A Mother's Tale

There is no guidebook for getting your son out of prison in Iran.

Cindy Hickey leans over an ironing board in the living room of her Pine City home, gently disappearing the wrinkles from a silk scarf wrap. The October morning is cool and quiet. Her Jack Russell terrier dozes beside a wood stove alive with amber flames. Past the front windows, a horse and donkey stand in a green-fenced corral, tails flicking in slow half-circles. A longhaired border collie roams out back, free among 15 sinewy sled dogs tethered to metal stakes. Beyond the yard lies state forestland dyed in the rich hues of Minnesota autumn. Everything appears to be in its right place.

A low hiss escapes the steam iron that Hickey slides over the chocolate-brown scarf. A self-avowed country girl, she wore the wrap a few days ago on a trip to New York City. Her visit included a meeting with advisers to Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had arrived to address the United Nations General Assembly. She covered her head and shoulders in deference to their faith. She never imagined she would know so much about the culture and customs of their nation. She never wanted to find out this way.

July 31, 2009. The order of life unspooled that afternoon with a phone call. A woman’s voice spoke in accented English. Hickey heard the words “embassy in Baghdad.” The voice said Shane Bauer had been detained in Iran. More details to follow as available. Goodbye.

Her 27-year-old son. Detained? Iran?

The phone rang again 20 minutes later. It was not the U.S. Embassy but the State Department in Washington, D.C. A man’s voice confirmed Bauer’s arrest in Iran. Little else was known.

Iran. Anything might happen. Anything might have already happened. One question stabbed deepest. Is Shane dead or alive?

The story dripped out over the ensuing days. Bauer and his girlfriend, Sarah Shourd, and their friend Josh Fattal had gone hiking in a mountainous region of northern Iraq that adjoins Iran. Iranian officials claimed the Americans crossed the unmarked border and accused them of illegal entry. They were being held at Tehran’s Evin Prison, infamous as a black hole of torture and executions, as authorities investigated them for espionage.

July 31, 2009. The date is the unmarked border between before and after for Hickey. Before that day, the 50-year-old had felt in command no matter her circumstance: cutting across the frozen landscape during the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, riding a hundred miles in 24 hours in endurance horse races, or raising three young children on her own after her first marriage collapsed.

Now control belongs to a country whose diplomatic ties with the United States ceased in 1980.

Once she lived in serene anonymity with her second husband, Jim, on their 10-acre lot, a skipped stone from the Snake River. Now reporters and camera crews show up unbidden, entering the dirt driveway where a “Free the Hikers” banner stretches between two birch trees.

Once she ran an animal massage-therapy business out of her house. Now there is only the work of bringing Shane home.

He is a good son, principled and accomplished and worldly. A Minnesota native who spent much of his youth in Onamia, a hiccup of a town five miles south of Lake Mille Lacs. A scrawny kid with the backbone to remain seated when classmates walked out to protest their middle school adding courses in Native American studies. A chess player, not a hockey player. A caring older brother to two sisters who stayed close to him even after, as a teen, he moved to California to live with their father, Al Bauer. A born explorer who lit out for Turkey and Kosovo a day after turning 18. A 2007 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in peace and conflict studies. A fluent Arabic speaker and freelance journalist based in the Middle East and Northern Africa, whose work appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones, and the Los Angeles Times. A peace activist critical of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Israel’s building of West Bank settlements.

Bauer, who turned 28 last July, and Shourd, a 32-year-old English teacher and fellow Berkeley alumnus, lived in Damascus, Syria, for almost a year before their arrest. The hiking trip in Iraq coincided with a visit by Fattal, 28, a friend from college and former roommate. (Another companion who intended to join them on the trek bowed out after falling ill a day earlier.)

More than seven months passed before Iranian authorities allowed Bauer his first call to his mother last March, one of only two calls he has been able to make to her during his imprisonment. The conversation spanned barely a minute as they traded saying “I love you.” She promised him the three families would work nonstop to gain the trio’s release. Two months later, Iran granted visas to Hickey, Nora Shourd, and Laura Fattal. The mothers were permitted to meet with their children for 10 hours over two days in a Tehran hotel, a brief reunion that drew international coverage.

