American Hikers Spend 10th Month In Iranian Jail
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
In an age when major news stories seem to capture the headlines for a few minutes then disappear, the story of the three American hikers imprisoned in Iran just didn't seem to last. Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 27, and Sarah Shourd, age 31, have been detained in Iran for nearly 10 months now, after crossing the border along the Iraq Kurdistan mountains last July.
Earlier this week, the mothers of the three Americans were granted visas. They hope to travel to Tehran and see their children face-to-face. Joshua Hammer retraced the hikers' steps for an article he wrote entitled "A Mountain of Trouble." It appears in this month's issue of Outside magazine. And Mr. Hammer joins us from Berlin. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. JOSHUA HAMMER (Author, A Mountain of Trouble): Thanks for having me.
SIMON: And so, why were they even trying to walk through Iraqi Kurdistan, in the mountains there?
Mr. HAMMER: Well, they had all rendezvoused in Damascus, Syria, where two of them - Shane and Sarah, his girlfriend - were studying Arabic and teaching English. Josh had been traveling around the world on a fellowship. And they met there, had some time off in the summer and were trying to figure out where to take a holiday. And if you're an ex-pat and you're living in the Middle East, you have a slightly different perspective than one might living in the United States.
They had a lot of friends, or several friends who had been to Kurdistan. The friends had raved about the mountains there and emphasized that it was a place that was safe for Westerners and they were looking for an adventure and decided to go hiking in Kurdistan.
SIMON: And what happened?
Mr. HAMMER: According to the fourth member of the party, the one - a guy named Shon Meckfessel - there were actually four of them and he was the fourth who happened to be sick the day they went on their fateful hike. According to him, everybody they talked to recommended this place called Ahmed Awa, a sort of a mountain paradise that was very popular among Iraqi tourists.
He also said that nobody mentioned that it was near the Iranian border, five miles from the Iranian border. So, they set off on this hike without - armed with a very poorly drawn map, no other preparation and apparently no awareness of where they were actually heading.
SIMON: What are their lives in prison? What do you know?
Mr. HAMMER: You know, for many, many months there was no information coming out from them directly. There were a couple of meetings with the Swiss ambassador but they were always closely monitored, so there was very little detail even through that.
We know that they were interrogated harshly over the first few weeks, blindfolded, probably kept in isolation. We also know that as time went on, the conditions have improved, that the two men have shared a cell. There was a fear that they were all being kept in isolation. We learned that that's not true. Sarah is permitted a visit with them once every day for about an hour, that they have access to television, that they're getting letters, getting some exercise.
But in recent weeks, new information has come out through their lawyer that they actually are - two of them are suffering from physical ailments. And, of course, the sheer psychological punishment of this unending time in prison has got to be taking a toll on them.
SIMON: And why do you think the plight of these three backpackers, as they're often called, in an Iranian prison hasn't gotten nearly the attention that in our industry we, obviously, gave to Roxana Saberi when she was in jail in Tehran or Lisa Ling and Euna Lee when they were in North Korea?
Mr. HAMMER: Well, I think that there are a couple of reasons for that. I think, first of all, Roxana, as well as those two journalists working with Al Gore's outfit on the West Coast were captured in North Korea, had much higher profiles than these three did. They had the backings of reasonably powerful news organizations and powerful people who were able to come to their defense and keep pushing relentlessly for their release. I don't think that these three are getting that same sort of backing.
And I also think, strangely, there's not a lot of sympathy for these young people. If one looks at websites of Mother Jones, even at Outside's, when Outside posted this story on Facebook, the responses were often quite vicious. A lot of people described them as morons, this is their own fault, what were they doing hiking in a war zone? So, that lack of sympathy and suspicion have played a role in not coalescing a great deal of support around them.
SIMON: Joshua Hammer, his article, "A Mountain of Trouble," is in this month's issue of Outside magazine. Mr. Hammer, thanks so much.
Mr. HAMMER: You're welcome.
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