MoJo Author Feeds: Shane Bauer | Mother Jones Mother Jones logo en Inside the Wild, Shadowy, and Highly Lucrative Bail Industry <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><img src=""></p> <p><span class="section-lead">The largest annual gathering</span> of bail bondsmen in the country&mdash;the convention of the <a href="" target="_blank">Professional Bail Agents of the United States</a>, or PBUS&mdash;was slotted between Dunkin' Donuts and Elk Camp 2013 at the Mirage Resort and Casino, a tall, shiny structure shaped like an open book and set against replicas of the Colosseum and Eiffel Tower on Las Vegas' Strip. The sidewalk out front was littered with cards bearing phone numbers and pictures of naked women. In the courtyard, flames licked the late-winter air to the rhythm of a tribal drum every hour, on the hour. A sign at the entrance announced that the casino's dolphin just had a baby and we would be able to see it soon. As I walked through the smoky slots area I saw a man with a PBUS lanyard doing an extremely forced I'm-having-fun dance with his assistant while a casino employee showed them how to play the one-armed bandit. It was a bit of a letdown from what I'd been anticipating&mdash;all-night blackjack sessions with bondsmen and bounty hunters telling tales from the street over stiff drinks. I'd even grown a mustache for the event, thinking it would help me blend in a little&mdash;bondsmen have mustaches, don't they?</p> <p>Not really, I discovered when I arrived at the welcome reception. "So how do you like the industry?" I asked a clean-shaven man in a shiny gray suit who looked to be about 30. "I like it," he said buoyantly, taking a sip of his beer. "Sometimes you get real lucky." He told me about the first bond he ever wrote in the cheerful, blow-by-blow manner of a poker player recounting a winning hand. A college student went out drinking and crashed his car into a fence, he explained. "So him and a girlfriend both get kinda messed up." He beamed. I was confused&mdash;was I to realize that this was a boon? He quickly explained that normally, bail for a DUI was $5,000, but since it involved an injury, the amount automatically jumped to $100,000. When he told the driver's mom she would have to pay him a $10,000 fee to get her son out of jail, she said, "No problem. Here's my credit card number." He smiled and took a sip from his beer, nodding happily. "I couldn't believe it."</p></body></html> <p style="font-size: 1.083em;"><a href="/politics/2014/06/bail-bond-prison-industry"><strong><em>Continue Reading &raquo;</em></strong></a></p> Politics Longreads Civil Liberties Crime and Justice Prisons Top Stories Mon, 30 Jun 2014 10:00:09 +0000 Shane Bauer 248186 at What Did My Government Do When I Was Taken Hostage in Iran? <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>Yesterday I filed a lawsuit against the FBI, the CIA, and the State Department. I intend to persuade the government to release records that will reveal how it dealt with the imprisonment of Sarah Shourd, Josh Fattal, and myself in Iran from 2009 to 2011. The three of us were arrested near the Iranian border while on a hike in Iraq's Kurdish region, which we were visiting on a short trip from Sarah's and my home in Damascus. Sarah remained in prison for 13 months, and Josh and I for twice as long. For the two years that I was in prison, I wondered constantly what my government was doing to help us. I still want to know.</p> <p>But my interest in these records is more than personal. Innocent Americans get kidnapped, imprisoned, or held hostage in other countries from time to time. When that happens, our government must take it very seriously. These situations cannot be divorced from politics; they are often extremist reactions to our foreign policy. Currently, Americans are being detained in Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Cuba, and other countries.</p> <p>What does our government do when civilians are held hostage? Sarah's, Josh's, and my family, like others in similar situations, were regularly assured by our leaders&mdash;all the way up to the Secretary of State and the President&mdash;that they were doing everything they could, but our families were rarely told what that meant. Why is this information so secret, even after the fact? It is important to know how the government deals with such crises. Is there a process by which the government decides whether or not to negotiate with another country or political group? How does it decide which citizens to negotiate for and which not to? Are the reassurances the government gives to grieving families genuine, or intended to appease them? Do branches of government cooperate with each other, or work in isolation?</p> <p>Some will say disclosing such things only helps our enemies. This is a common defense of government secrecy. The CIA seems to be taking this approach with my request by invoking "national security" in its denial. This logic can be applied to almost anything related to foreign policy. If Congress had not publicly discussed the ins and outs of going to war with Syria, for example, it might by some stretch of the imagination have given our military an edge. But without having to defend their positions to the public, members of Congress might have come to a different conclusion and decided to go to war. Obstructing public discussion on how the government reacts to crises impedes democracy.</p> <p>We are fortunate in this country to have the Freedom of Information Act, which allows citizens to access unclassified government records. The Act originated in 1955 during the Cold War, when there was a steep rise in government secrecy. It was strengthened after the Watergate scandal. But transparency has since eroded, to the point that federal agencies often don't abide by the terms of the FOIA without legal coercion. It's been almost a year since I first filed FOIA requests with the FBI and State Department for records about our case. I filed with the CIA six months ago. The law gives government agencies up to 30 business days to determine whether they will release records. So far, however, no records have turned up. I am not surprised by this. Without a lawsuit, I would not expect to receive anything for years, if at all.</p> <p>Years can pass before the government gets around to releasing records in response to FOIA requests. Last year, for example, the State Department notified me that it was ready to release around 700 documents in response to a FOIA request I had filed four years prior. The request regarded an Iraqi sheikh who was receiving what amounted to bribes in the form of inflated construction contracts from the US military, a scheme I <a href="">wrote about</a> for <em>Mother Jones</em> in 2009. Despite the fact that the war is now over, and the records will be much less significant than they might have been at the time, I told State I would indeed like to see them. I am still waiting.</p> <p>It has unfortunately become commonplace for government agencies to do everything they can to muddle the transparency mandated by the FOIA, to the point where only people trained to get around stonewalling have any chance of succeeding. Take my request to the FBI for records about our case. The Bureau responded to my initial request with its standard denial letter: "Based on the information you provided, we conducted a search of the Central Records System. We were unable to identify main file records." It's a standard response&mdash;I've received it before&mdash;but I was surprised to see it this time. The FBI visited my mom's home, spoke to my family repeatedly and they have <em>no records</em>?