The second day’s gathering ended with guards escorting the prisoners into an elevator. The mothers huddled a few feet away. Bauer and Hickey held each other’s gaze. “I’m going to be okay,” he said. She watched the doors swallow the last glimpse of her son. The remote hope of returning home with him died.

Iranian authorities freed Sarah Shourd on $500,000 bail last September in what Ahmadinejad cast as “a huge humanitarian gesture.” Soon afterward Iran’s judiciary set a November trial date for the threesome to face spying charges, only to later postpone it to February 6. Another Thanksgiving, another Christmas, another New Year’s Day would slip past with Bauer in prison. The delay conformed to the new order of Hickey’s life. Uncertainty is a constant. Control belongs to a country halfway around the world. “Seeing Shane after waiting so long was one of the best moments of my life,” she says of the Tehran visit. “Having to leave him and not knowing when I’m going to see him again….” Her voice tightens and trails off.

A golden eagle uncoils upward from the edge of the Snake River, endless brown wings unfurling in a hypnotic flutter. The bird flies downstream before curling over the trees lining the bank opposite where Cindy Hickey stands. She makes time most days for the mile-long walk from her home to the river with Piper, her shorthaired Jack Russell terrier, taking the lead. She comes to listen and watch, to exhale, to send energy to Shane.

Stay strong. This will end.

Following her divorce in 1987, Hickey worked as a nurse in the Mille Lacs Health System in Onamia while raising Shane and his two sisters, Nicole and Shannon. As part of her job she provided home health care on the area’s Ojibwe reservation, and tribe elders acquainted her with Native American healing practices. The experience sowed a lasting interest in Native spirituality, whose teachings idealize the natural world and variously depict the eagle as a messenger or incarnation of the Great Spirit, the creator of all life. In nature, she seeks perspective on an ordeal to which the term Kafkaesque applies yet somehow feels inadequate. “The stress fills every moment of every day, even in sleep,” she says. Around her neck, she wears a burnt-orange pendant made of jasper. In Native American culture, the gemstone symbolizes the October full moon. “There are nights I wake up and think, ‘Is this really my life?’”

Hickey’s faded blue eyes tend to fix on the person with whom she talks, a habit of staring that, rather than hostility, suggests a desire to absorb the moment. Her straight dark hair drops below shoulders rounded with muscle from massaging horses in her therapy practice, and she has powerful legs from years of riding on horseback and dog sleds. To the extent that physical stamina relates to emotional strength, she appears built to survive prolonged sorrow. In her mid-20s, she underwent back surgery for two herniated discs that she ruptured while endurance horse-racing. A doctor doubted her chances of competing again. She returned to the saddle within a year and later resumed racing. Last summer, less than two years after major knee surgery, she hiked to Eagle Mountain’s 2,301-foot summit, the tallest peak in Minnesota. If that is something less than climbing Everest, with a repaired knee and a mind laden with thoughts of a son imprisoned in Iran, it is not nothing.
Yes, this is really her life. No, she will not relent. “I have a choice,” she says. “I can choose not to do any of this work. Or I can continue.” She turns from the river and begins the walk back home.


Which way is up in a void?

One side of Hickey’s living room doubles as a dog shrine. Adorning the wall are detailed pencil drawings of her driving a sled team and of three Alaskan huskies that pulled for her. A collection of ribbons Piper has won in terrier skills competitions hangs above the plaques for Hickey’s eighth-place finishes in the John Beargrease dogsled race in 2004 and ’05.

She has tried to tame 18 months of confusion with the same discipline required to traverse 400 miles of snow and ice. She bought the chocolate-brown scarf wrap and keeps it ready to wear. In pursuit of her son’s freedom, she has traveled coast to coast and beyond: Berkeley, California, and Washington, D.C.; London and Tehran—32 round-trip flights as of December 1. If the sudden chance arises to meet with Iranian officials, she cannot pause for something so mundane as ironing.

