The families waiting for Iran to free their children

Three American hikers held by Tehran for more than a year are pawns in a diplomatic game, their families tell David Usborne

For Laura Fattal, one of the mothers of the three American hikers held in an Iranian prison without trial for more than a year, the hardest thing is the silence. She writes to him daily, and believes the letters get through. But her son, Josh Fattal, isn't allowed to write back.

"We are sick to our stomachs worrying about them," she explains on a muggy afternoon in the back garden of her brick home in Elkins Park, a northern suburb of Philadelphia. "We don't know if they have a cold. We don't know if they have a toothache, or what treatment they are getting. We have no idea."

Mrs Fattal casts her eyes down as she recalls getting a message on the last day of July 2009 to phone the US embassy in Baghdad. Josh and two friends he had met while studying at Berkeley, Sarah Shourd and Shane Bauer, had been taken into custody by Iranian border guards while on a hiking trip to the famous Ahmed Awa waterfall in Iraqi Kurdistan just across the border from Iran. They may or may not have strayed across the frontier at the falls; the Iranians say they did and accuse them of espionage.

Since then, all three families have been consumed by running the campaign to have them released. Josh and Shane have at least been held in a cell together in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison since December, but Sarah, who has reported finding a lump on one of her breasts, is in solitary confinement. The families received one phone call from their children in March. In May there were permitted to spend two days in Iran to see them. They went thinking they would come home with the kids. It didn't happen.

And so, one year and almost one month since the three friends vanished behind bars, nothing has changed. A trial date hasn't even been set, even though the Iranian investigation into the case was seemingly over last September.

The assumption on the side of the families is that Iran is waiting for the right opportunity to trade the hikers for leverage in its antagonistic diplomatic dealings with the West.

"We are all of us in the rabbit hole, and we have been falling down this rabbit hole for over a year now, and it's got to end," explains Alex Fattal, Josh's elder brother, sitting at the garden table in Elkins Park with his mother. His brother and his brother's two friends have become pawns in a tense standoff between Tehran and Washington. "The Iranians are very good at chess, as you know. They invented chess." Alex, who is physically very like his younger brother and emotionally very close to him, gave up his doctoral research in Sweden when he heard what had happened, and came home immediately. "On the phone I told my mother that this would be over quickly," he recalls.

Laura, an arts teacher, likewise gave up her job to focus on the campaign. What, you have to ask, were the three of them doing so close to the Iranian border anyway? That they were world travellers with a yen for new places and taking unusual hikes is well known. Josh not long ago cycled solo from Seattle to Philadelphia. After Berkeley he lived on a self-sustaining eco-farm in central Oregon. And just before meeting his two friends in Damascus, where they lived, and setting off on their walking trip in Iraq, he had gone around the world on a teaching fellowship before spending a month roaming southern Europe with Alex.

But why tempt fate by going to where they did? "Obviously, in retrospect, you can say it was imprudent," Alex replies. "But at the same time, it is statistically significantly more dangerous to go to Jamaica, or if you go to certain parts of Mexico right now." The irony, Alex goes on, is that his brother and his friends strove precisely to understand and embrace the world and other cultures and religions in it. "This couldn't have befallen three better people."

Is it possible that the families have been duped by their own kin, and that these three highly intelligent, highly educated Americans were indeed spies for the US government?

One answer was provided by President Barack Obama, who telephoned Laura on 27 July this year to express his good wishes and frustrations over the case (she and the other two mothers have also met twice with Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State). On 31 July, the first anniversary of the three Americans' incarceration, Mr Obama issued a blunt-spoken statement demanding their release, saying it was a "humanitarian imperative"

"I want to be perfectly clear: Sarah, Shane and Josh have never worked for the United States government," the President went on.

"They are simply open-minded and adventurous young people who represent the best of America, and of the human spirit."

And Alex offers his own riposte. "People who get recruited are the people who speak Farsi, people who have previous experience in Iran, and they have none," he offers. And the Iranians know that they are innocent, he goes on. "It's clear, it's fact, it's established that there is nothing nefarious here."

For Mrs Fattal, dealing with her son's absence is akin to grieving, but always with the hope that it will all end soon. She keeps busy, above all. There is the campaign's web site to maintain – freethehikers.org – the letters to write, the protests and vigils to organise, and the lobbying of media and politicians to keep up.

On 31 July, she and the other two mothers (who are now living under one roof in Minnesota) met in New York to lead a vigil outside the Iranian mission to the United Nations. The protesters held up photos of the three, with mock-ups of prison bars made with black masking tape. The protest paraphernalia is still stacked up in a second living room here.

She has never felt alone. In Josh's bedroom, she picks up a small knapsack that a teacher and some children from the local high school bought to the house on 4 June, when Josh turned 27. "To Josh and the Fattal Family, You are in our Thoughts" says the greeting written in felt-tip pen on the outside. Inside are hundreds of slips of paper with messages of support from all the children at the school, where Josh studied for 10 years. Out in the garden, Laura points to a pile of dead stalks, from flowers people have given her over the months. She will throw them away only when Josh comes home.

Milestones keep her and the other families going, even if so far each has come and gone without any resolution. Right now she is looking ahead to next month's UN General Assembly meeting, to be attended by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

There have been murmurs in Washington that he might meet with President Obama – but only if the three hikers are released. The hardest disappointment for the mothers came at the end of the meeting with their children in Tehran in May, when they realised they would be flying home without them: "We see them, and the Iranians ask them to get into one elevator and us to get into another... We have no idea when we are seeing our kids again, and they are calm but we are in, like, shock. And then we see the doors close."

It is three months since the visit, and still there is no movement on the case. So here at home everyone simply has to cope and keep moving forward. Laura and Alex are getting ready to resurface the short driveway of the house so Josh can shoot baskets with his brother on his return without risking a sprained ankle. (The drive has a few cracks sprouting grass right now.)

The only time Mrs Fattal fights tears is as she listens to Alex speak of how deeply he misses Josh: "When I enjoy something, I try to think of it as enjoying it for Josh too." But it is clear that nothing will be enough until he and his mother have his brother here at home, to hug in the flesh.

High-profile detainees

Maziar Bahari
Detained: June 2009
Released: October 2009

Newsweek journalist and filmmaker Maziar Bahari was arrested at his mother's home in Tehran on 21 June 2009 after Iran's disputed general election. Authorities kept Canadian-Iranian citizen Bahari in the notorious Evin prison for 118 days. On his release, Newsweek thanked "the thousands of friends, colleagues and well-wishers around the world whose support over the last few months has helped to make this moment possible".

Clotilde Reiss
Detained: July 2009
Released: May 2010

French student Clotilde Reiss was arrested in July 2009, accused by Iranian authorities of spying for the West, after she protested against the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. She was detained for 10 months. French President Nicolas Sarkozy lent his support for her release. Reiss flew home to France in May after her two five-year jail sentences were converted to a fine of 3bn rials (£210,000).

British sailors
Detained: November 2009
Released: December 2009

On 25 November 2009, five British sailors were detained by Iran's Revolutionary Guard when their yacht drifted into Iranian waters during a race from Bahrain to Dubai. Officials in Tehran said "serious measures" would be taken if it was proved that the sailors had "evil intentions". However, Iranian authorities accepted that the yacht had drifted by mistake, and the crew were released one week later.

Enjoli Liston

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