</p> <p>In fact, the FBI letter is intentionally misleading. What they are saying is that they have failed to find a very particular type of records. As my attorney, Jeff Light, put it, the FBI "has main files on persons, event, publications, etc. that are of investigative interest to the Bureau. Imagine a file cabinet containing a series of folders. Each folder is titled with the name of a person, event, etc. When they are searching main files, they are searching the label on each folder. They are not searching any of the documents inside the folder.&rdquo; In response, Light and I specifically named a long list of databases and records systems for the FBI to search. Nothing has turned up yet.</p> <p>It is unfortunate that litigation has become a standard part of the FOIA process. It's also unfortunate that the government is not transparent with people entangled in political crises about what it is doing to help them. While I was in prison, my mother walked out of meetings with politicians, frustrated with their inaction. After Sarah came home, she also asked the government to tell her what it was doing, and got nothing. We asked again after I was released. I wish I didn't need to go to court to get an answer.</p></body></html> MoJo Foreign Policy Human Rights International Top Stories Sat, 07 Jun 2014 15:26:53 +0000 Shane Bauer 253631 at "You'll Need to Relearn How to Be a Person": A Letter to Bowe Bergdahl From a Fellow Former Hostage <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>Bowe Bergdahl, you are now free, but many of your problems are just beginning. You have left a world of extreme isolation and entered one that is vastly more complex. It will be hard for you to adjust. Anyone who spends a significant amount of time as a prisoner comes out handicapped. This would be true whether you were held by the Taliban or anyone else. And along with all that, you will have to cope with being an odd celebrity.</p> <p>You will have infinitely more support than most prisoners do when they are released. People will recognize you on the street and welcome you home. But you'll soon discover that others, in op-eds, blogs, and emails, say terrible things. You'll find that many are blaming you for your own captivity. Ironically, these are generally people who feel very strongly that your captors are their enemies. Some of them think you should be punished further. You'll see that many blame you for the deaths of American soldiers, rather than blame the war itself. Blaming the victim is always a way to protect the powerful.</p> <p>When you get back to the United States, people will ask you over and over, in confidential and heartfelt tones, how you are doing. When they ask, they will look you in the eyes to show you they understand. You will not be able to give an answer that feels true, possibly because you will grow annoyed with such questions, but also because "great" and "awful" will probably both be true at once, though you won't really understand the awful part.</p> <p>You will get unreasonably angry at times, even when your life is good. You will carry a strange tension around that you never felt before, one that is unlike the anxiety and fear you felt in captivity. You might develop new nervous ticks. You'll probably feel tempted to drink more than usual. You might have problems with your memory.</p> <p>Chances are you will feel anxious in crowds. It may be hard for you to make choices for a while without being told what to do. You will be wracked with guilt for a thousand things. That, or you'll feel nothing. There will be something you'll come to miss about captivity, though you might keep this a secret&mdash;there, the source of your problems were clear. Now that you're free, they won't make sense.</p> <p>Some people&mdash;strangers&mdash;will become oddly emotional around you. You'll come to learn that some relate their own crises to yours and they'll look to you for answers that you won't possess. You'll find that the person many see when they look at you isn't really you, and this will be awkward.</p> <p>Some will relate to you as a hero for walking off the military base (if that is what you in fact did; we don't yet know), which might feel supportive, but also uncomfortable. Some will treat you as a hero for being a soldier, which, if you were in fact disillusioned with the military, might also make you uncomfortable. You will come to understand that you are now a symbol and a story, and you'll need to relearn how to be a person.</p> <p>For years to come, people will tell you dreadful things they've been through when they first meet you. Some will preface their stories by saying things like, "Of course this doesn't compare to your situation, but&hellip;" Others won't preface anything. Some will probably tell you things far worse than anything you've ever experienced. Eventually, strangers will forget your face and you'll enjoy your anonymity (while missing the attention).</p> <p>You'll find yourself trying carefully not to bring up your captivity, not because you have such a hard time talking about it, but because you want to enjoy your dinner or the party or the company of friends without someone telling you yet another terrible story. You'll learn how to condense your own experience into sound bites that can wrap everything up in a few minutes and leave the listener feeling satisfied.</p> <p>It's impossible to say what is best for another person, but what helped me when I was released after 26 months of captivity in Iran was to find others who have been through similar experiences. Through them, you will see that your confusion is not unusual. When I got out of prison, I found solace in conversations with other Americans who had been wrongfully detained, from Nicaragua to Afghanistan.</p> <p>I also connected with people who were wrongfully convicted in the United States, some getting out after more than 20 years behind bars. I related to a former Guantanamo detainee, Ahmed Errachidi, who was detained without trial, did three years in solitary, and was released six years after being captured. When I called him up in Morocco and he told me he was having a hard time feeling happy, feeling like he had his life back, I felt less alone.</p> <p>More likely than not, you will give a press conference or interviews at some point. If you do, you will find that many want to shape your story for you, and this will be hard to navigate. You'll also realize that, for most everyone else, your story hinges on a moment four years ago&mdash;<em>did you, or did you not walk off the base?</em>&mdash;as if that would explain everything. Embedded in the question will be a subtle suggestion that if you did, you might have deserved being held captive for four years with the Taliban. This question will be disappointing, though you will answer it so many times that your answer will become rote. For you, of course, the moment you were taken captive will feel like the distant past.