She has a Farsi language manual and an English translation of the Qur’an. They stand on a shelf in her home office below two large framed photos shot by Bauer of Darfuri refugees and beside a dozen books about the country holding him: The Rise of Nuclear Iran, After Khomeini, Guardians of the Revolution. She owns recent memoirs by Roxana Saberi and Haleh Esfandiari, former captives detained under Ahmadinejad’s regime and sent to Evin Prison. Hickey has spoken to both women and read all the books in lieu of finding a more elusive volume. “There is no guidebook,” she says, “for getting your son out of a prison in Iran.”

She purchased a Bluetooth and a MacBook Pro. The headset is clipped to her right ear; the laptop rests on a kitchen counter. Family members, public officials, reporters, supporters—the calls and e-mails are inexorable. She scans her Google Alerts for reports on “Iran” and “Shane Bauer.” She tracks the sites of Iran’s state-run PressTV and Islamic Republic News Agency. She joins the regular conference calls that State Department officials arrange with the families, who manage the global “Free the Hikers” campaign. “In my normal life, I’m so against technical devices,” Hickey says. “But in this situation, it’s not possible.”

This situation. An abbreviated list of what it has taught her: Iran Standard Time is nine-and-a-half hours ahead of Central Standard Time. Weekends on the Islamic calendar fall on Thursday and Friday, leaving the families only three days a week when both the Iranian and U.S. governments are open. The absence of diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran creates a chain of contact whereby the families deal with the State Department, which in turn deals with the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which in turn attempts to deal with Iranian officials, who may or may not respond. Letters and books sent to an Iranian prison seldom reach the intended recipient. The U.S. government does not pick up the tab for securing the release of a loved one from another country.

“I’m okay with that policy,” Hickey says. The families have relied on their own money and donations to Freethehikers.org to cover travel, translation, and logistics, costs that have surpassed $50,000. “What bothers me a little is people thinking the government pays. The only thing they pay for are the salaries of the people working on this case.”

This case. It has transmuted Hickey, Nora Shourd, and Laura Fattal into global symbols of maternal devotion. The trio and their families decided early on to have the women front the sophisticated and highly visible “Free the Hikers” effort; they hoped to elicit compassion from Iranian leaders in light of Islam’s reverence for mothers. They have met with President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and U.S. Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar. They have organized vigils across the country, marched in front of the United Nations building in New York, and sought in vain to meet with officials at Iran’s embassy in London. They have appeared on Oprah.

“The mother of a man detained in Iran” is not a coveted designation. But on TV and in person Hickey possesses an enviable poise, as though, improbably, she expected fate to trap her in a dystopian Groundhog Day. “She just has this amazing steadiness,” says Laura Fattal, 58, who lives in the Philadelphia suburb of Elkins Park and has put her teaching career on hold. In Nora Shourd’s words, “Cindy’s strong but not tough.” She means Hickey has endured the pain without turning callous. “It isn’t easy dealing with insanity and madness every day of your life,” Shourd says.

Shourd, 61, who lives in Oakland, Calif., and has taken a leave from her job as a triage nurse, moved into Cindy and Jim’s Pine City home last winter and stayed nine months. “Shane and Sarah always dreamed that their mothers would be really close,” Hickey says. She smiles. “And it’s like, ‘It’s happening.’” The two mothers learned during the Tehran trip last May that they will be in-laws. A few months earlier Bauer had braided threads from a shirt into an engagement ring and proposed to his girlfriend in the prison courtyard.

Nora moved back to Oakland last September around the time Iran released Sarah after almost 14 months of captivity. Hickey flew to New York for her future daughter-in-law’s return to U.S. soil. The two shared a long hug when they met. “I felt Shane,” Hickey says. “They’re so tied together. Not only Shane and Sarah, but Josh, too.” Days later she visited the United Nations building, where Ahmadinejad would deliver a speech to the General Assembly. She met with his advisers. She wore the chocolate-brown scarf. They no doubt appreciated the gesture. Yet nothing changed.

