Hiker Talks of Year in Iran Prison

Associated Press + More

NEW YORK — Her 410 days of solitary confinement in an Iranian prison were mostly cramped quarters and endless monotony, but Sarah Shourd chooses to savor the few moments of joy: a proposal from her boyfriend and a birthday celebration complete with a chocolate cake.

Shourd, her boyfriend Shane Bauer and their friend Josh Fattal were captured in 2009 while hiking near the Iran-Iraq border. Shourd talked about her experiences Thursday with The Associated Press in one of her first interviews since her release on Sept. 14 after officials in Oman mediated bail.

One of her happiest days, she said, was the celebration of her 32nd birthday last month. Somehow the men, who remain in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, had persuaded a guard into bringing her the cake and even found a way to give her a whiff of liberty.

They talked her through a whole imaginary day that they called a "freedom walk" — from waking up and having pancakes, to going to a lake, then walking to her mother's apartment. When they came to the part of their story where the apartment door opened, Bauer and Fattal spun Shourd around.

"They had brought all the pictures we had of our family and put them on these boxes, so everyone was there, and it was a surprise party. It was beautiful," she said, her voice catching. "I cried."

But most days in prison were far more monotonous — or terrifying.

She recalled how the three made a vow while blindfolded in a prison van shortly after their capture: If they were separated, they would go on hunger strike until they were reunited.

Shourd starved herself for four days, lying alone in her cell and growing weaker. In prison, she kept reviewing her last day of freedom. What could they have done differently? What if, when they asked a tea vendor near a waterfall for advice on a hiking path, they had gone another way?

On the fourth day, the hikers were reunited for five minutes. Shourd began eating again, but their captivity was just beginning.

Alone in her cell, Shourd began going over multiplication tables in her head. It was the only way she could keep out thoughts of her mother. Of whether she knew where her daughter was. Of how worried she must be. Of whether they would see each other again.

If she thought of her mother, she began to fall apart, Shourd recalled.

"I just had to be sure that I was strong when I went into the interrogation room because I wanted to make sure that I didn't, that they didn't manipulate me into saying anything that I didn't want to say," she said.

She wondered whether she'd be hurt. If suddenly the door might open and she'd be dragged away.

Instead, a few times a day, a female guard would come bearing layers of extra clothing and a blindfold, so when Shourd arrived at the interrogation room she couldn't see the faces of her questioners.

She was amazed at their "good cop, bad cop" approach, just like on TV shows back in the U.S.

They had her write down what felt like every detail of her life, from her childhood in Los Angeles to her time living with Bauer in Syria, where she taught English and Bauer, a native of Onamia, Minn., was a freelance journalist. Fattal, who grew up in Pennsylvania, had come to the Middle East to visit them.

Over two months, she wrote hundreds of pages, she said. When she would finish writing an answer to a question, an interrogator would tell her "this is not good enough" and tear up her words. She would write again, and again hear the pages tear.

"I would just write it the same every time," she said.

They questioned her about her e-mails and about her Skype contacts, looking for any indication she had intended to come to Iran.

Should says she'd been missing the green mountains of the U.S. after a year in Syria. She and Bauer had heard from friends that the lush lands of northern Iraq had been largely untouched by the war. So they and Fattal traveled to Ahmed Awa waterfall, where they found hundreds of Kurdish families eating at restaurants and camping.