telling me not to worry about her, that she is doing wonderfully. "You are stupid, Shane," he says. "What did you think you were doing?" He comes in close behind me. "Stupid!" he says again, smacking me on the back of the head, not hard, just a humiliating slap that brings alive in me something reminiscent of all those school bullies who slapped, punched, kicked, and choked my youn­ger, smaller, bespectacled self.

I jump out of my seat, pull my blindfold off, and spin around to face him. He is towering over me, at least a foot taller than I am.

"Don't you ever touch me like that again," I say, pointing my finger toward his face. I don't remember the last time I've been swept away with such heat.

His jaw lowers and his square, pale face goes cold. He looks frightened, not frightened that I will hurt him—he's huge—but frightened that he made some mistake. The slap felt routine, like something he does all the time. But we are high-value prisoners. He can't do this with us. He knows that, but until now, I don't think he knew that I knew that. I'm not quite sure why I do.

"Okay," he says, almost placatingly. "I won't do it again." I hold his gaze for a second longer than is comfortable, his eyes dripping remorse, mine full of fire.

Slowly and self-assuredly, I turn around, sit down, and begin to write: "I had a pen. I knew it was illegal, but I did it anyway. I needed to communicate with Sarah and Josh. It was a moment of weakness. It was a mistake and I will never do it again. If I do, I accept full punishment. I hope you find it in your heart to forgive us and to give us another chance."

I know that I have no choice. The interrogators can always punish me by punishing Sarah and Josh.

SHANE (December 8, 2009)

A guard is at my door. He is smiling slightly, which I've never seen him do. He takes me to the door of a cell with a fridge—an object I know to be the privilege of only a few prisoners—next to it. He opens the door and there is Josh, genuflecting with his head on the ground. He jolts up, looking stunned. "What's going on?" he says.

"It looks like I'm moving in," I reply. He leaps up, and we hug and laugh. The guard is now smiling widely. The cell door closes behind us.

I talk to myself, eat my food with my hands. Like an animal, I spend hours crouched by the bottom of my door listening for sounds. Sometimes I hear footsteps, but when I race to the door, I realize they were imagined.

This isn't the first time we've seen each other recently. For the past 10 days, they've been allowing the three of us to meet for half-hour sessions at hava khori. These meetings have been mostly frantic, each of us desperately trying to unload what we've been storing in our minds for months.

Now, in a cell together, Josh and I come back to life. After five months of isolation, the possibility of conversation on any topic for any length of time is overwhelming. We talk about The Idiot to an absurd extent, reading passages at random to discuss them as though they were Scripture. Josh gives me a lesson on the musical career of Bob Dylan and I school him on the Balkan Wars. Since we aren't allowed pens, I draw an invisible map with my finger on the wall.

Josh tries to remember the Hebrew alphabet. He teaches me the letters by writing them with sunflower seeds. The task becomes stressful because we have to destroy the letters every time we hear footsteps, lest we give the guards "evidence" that we are Israeli spies. We stay up late at night and discuss Josh's ideas about the city government in Cottage Grove, Oregon. We make lemonade with the lemons from our lunch. We shoot hoops with a wad of paper and an empty box. We draw a ring on the floor and see who can toss the greater number of candies inside it. We say "Good night" to each other before we go to sleep.

On our first day together, we come out to hava khori to find Sarah. "Guess what?" I say. "Josh and I are in the same cell now." I can barely contain my excitement.

She takes a deep breath. "It's okay," she says.

The next day, Josh stays behind so I can be alone with Sarah for the first time in months. When I pull my blindfold off, I see her at the opposite end of the courtyard, hunched over and staring at me with cold, angry eyes I barely recognize. I rush over to her and she steps back, like a cowering animal. For every advance I make, she makes a retreat, scowling. Then, her frigid eyes begin to tear. "It's not fair, Shane," she whimpers.

"I know, baby," I say, reaching my hand out. "It's not fair." I step toward her again.

As soon as I touch her, she starts screaming, kicking and punching the wall with each word. "It's! Not! Fair!"

I throw my arms around her as she tries desperately to pull away from me.

"It's okay, baby," I say. In my mind I'm saying these words softly, trying to soothe her pain, but in fact I'm shouting, competing with her screams. "It's okay! Sarah. Stop! It's okay."

"It's okay?" she says sharply, looking at me like I've just smacked her. "It's not okay, Shane. This is not okay!" She's right, of course. It's not okay that she is alone and I am not. But I don't know what else to say.

Eventually, her rage shifts into sorrow. She lets me hold her. But it doesn't feel like she has found comfort. It feels like something is fundamentally broken, in me, in her, between us. I feel like an accomplice in torture.

What if they'd asked me if I wanted to cell up with Josh? Would I have refused? If I could have, should I have? Every time I laugh or share a meal with Josh or stay awake longer than I would if I were alone, part of me feels like I'm turning my back on Sarah.

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