Hudoo means “tranquility of spirit” in Arabic. The word fits as a name for the granite-black donkey standing in the small corral in Hickey’s front yard. He watches without fuss as she attends to AJ, her regal and equally mellow horse, a chestnut-brown National Show Horse that looks half his 25 years. Heavy rains that soaked Pine City during her time in New York caused abscesses to form on his hooves. She treats the infections with Epsom salt dissolved in water, signaling him to lift each hoof with a soft squeeze of the ankle. The horse’s calm reaction reveals the trust forged during their years of running endurance races, covering up to 100 miles in a day over all manner of terrain. They have the rapport of old friends.

Hickey finishes ministering to AJ and picks up a hay bale the size of a large Igloo cooler. When she flips it into the corral, Hudoo moseys forward to eat lunch alongside AJ, their bowed heads almost touching. Hickey asked Shane to help name the donkey a couple of days after pulling the foal from his mother in 2001. Bauer was traveling in Yemen, and she called him while sitting on the ground in the corral. She wondered if he knew a word that would describe the placid creature sleeping with its head in her lap. Bauer thought for a moment. Hudoo.
The demands of caring for a donkey, horse, and 15 sled dogs gives shape to Hickey’s day amid the existential crisis of her son’s imprisonment. She can impose order, find a degree of peace. “Do I ever stop thinking about Shane and Josh? No. I always have my cell phone, I always check my e-mails,” she says. “But I have to continue my life. I have to maintain some kind of normalcy.”

Later in the afternoon she steps into the backyard to feed her Alaskan huskies a light lunch. She carries a long-handled ladle and a plastic bucket full of kibbles mixed with water. Chained to metal stakes to counter their perpetual desire to run, the dogs whirl in spastic circles as she approaches, yipping in chorus. Each one gives her a playful nudge as she scoops food into the metal bowl next to the dog’s sleeping spot. In the evening, Hickey plans to take them for a dry-land training run in the woods, attaching their harness to an ATV that she steers with its engine off.

The huskies range in age from 5 to 13. Four dogs have died since her son’s arrest. She closed her animal-therapy practice last May to work full-time for her son’s freedom. She will not, however, cede any more of herself to Iran. “I’ve had people say, ‘Why don’t you just get rid of all the animals?’ But this is a big part of my life. And Shane would not want that to happen.”


The question wore on hickey for 10 months. Is Shane still Shane? She worried about the effects of prison on his mind and spirit. The trip to Tehran last spring would finally provide the answer.

The chocolate-brown scarf covered her head as she waited in the hotel conference room where the reunion took place. She sat on a plush crimson sofa with Nora Shourd and Laura Fattal as camera crews from Iran’s PressTV filmed them. The women stood up in unison moments before their children entered the room—a collective surge of mother’s intuition. Hickey and Bauer rushed toward each other and embraced. When they unclenched, he started asking about her, the family, the case. Her anxiety eased. He was unbroken.

As for another question, one posed by Iran in the form of espionage charges, Hickey had her answer long before the Tehran visit. “To say Shane, Sarah, and Josh were spying,” she says, “is crazy.”

Iran is the country that cried espionage. Consider this small sampling of recent cases in which Iranian authorities charged detainees with spying: Two German journalists were arrested in October after interviewing the family of an Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery; they remain in custody. Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American dual citizen, spent 100 days in Evin Prison in 2009 after authorities claimed the freelance radio journalist worked for the U.S. government. Two years earlier, another Iranian-American dual citizen, Haleh Esfandiari, wound up in Evin for 105 days for her affiliation with a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Hickey contacted Saberi and Esfandiari to ask about their experiences in prison. The conversations offered Hickey a measure of comfort. “What I learned from them is that when they get out, past detainees go back to living normal lives and are strong,” she says.
When they get out. January 1, 2011, marks 520 days in prison for Bauer and Fattal.

The roots of Bauer’s plight stretch to the Iran hostage crisis that began in November 1979. Islamic militants, angry over the support the United States had given the deposed Shah of Iran, seized the American embassy in Tehran. They held 52 hostages for 444 days, and in the interim, the United States severed diplomatic ties with Iran. Nothing in the intervening three decades has presaged progress toward mending relations.