</p> <p>If I could say one thing to you, it would be this: Getting free is complicated. It is difficult. Sometimes unbearable. But this will pass. Just like you slowly adjusted to being a prisoner, you will slowly adjust to being free. And several times, you will think you have adjusted, then you will realize that you haven't.</p> <p>This will keep happening, for so long that you will think that you are permanently damaged. You are not. It will be hard at first to make your own decisions, but you will learn. People will want you to do things that you don't want to do, even people close to you. You don't need to do them. Your decisions are no longer matters of life and death. You are free now.</p> <p>If you want to chat, hit me up. Seriously.</p> <p>P.S. To my fellow journalists:</p> <p>It would be nice&mdash;though its hard to imagine&mdash;if the media didn't descend on Bowe Bergdahl like a pack of wolves. When I was released from Iran, some journalists tried to squeeze their way onto my flight home. One tried to embed with our families as they waited for Josh's and my release, even though our relatives were very clear that they did not want this.</p> <p>There are some things more important than a scoop. Nothing special will be added to the world if you are the first person to interview this man; you will only satisfy your own ego. He is new to the world. He is going through the slow process of coming to grips with freedom, to being able to function on his own. Don't prey on him. Give him a chance.</p></body></html> Politics Afghanistan Foreign Policy Human Rights International Top Stories Bowe Bergdahl Wed, 04 Jun 2014 18:11:24 +0000 Shane Bauer 253371 at This Man Is Serving 75 Years for "Seditious Conspiracy." Is He a Danger to Society? <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>From a prison in Indiana, a man writes his granddaughter: "After the family, what i miss most is the sea. Thirty-five years have passed since the last time i saw it. But i have painted it many times, the Atlantic part as well as the Caribbean, that smiling foam of light mixed with salt in Cabo Rojo. For any Puerto Rican, it is almost incomprehensible to live far from the sea."</p> <p>There are many people who want Oscar L&oacute;pez Rivera to see the ocean again. He has served 33 years of a 75-year sentence for "seditious conspiracy" related to his participation in the <a href="" target="_blank">FALN</a>, a Puerto Rican nationalist group that claimed credit for a series of bombings in the 1970s and 1980s. (He was not charged with participating in any bombings, nor injuring anyone.) Nobel laureates <a href="" target="_blank">Desmund Tutu</a> and Mairead Maguire have called on President Obama to release him. So has the government of Puerto Rico, the American Association of Jurists, the AFL-CIO, the United Church of Christ<strong>, </strong>and the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries. Four members of Congress have called on President Obama to let him go. "Oscar has served 33 years in prison," Rep. Guti&eacute;rrez emailed me. "He is being imprisoned for deeply held political views that resonate powerfully in the Puerto Rican community and beyond."</p> <p>L&oacute;pez Rivera was convicted of conspiring against the US government as part of the FALN, a group that was fighting for the independence of Puerto Rico. The island had been a US possession since it was acquired from Spain in 1898. Puerto Ricans became US citizens in 1917&mdash;just two months before 20,000 of them were drafted to serve in World War I&mdash;but are not allowed to vote in the presidential elections or to have representation in the US Congress. In 1948, when L&oacute;pez Rivera was five, the Puerto Rican legislature made it a crime to own a Puerto Rican flag, sing a patriotic song, or speak in favor of independence. The law was repealed in 1957.</p></body></html> <p style="font-size: 1.083em;"><a href="/politics/2014/05/oscar-lopez-rivera-75-years-seditious-conspiracy"><strong><em>Continue Reading &raquo;</em></strong></a></p> Politics Civil Liberties Prisons Top Stories Thu, 29 May 2014 10:00:06 +0000 Shane Bauer 252916 at Why Is Connecticut Holding a Transgender Teen in Solitary? <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>There is a 16-year-old transgender girl in an adult prison in Connecticut right now. She isn't there to serve a sentence. There are no charges against her. Still, she has been there for more than six weeks, with no indication of when she might be released.</p> <p>Until last week, the girl, whom I'll call Jane Doe because she is a juvenile, was in solitary confinement in the mental-health unit where, according to a letter she wrote, she cried in bed every night. She heard adult inmates crying, screaming, and banging on the walls. A guard observed her day and night, even when she showered or used the toilet. When other inmates caught sight of her, they yelled and made fun of her.</p> <p>"I feel forgotten and thrown away," she wrote to the governor of Connecticut from her solitary cell. "As you probably know, these feeling are not new for me. This is the way my life has been going since I was a little kid."</p> <p>The state became involved in Jane Doe's life when she was five, according to her affidavit, because her father was incarcerated and her mom was using crack and heroin. She was born a boy; after she was placed in the care of her extended family, she said, one relative caught her playing with dolls and bashed her head into the wall. She said another relative raped her at age eight, as did others as she grew older. Doe would only allow herself to look like a girl in secret. Around age 11, a relative caught her in the bathroom wearing her dress and lipstick and slapped her, shouting, "You are a boy! What the fuck is wrong with you?"</p> <p>At 12, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) became her legal guardian. While in group homes, she says she was sexually assaulted by staffers, and at 15, she became a sex worker and was once locked up for weeks and forced to have sex with "customers" until she escaped. "I wanted to be a little kid again in my mother's arms and all I wanted was someone to tell me they loved me, that everything would be alright, and that I will never have to live the way I was again."</p> <p>Here is how Jane Doe ended up in prison. On January 28, while living at a juvenile facility in Massachusetts&mdash;where she was serving a sentence for assault&mdash;she allegedly attacked a staff member, biting her, pulling her hair, and kicking her in the head. This kind of behavior wasn't new for Doe. The director of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, a correctional facility for boys, later testified in court that, since Doe was nine, police have been called 11 times while she was in state facilities. He said she sometimes smeared feces on herself. Another supervisor claimed Doe regularly "exhibited assaultive behaviors," targeting female staff and other juveniles.</p> <p>According to Doe's lawyer, Aaron Romano, the most recent incident was sparked when a male staffer at the Massachusetts facility put Doe in a bear hug restraint from behind. "This is a girl who has been sexually abused," Romano says. "She is inclined to interpret actions with that view." DCF declined to comment on the incident, but the female staff member Doe allegedly attacked did not press charges. The male staffer has since been dismissed.