For Families of Hikers Held in Iran, 21 Sleepless Months

As their sons hunger strike in a Tehran prison, two mothers struggle against time, an Iranian regime bent on using them as tools against the U.S., and the agony of countless unspeakable fears


Sarah Shourd, center, stands with Cindy Hickey, mother of Shane Bauer, left, and Laura Fattal, mother of Josh Fattal during a news conference. Stephen Chernin/AP.

Cindy Hickey and Laura Fattal didn't eat on Thursday or Friday.

Their sons, UC Berkeley graduates Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, have been held in Tehran's Evin Prison for the past 21 months, accused of spying for the United States. The charges, denied by their families as well as President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are largely seen as a means of embarrassing the U.S. Shane and Josh, not to mention their distraught families, are incidental casualties.

When the Iranian government cancelled the two hikers' latest court appearance last Thursday, both mothers suspected the boys were hunger striking. They began their own solidarity fast on May 19.

Their mothers' intuition was correct -- the men had been fasting. On Monday, after 17 agonizing days without food, Shane and Josh were each allowed one short phone call to America.

Hickey had long worried something might happen to her son. Shane, now 28, is a freelance journalist whose work in the Middle East had placed him in the scrum in Baghdad just six weeks before his July 31, 2009 arrest. But her phone rang while he was hiking in Kurdistan, a peaceful, tourist-friendly area, with girlfriend Sarah Shourd, 31, and their friend Josh, also 28. "I worry when he's on assignment," Hickey told me. "I wasn't concerned about this trip. Even I would have gone on this trip."

"We're all in a prison," she said. "Our lives have changed."

Officials from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad told her Shane had been arrested by Iranian authorities, accused of spying. Nearly two years later, he is still held in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison. Shourd was released on $500,000 bail in September over concern for her declining health. Prominent peace activists, including Nobel Peace Prize winners Desmond Tutu and Iranian Shirin Ebadi, are speaking out on the hikers' behalf.

"If we assume that the judge presiding would be a fair judge, and observes the rule, they should get their acquittal," Ebadi told me at a recent conference in Oslo. "The prosecutor has charged them with espionage, but bear in mind that they were arrested the moment they entered Iran. Which means that even if we assume it was their intention to spy, they didn't have time to get around to it. They are innocent and must be released."

On Friday, Hickey received a visit of support from one of her senators, Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar, who has been working closely on the case.

But the nightmare continues. For the now 19 months after the arrest, she couldn't go near the study in her home in Pine City, Minnesota, the room where she got the call. When the news first broke, "I figured this wasn't going to be a 24-hour thing," she recalled. "But I thought the maximum time was four months. And the last few months I just wake up thinking, 'How can we do this?"

Until Monday, Hickey had not had contact with her son since a five-minute phone call on Thanksgiving. She has seen him only once in 21 months, in May of last year, when the hikers' mothers were granted 48-hour visas to Iran and allowed to visit briefly with their children at a luxury hotel near Evin.

One of the first things she did after the initial arrest was call a crisis counselor. As the ordeal drags on, she seeks regular therapy. Herself a registered nurse, she closed the practice she had been running for 18 years to concentrate full-time on bringing her son home.

"We're all in a prison," she said. "Our lives have changed."

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Karen Leigh is a Berlin-based journalist, writing for Time and other publications. She previously covered Africa, India, the Arab Spring, and the 2008 presidential campaigns.

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