That same year, Hickey graduated high school in Le Center. She grew up the oldest of four siblings on a working farm. Mom was a nurse; Dad hauled milk for Associated Milk Producers. Young Cindy paid scant attention to foreign affairs. “I knew very little about what was happening in Iran. It was not on the top of my list of what I was interested in.”

She wanted to start a family. She married her boyfriend, Al Bauer, and in 1982 gave birth to Shane. Two daughters, Nicole and Shannon, followed over the next four years before Cindy and Al divorced. It was an amicable split, and Bauer, who then moved to California for work before returning to Minnesota in 2000, has hosted fund-raisers for the “Free the Hikers” campaign. “I bury myself in my business to keep a sane mind,” says the 54-year-old Bauer, who runs a Bobcat repair service in Shakopee. A bear of a man with an open face and amiable nature, he sits in the ashen light of his warehouse, large hands black with grease. “I’m used to fixing things. But with this whole thing you just feel so helpless.”

Hickey migrated with her three children to Onamia and moved into a small duplex cabin near Lake Mille Lacs. She sometimes walked the hospital halls during her nursing shifts wondering how she would feed the kids that night. A wood stove supplied the cabin’s lone source of heat in winter; she woke every two hours to toss logs on the fire. “I’ve lived through some hard times in my life,” she says. “That helps get me through this.”

Shane assumed the role of man of the house. He cooked macaroni and cheese for his sisters and looked after them until their mother returned from work. “He just always made sure that we were safe,” says Shannon Bauer, 24, who attends school in Boulder, Colorado, as she pursues a degree in transpersonal psychology. The three siblings stayed close after Shane, then 14, went to live with their father in California in 1995. His imprisonment has left the sisters feeling bereft of a best friend. “Nights are the hardest time,” says Bauer’s 26-year-old sister Nicole Lindstrom, who lives in Duluth with her husband and studies massage therapy at Duluth Business University. She and Shannon lean on the same person when struggling to regain their equilibrium: “My mom,” Nicole says, “is the strongest person I know.”

In the early 1990s, to earn extra money, Hickey started what would evolve into her animal massage-therapy practice a few years later. She had taken on a second job managing a horse farm and noticed that many tics in animals derived from physical ailments; a horse’s bucking tended to be symptomatic of injury instead of obstinacy. Her skill at diagnosing and treating equine problems led to working with canines, and in 1997, she received a call from Jim Hickey. The Pine City resident ran a sled team and his lead dog had developed leg soreness. First, he asked her for help; a short time later, he asked her for a date. A romance bloomed, as would her passion for mushing, and after the couple married in 1998, Cindy moved into his home and expanded her animal therapy practice.

Jim, 58, works as a special projects coordinator with a Twin Cities printing firm. He has watched his wife cope with her son’s imprisonment for 18 months. Her frustration has simmered only twice—both times, fittingly, due to phone glitches. “She handles everything with grace,” Jim says. Her self-possession reminds him of someone else: “I think Shane is almost a twin to Cindy in a sense.”

In fact, when she visited Shane in Yemen in 2005, some locals mistook her for his sister. Only 23 years old at the time, he impressed her as a precocious citizen of the world, fluent in Arabic, careful to observe cultural customs and adept at disarming strangers. “He’s an old spirit in a young body,” Cindy Hickey says. “He’s wise beyond his years.” So when he told her that he planned to go hiking with Shourd and Fattal in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq in July 2009, she found no reason for concern.

The three hikers climbed into the Zagros Mountains and stopped at a waterfall that ranks among Iraq’s most popular nature destinations. The trail to the falls runs about 10 miles west of the unmarked Iranian border, and the friends continued along the path. From there, the story diverges. Iranian authorities claim Bauer, Shourd, and Fattal entered their country without permission. A U.S. military report obtained by WikiLeaks and released in October indicates the hikers were arrested on the Iraqi side of the border and brought into Iran. Either way, one fact is indisputable: They stand accused of espionage.

President Obama spoke first. “You have my sympathy for your situation. Michelle and I think about this every single day. We have two daughters and they will be traveling eventually, so we empathize with your situation.”