</p> <p>In order to move Doe to an adult prison, DCF cited an obscure statute that allows doing so when it is in the "best interest" of the child. Initially, the state sought to place Doe in a men's prison, but her lawyers objected and she was sent to a women's facility. There, she was placed in solitary confinement because under federal law, juveniles cannot be detained "in any institution in which they have contact with adult inmates."</p></body></html> <p style="font-size: 1.083em;"><a href="/politics/2014/05/transgender-16-year-old-solitary-cell-adult-prison"><strong><em>Continue Reading &raquo;</em></strong></a></p> Politics Civil Liberties Crime and Justice Prisons Sex and Gender Top Stories Fri, 23 May 2014 10:00:11 +0000 Shane Bauer 252496 at How We Survived Two Years of Hell As Hostages in Tehran <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><div class="inline inline-left" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="Kidnapped by Iran" class="image" src="/files/shane_web2_0_1.jpg"></div> <p><span class="deklet"><em><strong>&mdash;By <a href="" rel="author">Shane Bauer</a>, <a href="" rel="author">Josh Fattal</a>, and <a href="" rel="author">Sarah Shourd </a>| </strong></em><a href="">March/April 2014 Issue</a></span></p> <p><strong>SHANE</strong></p> <p><em>The nightmare began on July 31, 2009. I was living in Damascus, covering the Middle East as a freelance journalist, with my girlfriend, <a href="" target="_blank">Sarah Shourd</a>, a teacher. Our friend Josh Fattal had come to see us, and to celebrate, we took a short trip to <a href=";s=03010500&amp;r=142&amp;a=18694&amp;s=010000" target="_blank">Iraqi Kurdistan</a>. The autonomous region&mdash;isolated from the violence that wracked the rest of Iraq&mdash;was a budding Western tourist destination. After two days of visiting</em> <em>castles</em> <em>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</em> <em>valley</em> <em>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.</em><br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>JOSH</strong> <em>(July 31, 2009)</em></p> <p>"You guys," Sarah says with hesitancy. "I think we should head back."</p> <p>"Really?" Shane sounds surprised. "How could we not pop up to the ridge? We're so close."</p> <p>Shane knows I want to reach the top. "Josh, what do you want to do?" he asks.</p> <p>"I think we should just go to the ridge&mdash;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.</p> <p>The soldier is young and nonchalant, and he beckons us to him with a wave. When we finally approach him, he asks, "Farsi?"</p> <div class="inline inline-left" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="Shane and Josh hiking" class="image" src="/files/shane_josh_hike.jpg"></div> <div class="inline inline-left" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="Sarah hiking" class="image" src=""><div class="caption"><strong>Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal, and Sarah Shourd hiking in the Zagros Mountains, shortly before their capture.</strong><br> &nbsp;</div> </div> <p>"<em>Faransi</em>?" Shane asks, then continues in Arabic. "I don't speak French. Do you speak Arabic?"</p> <p>"Shane!" I whisper urgently. "He asked if we speak Farsi!" I notice the red, white, and green <a href="" target="_blank">flag</a> on the soldier's lapel. This isn't an Iraqi soldier. We're in Iran.</p> <p>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&mdash;scanning up and down. I can feel her tensing up.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>The English speaker approaches us again after talking to the commander. "You. Go," he says. "You. Go. Iran."<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>SHANE</strong> <em>(August 2, 2009)</em></p> <p>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.</p> <p>But Sarah's hand is growing limp in mine. Something is very wrong.</p> <p>"He's got a gun," Josh says, startled but calm. "He just put it on the dash."</p> <p>"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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>Each of us will fall, one by one, hitting the gravelly earth with a thud.</p> <p>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."<br> &nbsp;</p> <div class="inline inline-left" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="Illustrations by Owen Freeman" class="image" src="/files/HOSTAGE_D_Top_630_0.jpg"><div class="caption">Illustrations by Owen Freeman<br> &nbsp;</div> </div> <p><strong>JOSH</strong> <em>(August 4, 2009)</em></p> <p>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.</p> <p>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&mdash;just a room, empty except for three wool blankets. My prison uniform&mdash;blue pants, blue collared shirt&mdash;blends with the blue marble wall behind me and the tight blue carpet below.</p> <p>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.</p> <p>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&mdash;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&mdash;the remnant of my measly lunch.</p> <p>I don't know what I'll do in here for the rest of the day. I sense the hovering blankness&mdash;a zone of mindlessness that looms over my psyche and lives in the silence of my cell.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>SARAH</strong> <em>(August 6, 2009)</em></p> <p>"Sarah, eat this cookie."</p> <p>"Not until I see Josh and Shane."</p> <p>I'm sitting blindfolded in a classroom chair. A cookie is on the desk in front of me.</p> <p>"Do you think we care if you eat, Sarah?"</p> <p>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&mdash;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&mdash;but I've found ways to distract myself, like slowly going over multiplication tables in my head.</p> <p>"Sarah, why did you come to the Middle East to live in Damascus?" the interrogator asks. "Don't you miss your family? Your country?"</p> <p>"Yes, of course I do. But it's only for a couple of years. I can't believe you're asking me this&mdash;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?"</p> <p>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.</p> <p>"Let me see them first&mdash;then I'll eat."</p> <p>"Sarah, you say you are a teacher. Have you ever been to the Pentagon?"</p> <p>"No, I've never even been to Washington, DC."</p> <p>"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."</p> <p>"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.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>JOSH</strong> <em>(August 18, 2009)</em></p> <p>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&mdash;when I'm out here and thinking about escaping.</p> <p>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.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>JOSH</strong> <em>(August 30, 2009)</em></p> <p>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&mdash;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.</p> <p>When we're in the car, I can hardly control my joy. I turn to Shane and Sarah, and we start giggling&mdash;nervous laughter&mdash;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.