Waiting Game

Article excerpt

Byline: Maziar Bahari

The mothers of two American hikers imprisoned in Iran have an emotional conversation with NEWSWEEK's Tehran expert--himself a former prisoner there.

It's not often when your interviewees have more questions for you than you have for them. When I met Cindy Hickey and Nora Shourd, the mothers of two American hikers imprisoned in Iran--Shane Bauer, 28, and Sarah Shourd, 31--they thought I could shed some light on the situation of their children in Evin Prison. I was held there for 118 days last year, and I heard the American prisoners during my interrogation and in the hallway when they tried to communicate with their captors. But no one, even many high-ranking members of the Iranian government, knows why Shane and Sarah have been held for almost a year--and what the Iranian government is trying to achieve by keeping them.

On July 30, 2009, Shane, Sarah, and their friend Josh Fattal, 28, left their hotel in the city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan for Ahmad Awa, a small town close to the Iranian border. Their friend Shon Meckfessel was feeling ill that day and was going to catch up in a couple of days. Ahmad Awa is famous for its hiking trails and waterfalls and is heavily advertised by the Kurdish regional government as a safe place for outdoor activities, though Shon felt that the Kurds had overstated its safety: the area is infested with mines left from the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Sarah wrote to her mother:

Hello Sweetness,

So, we're traveling.

Actually, we're in N.Iraq!

It's totally safe.

The Kurds in this area have been pro-American since 1991. No single American has ever been hurt on Kurdish territory.

So, don't worry.

Tonight we're going camping.

I love you.

Love Sarah

On July 31, Shon received a call from Shane, Sarah, and Josh with the news of their arrest. The circumstances are still unknown. Iran insists that the hikers crossed the border, but in the only interview after their arrest Shane said they were not arrested in Iran. The three have not been formally charged, and they told their mothers they haven't been interrogated since last September. Josh and Shane share a cell; Sarah has been in solitary confinement for the whole period. In February, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad talked about the possibility of exchanging the hikers for Iranians held by American forces in Iraq, but the idea was dismissed by the American government. In the latest twist in the saga, the alleged Iranian scientist-cum-spy Shahram Amiri, who returned to Iran from the United States two weeks ago, said in an interview

that his CIA captors told him they wanted to exchange him with "the three American spies." When the interviewer asked Amiri if he was sure that his American interrogators used the word "spy," he answered, "Yes."

The mothers of the hikers--and Shon, the fourth hiker--vehemently deny the accusation of espionage. They want the Iranian government to free their loved ones. After months of trying to contact Iranian officials from their homes in the United States, where Iran has no embassy, Cindy and Nora (whose daughter may have developed cancer) came to London to meet with the Iranian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Rasoul Movahedian. After they had stood for hours under a typical London summer rain in front of No. 16 Prince's Gate, across the street from Hyde Park, Movahedian refused to meet them.

I invited Cindy, Nora, and Shon to our flat in London for a late lunch and a heartfelt conversation. I was familiar with the desperation of two mothers who didn't know anything about the situation of their children. My family went through a very similar experience last year. The conversation was long and at times had to be stopped when they or I broke down in tears. Here are the excerpts.

Maziar Bahari: You went to the Iranian Embassy in London this morning. …