Hickey listened as the president went on. It was late September, and Sarah Shourd had returned to the United States days earlier. Obama invited Shourd, as well as the three mothers and Josh Fattal’s brother, Alex, to the White House. During the brief meeting, he called the release of Bauer and Fattal a national priority. His sincerity reassured Hickey of the country’s commitment. And yet, 14 months had elapsed since the arrests.

“It was humbling to meet the president,” she says. “But I didn’t have the overwhelming emotion that I think I would have in another situation… It’s literally a business. We went to Washington to do business—to secure the release of Shane and Josh.”

The group sat down with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later in the day. When Clinton asked how they were doing, Hickey offered polite candor: She explained that the rigors of the “Free the Hikers” campaign had prompted her to close her animal therapy business of
18 years.

“There’s always a question of, ‘What are we not doing to get this done?’” Hickey says. “There are many things the U.S. government is doing that we are not privy to, and I don’t expect to be. But I’m Shane’s mom and people are going to hear from me until this is done. I try to do it in a respectful way, but I’m going to push.”

On an October afternoon, Cindy Hickey sits at her dining table with files related to her son’s case splayed in front of her. She is prepping for a conference call that the families will hold at 10:30 p.m. with Masoud Shafii, the Iranian attorney they retained a few months after Bauer, Shourd, and Fattal were detained. A trial for Bauer and Fattal has been scheduled for November 6, and during the duo’s time in Evin Prison, Shafii has been granted a single meeting with them.

Tonight’s call will start at 8 a.m. Iraqi time. Hickey wants to provide the lawyer with a character portrait of her son. She has a copy of his college thesis on Darfur, earlier papers he wrote at Berkeley, articles he published in the San Francisco Chronicle and Mother Jones, and an array of other documents she hopes will help Shafii present her son in a favorable light to the Iranian judge. The stacks of paper surround a medallion given to Hickey on behalf of Turkey’s foreign minister, whose office offered it in support of the families when they were in New York after Shourd’s return. Turkey and Oman are among the countries with diplomatic ties to Iran that have worked with the United States to bring Bauer and Fattal home.

In the end, Hickey’s preparation is premature. The conference call takes place as scheduled. The trial does not.

In late October, Iranian officials announced the proceeding had been postponed. Almost a month went by before they set a new trial date of February 6. The families reacted by once again calling for the release of Bauer and Fattal. Iranian leaders no doubt read their pleas in news reports. Nothing changed.

The inscrutable, seemingly arbitrary workings of the Iranian judiciary reflect divisions within the country’s government that were made transparent last September. Days after Ahmadinejad announced Sarah Shourd would be freed, the judiciary, controlled by hard-line conservatives at odds with the president, blocked the move. She was allowed to leave later in the month, but only after someone or some entity posted a $500,000 bail to satisfy Iran’s conditions for her release.

Where the money came from remains a mystery (the families and federal officials deny knowing the source). And in some ways, payment of the bail complicated the matter. “The fact that it was paid for Sarah sets a precedent for Shane and Josh,” Hickey says, “and the U.S. government made it real clear to us and the public that it’s not going to pay that.”

A photo of Bauer in prison stands on the kitchen counter behind her laptop. He wears a long-sleeved blue shirt with a broad white band across the chest. He stares off to his right, the tension evident in his narrow face. A Swiss ambassador took the photo about three months after Bauer’s arrest. Hickey feels a jumble of emotions when she looks at the image, but anger—specifically, anger at Iran—isn’t one of them. “I really try to approach this with a loving, compassionate heart,” she says. “Some people might think I’m crazy, but I feel like a lot of good can be done with love and compassion instead of hate.”

Around her left wrist is a thick band made of red thread that holds three yellow beads. A few days after Bauer, Shourd, and Fattal were detained, her daughter Shannon made the bracelets for members of the families, who vowed to wear them until all three prisoners were free. Everyone except Hickey has needed to replace the original bands. Each day she gives it one tug, hoping it will break, hoping that when it does, she will receive the call for which she has waited since July 31, 2009.

On November 14—some 472 days after the order of life unspooled—the wristband broke. Nothing changed. Her son is still not home.