</p> <p>Sarah tells me that she and Shane spoke to each other through a vent. They <em>what</em>? 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.</p> <p>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&mdash;we are in this together.</p> <p>In the rearview mirror, I make eye contact with the stoic driver.</p> <p>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.<br> &nbsp;</p> <p><strong>JOSH</strong> <em>(September 2, 2009)</em></p> <p>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, <em>hava khori.</em> He told me that it literally means "eating air."</p> <p>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.</p></body></html> <p style="font-size: 1.083em;"><a href="/politics/2014/03/iran-hostage-hikers-iraq-prisoners"><strong><em>Continue Reading &raquo;</em></strong></a></p> Politics Longreads Human Rights International Prisons Top Stories Wed, 12 Mar 2014 10:00:07 +0000 Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal, and Sarah Shourd 244476 at How Conservatives Learned to Love Prison Reform <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><div class="inline inline-left" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="newt gingrich with keys" class="image" src="/files/prison_630_0.jpg"><div class="caption">Zohar Lazar</div> </div> <p>In the early 1990s, then-Rep. Newt Gingrich unveiled one of the centerpieces of his new conservative agenda: putting more Americans behind bars. More prisons were urgently needed, he told the <a href="" target="_blank"><em>New York Times</em></a> in 1992, "so that there are enough beds that every violent criminal in America is locked up, and they will serve real time and they will serve their full sentence and they do not get out on good behavior." Finding the money for more cells was as easy as stripping "pork" from the budget. In the meantime, <a href="" target="_blank">decommissioned military bases </a>could house excess inmates. The Georgia Republican's 1994 "<a href="" target="_blank">Contract With America</a>" included the Taking Back Our Streets Act, which would fund more state prisons, with extra money for states that curtailed parole.</p> <p>Over the next two decades, the prison population more than doubled. One in 200 Americans is behind bars, the <a href="" target="_blank">highest incarceration rate </a>in the world. In 2009, the nation spent $82.7 billion on corrections, a 230 percent increase from 1990.</p> <p>Today, Gingrich has changed his tune. "There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential," Gingrich wrote in a 2011 op-ed in the <em>Washington Post</em>. "We can no longer afford business as usual with prisons. The criminal justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it."</p> <p>Gingrich is one of many high-profile conservatives to embrace criminal-justice reforms that would have been unthinkable in Republican circles just a few years ago. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has <a href="" target="_blank">vowed</a> to end "the failed war on drugs that believes that incarceration is the cure of every ill caused by drug abuse." Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) <a href="" target="_blank">says</a> the court system "disproportionately punishes the black community" and insists on repealing mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. Others who have spoken in favor of less draconian criminal policies include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former National Rifle Association President <a href="" target="_blank">David Keene</a>, former Attorney General Edwin Meese, former DEA head <a href="" target="_blank">Asa Hutchinson</a>, and Americans for Tax Reform founder <a href=";list=UUqKOr-OVSXPqC0pXL0D8ihw&amp;index=17" target="_blank">Grover Norquist</a>.</p> <p>The roots of this shift can be traced to a mild-mannered Texas attorney named Marc Levin, who has become one of the nation's leading advocates of conservative criminal-justice reform. Levin saw the light in 2005 when a board member of the free-market-oriented Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), where he worked, told him, "We're not getting a good return for our money out of our prisons." Looking at the state's prison buildup under governors Ann Richards and George W. Bush, Levin drew the same conclusion. "Once you reach a certain rate of incarceration, you start to have diminishing returns because you aren't just putting dangerous people in prisons anymore," he says. "You are putting in nonviolent offenders. You are not really impacting crime. You are not making people safer."</p> <p>For a fiscal conservative, this was a compelling argument for change. "How is it 'conservative' to spend vast amounts of taxpayer money on a strategy without asking whether it is providing taxpayers with the best public safety return on their investment?" Levin <a href="" target="_blank">asks</a>. Rather than spend a fortune keeping low-risk offenders in prison, Levin proposed that the same money could be used for cheaper programs that would still keep violent criminals locked away and the public safe.</p> <p>So in 2007, when Texas moved to add more than <a href="" target="_blank">17,000 prison beds</a> at a cost of around $2 billion, Levin and the TPPF suggested <a href="" target="_blank">another option</a>: spending an eighth of that money on drug courts and rehabilitative programs for addicts and mentally ill prisoners. Legislators and Gov. Rick Perry signed on. Since then, Texas' incarceration rate has fallen nearly 20 percent, a decline attributed in large part to these programs. (Nationwide, the incarceration rate has fallen almost 5 percent since it peaked in 2009.) Meanwhile, Texas' crime rate is at its <a href="" target="_blank">lowest</a> since 1968. A recent <a href="" target="_blank">poll </a>showed that 81 percent of Texan Republican voters support treatment rather than prison for drug offenders.</p> <p>In 2010, Levin formed an organization called Right on Crime and began reaching out to conservative think tankers and state legislators around the country. His bottom-line approach began to take hold&mdash;or at least shield reformers from being labeled soft on crime. Since then no fewer than 58 correctional facilities have closed across the nation; around two-thirds of the decommissioned beds were in states with Republican governors. Between 2006 and 2012, Wyoming, Michigan, and Utah&mdash;all GOP-dominated&mdash;reduced their incarceration rates (excluding jails) by more than 10 percent. Under Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, Mississippi saved $5.6 million in 2010 by <a href="" target="_blank">closing down</a> the isolation unit in one of its supermax prisons, letting nearly 1,000 prisoners out of solitary.</p> <p>"Right on Crime has done a tremendous job of framing the need to end this country's addiction to incarceration in a way that conservatives are now increasingly buying into," says Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Yet Levin is quick to note that he doesn't see eye to eye with liberals, who he says emphasize the rights of offenders at the expense of victims and don't appreciate the need for serious penalties. "We think you need both the carrot and the stick," he says. "I think some people on the left like the carrot part. They don't like the stick part."