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Samantha Gross, Associated Press Writer, Published September 25 2010

Shourd speaks out: Hiker pleads with Ahmadinejad for friends

NEW YORK – Sarah Shourd, one of three Americans arrested last year while hiking near the Iran-Iraq border, met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Friday to plead for the release of her still-imprisoned fiance and their friend.

“I’m just going to keep pushing every minute for their release on humanitarian grounds,” Shourd told ABC News outside a hotel after she and her mother, Nora Shourd, met with the president.

Shourd, 32, called the encounter “a very gracious gesture and a good meeting” and said Ahmadinejad seemed friendly and that it was “a very human encounter, very personal.”

Family spokeswoman Samantha Topping confirmed the meeting with Ahmadinejad, who was in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly. Topping declined to say what was discussed.

Shourd came to New York to advocate for the release of her fiance, Shane Bauer, and their friend Josh Fattal, who remain imprisoned in Tehran after 14 months.

Shourd told The Associated Press on Thursday of the monotony, cramped quarters and fears for her future during her 410 days in an Iranian prison, mostly in solitary confinement.

In one of her first interviews since her Sept. 14 release from Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, she said that she chooses to savor the few moments of joy she found in her imprisonment.

One of her happiest days, she said, was the celebration of her 32nd birthday last month. Somehow the men, who remain in Evin Prison, had persuaded a guard to bring her a cake and even found a way to give her a whiff of liberty.

They talked her through a whole imaginary day that they called a “freedom walk” – from waking up and having pancakes to going to a lake and then walking to her mother’s apartment. When they came to the part of their story where the apartment door opened, Bauer and Fattal spun Shourd around.

“They had brought all the pictures we had of our family and put them on these boxes, so everyone was there, and it was a surprise party. It was beautiful,” she said, her voice catching. “I cried.”

But most days in prison were far more monotonous – or terrifying.

She recalled how the three made a vow while blindfolded in a prison van shortly after their capture: If they were separated, they would go on hunger strike until they were reunited.

Shourd starved herself for four days, lying alone in her cell and growing weaker. In prison, she kept reviewing her last day of freedom. What could they have done differently?

On the fourth day, the hikers were reunited for five minutes. Shourd began eating again, but their captivity was just beginning.

Alone in her cell, Shourd began going over multiplication tables in her head. It was the only way she could keep out thoughts of her mother. If she thought of her mother, she began to fall apart, Shourd recalled.

She wondered whether she’d be hurt. If suddenly the door might open and she’d be dragged away.

Instead, a few times a day, a female guard would come bearing layers of extra clothing and a blindfold so when Shourd arrived at the interrogation room, she couldn’t see the faces of her questioners.

They had her write down what felt like every detail of her life, from her childhood in Los Angeles to her time living with Bauer in Syria, where she taught English and Bauer, a native of Onamia, Minn., was a freelance journalist. Fattal, who grew up in Pennsylvania, had come to the Middle East to visit them.

Shourd says she’d been missing the green mountains of the U.S. after a year in Syria. She and Bauer had heard from friends that the lush lands of northern Iraq had been largely untouched by the war, so they and Fattal traveled to Ahmed Awa waterfall, where they found hundreds of Kurdish families eating at restaurants and camping.

The first indication they were near the Iran border was three hours into their hike when they met Iranian officials on a trail leading from the waterfall. By then, it was too late.

Shourd tried to resist her imprisonment at first. She constantly yelled, cried or begged her captors for a phone call. She was confined to her 10-foot-by-5-foot cell. At night, the bit of sunlight from the window would dim, but the lights stayed on.

Eventually, the interrogations ended. The two men were moved into a cell together. The three Americans were allowed to see each other, at first for 30 minutes each day and then for an hour and then for two.

On one evening, Bauer asked Fattal to stay in their cell during their allotted time outdoors so that the couple could have a moment alone.

The two sat on a rough wool mat, cockroaches skittering around them and dust filling the air. They held hands, and Bauer asked her to marry him. He made them engagement rings from two thin pieces of string.

And now, she is back on the outside, appearing on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” preparing for a tour of TV studios, a bit of string tied around her finger.

She thinks of the men, of the strong, supportive faces they put on when they learned only she would leave. She still doesn’t know who paid her $500,000 bail, though she said an Omani official told her of an Iranian citizen who attempted to mortgage his home to pay it.

She wants the world to see Bauer and Fattal, who are passing long days in a cramped space not much larger than a towel.

Out here, she can be their voice. She can do her best to make sure the world doesn’t forget. She will be tireless, she said.

And until they’re at her side, “my life will not resume.”

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