August 29, 2011


A Mountain of Trouble: The lush peaks of Iraqi Kurdistan are irresistible to a certain breed of bold backpacker: They're exotic, beautiful, and way off the beaten track. But when three young Americans were arrested by Iranian border guards last July after straying too far down a waterfall trail, the costs of adventure travel got a lot higher. As the hikers languished in their cells, we sent JOSHUA HAMMER to find out how they got into this mess--and what it would take to get them out. Joshua Hammer, 4/21/10, Outside)

For all the hikers have endured, the stateside response has been muted compared with the attention lavished last year on Roxana Saberi, or on Current TV journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee--who strayed across North Korea's border from China in March 2009 and were sentenced to 12 years' hard labor before being granted amnesty two months later. Few people buy the Iranians' claim that the hikers were working for the CIA. But they lack powerful media sponsors, and they suffer from a widespread perception that their predicament is their own fault.

" 'Hiking' between two countries which are in the news every day, and then calling it 'outrageous' when they are arrested is...completely ridiculous," commented one reader on the Web site of the progressive magazine Mother Jones, to which Bauer has contributed occasional freelance stories. "These morons...deserved to be detained." Many people I talked to about the case expressed bewilderment, even a hint of scorn, at how they could have been so clueless.

For the hikers' families, the calls seemed a hopeful sign that their children might be released within weeks. But, whenever their ordeal ends, it serves as a frightening reminder of the political fault lines that often run along the world's geographical boundaries. The trio's imprisonment has drawn new attention to the dangers of adventure travel in an era when conflict zones can turn overnight into trendy destinations, guidebook writers can't keep up with expanding appetites for edge-of-the-world experiences, and gung-ho vagabonds venture into places where having a U.S. passport can put you at risk.

As I discovered in my own travels through the region, Bauer, Shourd, and Fattal are indeed partly to blame; they went into KurdiĀ­stan with a shocking lack of preparation. Even so, they were not well served by those they turned to for advice, and they fell victim to a sequence of small mistakes and misunderstandings that snowballed into a catastrophe--and turned them from innocent backpackers into pawns in a high-stakes face-off between implacable enemies.

MOST OF WHAT the country has heard about the Americans' capture has come from the so-called fourth hiker, Shon Meckfessel. A 37-year-old writer, musician, and student of Serbo-Croatian and Arabic now getting his Ph.D. in language theory at the University of Washington, Meckfessel traveled with Bauer, Shourd, and Fattal as far as the regional hub of Sulaymaniyah, a bustling town about 30 miles west of the Zagros Mountains. The night before their camping trip, he came down with a fever and stayed back at the hotel. He last saw his friends on Thursday evening, July 30, as they piled into a taxi for the 90-minute drive up to Ahmed Awa.

Meckfessel and his friends represent an idealistic breed of young American: cosmopolitan, curious, and engaged with the world. Each is the kind of expat--journalist, teacher, activist--who is devoted to bridging the gap between the U.S. and less developed countries, even in unstable areas where anti-American feeling may be rife. These travelers are in many ways the opposite of the ugly American--learning the local language, engaging with people, and debating their country's policies in the bistros of Eastern Europe or the refugee camps of the Middle East. As Meckfessel says, "I'm interested in cultures that people in the U.S. misunderstand."

The four converged in the Middle East through activist circles in the San Francisco Bay Area. Bauer, who grew up north of Minneapolis, and Fattal, who's from the Philadelphia suburbs, met at Berkeley. After graduation, in 2004, Fattal became a staffer at Aprovecho, a nonprofit outside Eugene, Oregon, that designs low-impact stoves for the developing world. Bauer stayed in the Bay Area, trying to get a career as a journalist off the ground. He traveled in the Balkans and the Middle East and protested against the Iraq war.

Around 2005, Bauer met Sarah Shourd, a Berkeley grad from Los Angeles who was teaching English to newly arrived immigrants. The couple soon began living together in Oakland. They also found they had a mutual friend: Shon Meckfessel, another Bay Area resident whom Shourd had met on a relief trip to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and who knew Bauer from local music clubs and the activist scene.

In August 2008, the couple moved to Damascus, Syria, for a year. The capital of a Baathist police state, Damascus is noneĀ­theless a seductive city with a secular atmosphere.

Posted by at August 29, 2011 10:05 PM

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