</p> <p>One of Right on Crime's main targets is parole. Researchers have found that parole drove 60 percent of the rise in the prison population in the 1990s. In some states, more than half of all parolees sent back to prison had only minor, nonviolent violations, like missing meetings with their parole officers. At least 11 Republican-leaning states have eased penalties for parole violations since 2006.</p> <p>Right on Crime has also taken on mandatory minimums, laws that require certain crimes to be punished by a predetermined sentence regardless of any mitigating factors. In 2010, South Carolina <a href="" target="_blank">eliminated mandatory minimums</a> for many nontrafficking drug offenses. Within a year, its incarceration rate dropped nearly 4 percent. Even the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative group that helped propagate mandatory minimum laws in the '90s, is now backing <a href="" target="_blank">a bill</a>, written in part by Right on Crime, that grants judges the discretion to depart from mandatory minimums for some nonviolent offenses.</p> <p>Last August, Attorney General Eric Holder<a href="" target="_blank"> announced</a> that federal prosecutors would no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses.<a href="#correction">*</a> "There's no doubt in my mind," says Gupta, that conservatives' new enthusiasm for reform helped give Holder the political cover to make this decision. Richard Viguerie, a major figure in the Moral Majority and the head of the tea party website <em>ConservativeH</em><em>Q</em>, <a href="http://59.%09" target="_blank">mocked</a> Holder's "belated" announcement and welcomed him "to join the cause of criminal justice and prison reform that conservative governors and legislators have been leading."</p> <p>Indeed, these days Right on Crime supporters are sounding more progressive on criminal-justice issues than some Democrats. "What is frustrating is that now that conservatives have started to adopt corrections reform and reducing incarceration as a conservative issue, more Democrats have not become more emboldened to call for the same thing," Gupta says.</p> <p>Take California's Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who has tried to resist a <a href="" target="_blank">federal court order</a> to reduce his state's swollen prison population by transferring inmates to private prisons rather than releasing nonviolent offenders. Last summer, he <a href="" target="_blank">vetoed </a>a bill that would have reduced sentences for possession of small amounts of drugs, in contrast with at least 11 Republican governors who have enacted similar reforms. Right on Crime had pushed for the bill, but in such a solidly blue state, there was only so much Levin could do.</p> <h3 class="subhed"><br> Prison blues (and reds)</h3> <p><span class="deklet">Change in states' prison populations, 2006-12. Party designates most dominant party in legislatures and governorships during that time.</span></p> <p><script type="text/javascript" src=""></script><script type="text/javascript" src=""></script></p> <div id="mojo_table_holder">&nbsp;</div> <script type="text/javascript"> jQuery(document).ready(function() { MJ_table('0AuHOPshyxQGGdE1NZWVFWmxtcTNpZUtVWFJoR01VM0E'); }); </script><p class="inline-credit">Bureau of Justice Statistics (<a href="" target="_blank">2006</a>, <a href="" target="_blank">2012</a>)</p> <p class="inline-credit"><em>Red states' dominant legislature and governorship were controlled by Republicans at least 50 percent of the time between 2006 and 2012; blue states' dominant legislature and governorship were controlled by Democrats at least 50 percent of the time between 2006 and 2012. Source: </em><a href="">Washington Post</a></p> <p id="correction"><em>Correction: This article originally stated that Attorney General Holder lifted mandatory minimum sentences for all offenses. They remain in place for high-level and violent drug crimes.</em></p></body></html> Politics Crime and Justice Prisons The Right Top Stories Tue, 25 Feb 2014 11:00:21 +0000 Shane Bauer 244416 at What It's Like Reading Mandela's Autobiography as a Hostage in Tehran <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>When I think of Nelson Mandela, I don't really think of Mandela the president. I think of Mandiba the political prisoner, and the man whose writing gave me courage behind bars. I read Mandela's autobiography, <em>A Long Walk to Freedom</em>, while incarcerated as a political hostage in Iran. His life put mine into perspective. I was finishing my second year, but he spent nearly as many years in prison as I'd been alive. He negotiated the end of apartheid from his cell. He was forced to bust rocks day after day, year after year, with a hammer for no good reason. He said the time he'd spent in solitary confinement were the most difficult thing he'd ever been through. I had made it through four months of solitary. If Mandela said that was the hardest thing, I could trust that the worst was behind me.</p> <div class="inline inline-left" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="Long Walk To Freedom Nelson Mandela" class="image" src="/files/mandela-book-inline.jpg"></div> <p>In our limited, isolated world, Mandela's experience became a reference point. When I read about the garden he eventually planted on Robben Island, my cellmate Josh Fattal and I made our concrete cell a little more alive by planting an onion in a milk carton, and setting it in our windowsill. When interrogators were unusually nice to us, we thought maybe it was a sign that freedom was coming: Mandela was treated better before he was released.</p> <p>Mandela wrote much of his autobiography on pages that a fellow prisoner later transcribed into microscopic text. Those notes were then stuffed into the spines of a book, and smuggled out. After reading that, I taught myself how to write so small it could hardly be read, and Josh and I slipped our words into the spines of our books.</p> <p>Six months after getting out of prison, we got our books back. There were hundreds of them. The Iranians handed them over to the Swiss embassy and the Swiss shipped them to DC. All of the book spines were sliced open and our notes were gone. But we got that autobiography. It sits prominently on our bookshelf at home. Mandela is a hero for ending apartheid. But he is also a hero for making it through those 27 years unbroken.&nbsp;</p></body></html> MoJo International Prisons Thu, 12 Dec 2013 11:00:08 +0000 Shane Bauer 241151 at Was Our Time As Hostages Worth It to Bring About the Iran Nuclear Deal? <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>It's hard to find meaning in life when you live in a box. During the 26 months I spent in a political prison in Iran from 2009 to 2011, after being snatched with my friends while hiking, I envied my fellow inmates. I remember discovering that the man in the cell next to mine hadn't been out of his cell for a week. I was appalled. "It doesn't matter to me," he whispered to me. "Being in prison is a road to democracy." I was struck by this. For him, sitting there all alone was a type of action with a purpose. I wished I could feel that way.