In the summer of 2009, three vacationing Americans went to Sulaymaniyah, a budding Western tourist destination in Iraqi Kurdistan. While on a hike, they were deceived into crossing the invisible mountain border between Iraq and Iran by an Iranian border guard. The three American hikers were then accused of being spies and placed in Tehran’s Evin Prison, known for its wing where political prisoners were held before and after the Iranian Revolution. Over 13 months would pass before Sarah Shourd would be released. The other two Amercians, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, would not be released until nearly 26 months had passed. The three co-authored a memoir about their experience titled A Sliver of Light that is due out in March 2014.
Sarah, Shane, and Joshua were in their late 20s and early 30s, and the three had been friends since college. Sarah was an English teacher and lived with Shane, a freelance journalist covering the Middle East. They lived in a suburb of Damascus, Syria. Joshua Fattal was an environmental activist visiting his friends. To celebrate the visit, they went on a week-long vacation to Sulaymaniyah. It was considered a very beautiful place, as well as safe for Americans. Since gaining its autonomy in 1992, no American had been harmed in Iraqi Kurdistan. After spending a couple of days visiting museums and castles in Sulaymaniyah, the group asked around about the best places to experience the region’s mountainous terrain. Hotel staff, taxi drivers, and people on the street all suggested the Ahmed Awa waterfall. On the wall of their hotel were three photos of tourists at the waterfall.
As detailed in A Sliver of Light, the three American hikers arrived at Ahmed Awa waterfall on the evening of July 30 and continued on the trail to find a quiet place to camp. In the morning, the three woke up early, had breakfast, and picked up the trail again, which they had been told would lead to breathtaking views. In the early afternoon, Sarah suggested turning around. Josh and Shane agreed, but they first wanted to summit a ridge that was a couple minutes’ walking distance. They started out but immediately stopped when Sarah spotted a soldier on the ridge carrying a gun. The soldier nonchalantly waved them up the trail. Figuring it was an Iraqi outpost, the three acquiesced and walked up the hill toward the man. When they got to the top, Josh noticed that the soldier had an Iranian flag on his lapel.
Terrified and unable to speak Farsi, they were taken into custody and eventually taken to Evin Prison in Tehran. All three were denied access to a lawyer, held incommunicado, and were not charged officially for months. The held the unenviable position of being what they called in a Mother Jones article “pawns in the nuclear chess game.” Over a year later, in what has been described as a political move made by the Iranian government to ease international pressure, Sarah was released by Iranian President Ahmadinejad on “compassionate grounds” and $465,000 in bail. Iran did not require her to stay in the country for the upcoming trial that would take place in August of 2011. Sarah returned to the U.S. and announced that she would not be returning to Iran for the trial. In August of 2011, Shane and Joshua each received eight years in prison for illegal entry and espionage. Less than one month later, however, they were released on what was termed “humanitarian grounds” by Ahmadinejad in a $930,000 bail-for-freedom deal negotiated by Omani officials.
A Sliver of Light is an innovative interweaving of the three American hikers’ voices. Their memoir provides a rare glimpse inside Iran and first-hand accounts of the psychological torment caused by solitary confinement. Sarah is now a writer, speaker, and advocate against solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. In May 2012, she and Shane were married. The friendship between the American hikers, as well the alliances they made with both fellow prisoners and some of their captors, could not be shackled by the geopolitical circumstances that imprisoned them.
By Donna Westlund