What started out as a hike in the mountains of Iraqi-Kurdistan turned into a 781-day prison ordeal for three American tourists who unknowingly crossed the border into Iran in 2009. And, now, the former prisoners -- Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd – detail the horror of their experience in a new memoir, “A Sliver of Light.”
“We didn't know we ended up hiking along the border between Iran and Iraq, and when a guard called us over, we come, and realize that, wow, we're in the wrong place, we did not mean to be here,” Josh Fattal told “Power Players.”
“We later found out that the trail we were on was the border, an unmarked border between Iran and Iraq; so, when the guards called us to them, they were actually calling us into Iran,” Shourd said of the misunderstanding that led to their extended imprisonment in Iran’s notorious Evin prison.
Shourd spent more than a year in solitary confinement.
“Solitary confinement, it reduces you to an almost animal-like state,” she said. “I spent many hours a day just crouched by the food slot in my door listening for sounds from the outside to orient me, um, to make me feel less alone. Pacing incessantly, there were times that I lost control and screamed and beat at the walls.”
But Shourd said her love for Shane and Josh, as well as solidarity with her fellow prisoners, helped keep her spirit alive through the challenging time.
“Prisoners always find a way to connect,” Shourd said. “And there were so many women inside that broke rules to pass me notes or to give me candy and sometimes the prisoners would push past the guards and throw their arms around me just to tell me that they loved and me and they hoped that I would be free. … And that strength and solidarity -- that defiance -- is what kept me alive in prison.”
Shourd and Bauer, who are now married, even became engaged during their time in the Tehran prison.
“I didn't want to propose to her in prison, you know, but we started getting a sense that Sarah might get released before us, and I decided that you know I wanted to propose to her because I didn't know when I would see her again,” Bauer said. “And I wanted her to know so I took a thread from my towel and some clothes and made a little ring and went out to this open air cell and hid under the cameras and the guards couldn't see us and proposed to her.”
Shourd, who was released and allowed to return to the United States a year before Bauer and Fattal, said it was “horrible” to leave her fiancé and friend behind in the prison.
“When I first found out that I was going to be released first I refused,” she recalled. “And then it sunk in and then it hit me that I can make a difference … so I hit the ground running. I lived out of my suitcase for a year crisscrossing the country advocating in any way I could.”
Shourd went on to meet with President Obama, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and with the help of actor Sean Penn, was able to get a promise for Bauer and Fattal’s eventual release.
“He played a very constructive role getting President Chavez of Venezuela to call President Ahmadinejad, and they have a very tight brotherly relationship,” she said of Penn. “And President Chavez got Ahmadinejad to agree that the release would happen.”
For more of the interview with the Fattal, Bauer, and Shourd, including the role they think US policy played in their capture and release, check out this episode of “Power Players.”
ABC News’ Alexandra Dukakis, Gary Westphalen, Hank Brown, and Vicki Vennell contributed to this episode.
- Josh Fattal