Ramin Setoodeh
August 16, 2010 12:00 PM

For her son Shane Bauer’s birthday, Cindy Hickey prepared a videotape she made near her Pine City, Minn., home. “Shane and I used to ride all the time,” she says. “I took some video, mostly shot between the ears of the horse.” As with the letters she writes every few days, Hickey has no idea if Shane will get his gift. Because the day he turned 28, Bauer was marking his 347th day in an Iranian prison, where he is being held with his girlfriend Sarah Shourd, 32, and friend Josh Fattal, 28.

Last summer Bauer and Shourd were living in Damascus, Syria, where he was based as a photojournalist and she taught English. Fattal had joined them for a week of vacation, and on July 31, 2009, the three were hiking in a lush corner of Iraqi Kurdistan (an area welcoming to Americans since the first Gulf War). A fourth pal, Shon Meckfessel, stayed at a hotel with a cold. But he says the plan felt safe: “We were all experienced travelers. We heard about the waterfall that everybody goes to,” says Meckfessel, 37. “If there were any warning signs, they would have turned around.”

But somehow the hikers appear to have crossed an unmarked border into Iran, where they were arrested and accused of being U.S. spies. Since then they’ve languished in jail, with no formal charges made, no court date and no indication they will go home soon, despite the U.S. government’s efforts. “Their release by Iran is long overdue, and their continued detention is unjustifiable,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that the hikers “violated our borders,” and that he would ask for an expedited hearing. That was 10 months ago.

For the families, the wait remains nearly unbearable. “You cry at things when you least expect it: a song, a look in his room, a piece of clothing,” says Laura Fattal, Josh’s mother. “I try to imagine what he thinks about.”

Freedom is probably at the top of his list. The trio are incarcerated in Evin, a prison north of Tehran. In winter “it gets really cold,” says Maziar Bahari, a Canadian journalist who was held there for 118 days last year and heard one of the hikers’ voices trying to ask a guard to use the bathroom. “They didn’t sound very well,” he says. Fattal and Bauer share a cell; Shourd is in solitary. According to family members, they pass the days reading (they’ve read all of M, N, O-he only encyclopedia volume in the prison) and exercising in their cells. They are allowed fresh air for two 30-minute periods per day.

In May there was hope when Iran granted the mothers a visa for a tearful 10-hour reunion. Shane had some good news: He’d asked Sarah to marry him, using braided thread from a towel as a ring. Sarah, looking gaunt, told how one of the female Iranian prisoners tried to comfort her by singing Celine Dion songs through a vent.

The moms returned home more determined than ever to fight for their kids’ release. On the one-year anniversary, they held candlelight vigils around the world (freethehikers.org). “Leaving her was so hard,” says Nora Shourd, Sarah’s mom. “Crazy stuff went through my head, like in a movie-I’ll take her and we’ll run down the hall and jump off the balcony. I’ve got to get her out of there.”

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