</p> <p>I understand how people become religious in prison, especially in isolation. Without meaning to our lives, we are nothing. I had my own quasi-Christian phase&mdash;or rather, quasi-Dostoyevskian phase. As I read <em>The Brothers Karamazov</em>, I dwelled on Father Zosima's exhortations to Alyosha: "There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all." Somehow, in the rabbit hole of my mind, I found a personal message in this story: Even if I wasn't myself guilty, I could bear the wrongs of others and cleanse them through my own suffering. There was relief in this idea. It made it so that my sitting in a cell meant something.</p> <p>I didn't want to admit that I was becoming religious, so I tried to put a rational spin on it. Maybe by detaining us, the Iranian government would release its ire against the US government, which would somehow lead to an easing of hostility. Maybe we were paying for our national sins: for the CIA-backed overthrow of Mossadegh, for supporting Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war, for the sanctions. For a while, believing this, it felt almost good to be in prison.</p> <p>Like most idiosyncratic lines of thinking I had there (Tolstoy briefly had me believing I had no free will), that one didn't last long. I eventually saw it for what it was: a delusional, isolation-fueled attempt to find meaning in my own meaningless suffering.</p> <p>I was reminded of all this a few days ago, when a friend in the United Kingdom sent a link to an <a href="">Associated Press story</a> outlining the procession of secret negotiations between the United States and Iran that eventually led to the nuclear agreement reached Sunday. My friend tweeted, "None of this may have happened were it not for your hellish experience. Nuts."</p> <p>It wasn't as far-fetched a theory as it may seem. Before our detention, there had been a stalemate in attempts to open US-Iran relations, especially following the brutal repression of the Green Revolution. To our knowledge, there were no face-to-face meetings between Iranian and US officials throughout our detention, making it that much harder to negotiate for our release. Most of the diplomatic work in securing our release ultimately came from Oman.</p> <p>According to the AP story, it was after taking up our case that the sultan of Oman offered himself as a mediator in US-Iran rapprochement. Following our release, then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice held clandestine "exploratory" meetings with her Iranian counterpart. These led President Obama to send Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and others to meet with Iranian diplomats in Muscat.</p> <p>When I contacted a diplomatic source involved in the talks, they said Oman had wanted to "expand the scope of the dialogue" beyond our imprisonment when my wife, Sarah Shourd, was released after 13 months, but "both parties were not interested as there was a lot of mistrust." After Josh Fattal and I were also released, another 13 months later, the Supreme Leader of Iran insisted that the United States should reciprocate by releasing certain Iranian prisoners, the source said.</p> <p>In early 2013, Oman secured the release of Iranian scientist Mojtaba Atarodi, who was held on charges of sanctions violations for buying scientific equipment from the United States. Oman also negotiated the release of former Iranian diplomat Nosratollah Tajik from the United Kingdom, the source said, after the United States pushed for his extradition. After that, "there was a bit of relief and willingness to explore further."</p> <p>Considering all this, I felt Dostoyevsky's voice, which I had long discredited, coming back. If US-Iran rapprochement had originated in our detention, did this mean those two years were worth it? Did this mean it was good for us to suffer?</p> <p>But I realize now how dangerous that line of thinking actually is. As a culture, we thrive on stories of struggle with happy endings. These stories can be empowering&mdash;and I'm certainly grateful for the way ours turned out&mdash;but they are exceptions. People are locked in cages, maimed, raped, executed, and starved every day, and most do not end up better because of these experiences, nor does humanity.</p> <p>What changes things for the better is action to stop, prevent, and overcome unnecessary suffering. Josh and I didn't change anything by living in a cell any more than any other innocent person makes the world better by sitting in a cage. The reason our tragedy led to an opening between the United States and Iran was that many people were <em>actively</em> working to end our suffering. To do so, our friends and families had to strive to build a bridge between the US and Iran when the two governments were refusing to do it themselves. Sarah is not a politician and she has no desire to be, but when she was released a year before Josh and me, she made herself into a skilled and unrelenting diplomat, strengthening connections between Oman and the US that ultimately led to these talks. Without all of these people, my time in prison would have been nothing more than time in prison. And just maybe, the US and Iran might still be nowhere near a solution to the nuclear issue.</p> <p><em>This post has been revised. </em></p></body></html> Politics Human Rights International Religion Top Stories Mon, 02 Dec 2013 11:00:09 +0000 Shane Bauer 240171 at Dancing in Damascus <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><span style="font-family: Verdana,Arial,sans-serif; line-height: 2em;">As I think of Syria today, two neighborhoods of Damascus are on my mind.</span></p> <p>One is Yarmouk, a neighborhood of mostly Palestinian refugees and their descendants. When I think of the "the camp," as it was so often called, I don't usually think of the fact that its population has shrunk to a fraction of the 112,000 people that once lived in that 0.8 square-mile space. I don't think about allegations of a <a href="" target="_blank">little-reported chemical attack</a> there last July.&nbsp;I don't think about the shelling and crushing of homes.</p> <p>When I think of Yarmouk, I think of that hour, at about 4 a.m., when pious old men shuffled to the mosque to begin the day and clutches of young people walked home with a swagger to end their night. I think of the way the sky at the end of Palestine street would turn pink at the end of the afternoon as I carried bags of cucumbers or peas or cherries home from the market. I loved how the streets felt lived in&mdash;how they filled every night with scraps of fruit rinds and newspapers and plastic bags yet were clean by the morning. I loved that everyone lived so close together in Yarmouk and that the voices of gossiping women and kids playing soccer in the alley blended with the music of Fairuz and Um Kalthoum and the cooing of pigeons in our windows.</p> <p>When I think of Yarmouk, I think of Mazen's house. Mazen had done five years as a political prisoner, but he didn't really talk about it much. He was the glue to an intellectual and cultural circle in the camp. Most Thursday nights, he'd cook an elaborate feast and sometimes he'd show a film or people would read poetry or someone would present their photography. Later in the night, the music would come on. Some would dance, flicking their wrists above their heads and jutting their hips sideways. Others would spill out onto the little courtyard, where conversations would build: Was Obama better than Bush for the Middle East? What was the best collection of Mahmoud Darwish's poetry? Was it wise to ally with "enlightened sheikhs" to spread political messages through the mosques? What was the future of Assad?</p> <p>When I left Yarmouk in July 2009 for a short trip to Iraqi Kurdistan, I had no idea it would be the last time I'd see it. One friend, Ayman, saw us out that morning. He was quite a bit younger than me, but he was always worrying about us. "Be careful," he said as we left. I couldn't have imagined that in a few days, my girlfriend (now wife) Sarah, my friend Josh, and I would be captured and thrown in Iran's Evin prison. Or that within a few years government snipers would position themselves on Yarmouk street and pick off men who entered the camp.</p> <p>Ayman (not his real name) had agreed to take care of our plants while we were away. A handful of days after we left, he saw a report on our capture on the news. He went back to our apartment and sat there alone, silently. Then, he gathered up as many of our things as he could&mdash;our trinkets from Yemen and the Old City of Damascus, my Arabic books, the beautiful short stories of the Syrian writer, Zakaria Tamer. (I love his shortest of all: "A sparrow left his cage, and when he grew hungry, he returned to it.") He took all these things and stored them in his parents' house. He left Sarah's dry-erase board just as it was.</p> <p>Our friends went to the Iranian Embassy to plead our case, taking considerable risk in identifying themselves with Americans whom Tehran was accusing of espionage. A few days later, the secret police took over our apartment. Ayman never went back. Neither did we.</p> <p>Before living in Yarmouk, we lived in the far north of the city. The neighborhood was called Muhajireen, and it clung to the side of Mount Qasioun. Had it been in the United States, Muhajireen would have been prime real estate, perched so high above the city. In Damascus however, the rich didn't like to climb hills. Most people didn't, really. It was difficult to get our friends to come there, it felt like such a trek.</p> <p>It was a hard climb, it's true. I remember walking down on winter days, sliding on ice as I descended. Cars would skid and slip sloppily down the hill. I'd walk down to the bottom of the hill, past the cemetery where people dusted off their loved ones' tombstones, past the mosque that held the tomb of ibn Arabi, the 13th-century Sufi philosopher. I'd enter <em>suq al jumaa</em>, the most beautiful market I've ever seen, where barrels of brightly colored pickles were stacked along the cobbled roads. The air smelled of spice and fresh bread.&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>Muhajireen was like an incredible little secret&mdash;you could see almost the entire city, all 1.7 million people of it, from up there. At dusk, I'd sometimes go up onto our roof. I'd watch pigeons take flight from the coop on our neighbor's rooftop, spiraling upward in tight circles so high that they almost became invisible. Then, with a piercing whistle and a wave of a bright flag, my neighbor would send them diving back toward the earth, swooping straight into their coop. I could see such flocks of pigeons rising across the entire city, tracing little rings in the sky.</p> <p>We often sat on the roof at night too, smoking apple tobacco from our argilla pipe and reading the roads of the city, laid out in front of us like a giant illuminated map. As I stared at the Old City, a vaguely circular 5,000-year-old patch in the midst of straight lines, I'd often think of the prophet Muhammed. Legend has it that he stood atop Mount Qasioun as he passed through Syria. From its apex, he looked down on the city of Damascus, but declined to enter it. "Man should only enter paradise once," he said.</p> <p>Even after we moved across the city to Yarmouk, I would come back sometimes to go up on Mount Qasioun and look out over the city at night. The last time I went up there, Sarah, some friends, and I climbed up just above the line of houses. We wanted to go farther, but we stopped short when we saw what looked to be a military base.</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="Mount Qasioun" class="image" src="/files/Sarah-and-Shane-Damascus-skyline.jpg"><div class="caption"><strong>Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd look out over Damascus from Mount Qasioun. </strong>Photo: Shon Meckfessel</div> </div> <p>I couldn't have imagined rockets flying down from that spot and waking people before dawn, making them <a href=";bpctr=1377965799" target="_blank">choke and kick and scream</a>, shrinking their pupils down to needlepoints. I don't know for certain that chemical weapons were launched from there, as some have reported&mdash;the United States is now saying some were shot from another base. What I do know now is that the base we came upon when we climbed that night was a station of the Republican Guard and that it is one of several sites that witnesses said they saw rockets raining down on Ghouta <a href="" target="_blank">the night of the chemical attack</a>.</p> <p>If the United States does decide to strike in Syria this station will almost certainly be a target.&nbsp;If there are chemical weapons there, will they explode? Which direction will the wind be blowing&mdash;away from, or <a href="" target="_blank">toward the houses beneath the pigeon coops</a>?</p> <p>Sometimes, when I think of Damascus, I think of a park on the edge of Yarmouk. It was barren&mdash;some plastic chairs and tables placed across an expanse of mostly dirt. Neon lights hung off dry, leafless trees. Nearby, a grumpy man was perpetually chasing children out of his artichoke field. I'd often go there in the afternoon. In the distance, Assad's presidential palace seemed to be looking over us, over everything.</p> <p>"You see this road?" a friend asked me one day as we sat there, pointing to the street that hugged the edge of the camp. "This didn't used to be here. When I was a kid, if you came out past these houses, this was all fields. Then Assad built this road all the way around the camp so they could gain access to it quickly, should they need to."</p> <p>Not long after the uprising began, Syrian rebels occupied the camp and the military put it under siege. Most of our friends left, but Ayman's family stayed. Eventually, the Syrian military burned their house down.</p> <p>Still, they didn't go. One day, Ayman's family drove down Yarmouk Street, that thoroughfare I remember as a teeming stretch of glitzy shops, internet caf&eacute;s, and juice bars. As they drove, a bullet from a sniper pierced the front window and entered Ayman's stepdad's head. He died instantly alongside his wife and stepdaughter.</p> <p>I had met him once, at Ayman's house. We were eating pizza. I remember the night being warm. He came home to find Ayman dancing in the middle of the living room for no apparent reason. I think the music on the stereo was Algerian, which was the rage at the time. He hugged his wife and gave her a kiss, then he sat down on the couch, laughing and watching as Ayman continued to dance.</p></body></html> Politics Foreign Policy Human Rights Top Stories Syria Tue, 03 Sep 2013 10:00:08 +0000 Shane Bauer 233216 at