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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

MEMORY AND RESISTANCE: the story of Shane Bauer

MEMORY AND RESISTANCE: the story of Shane Bauer
by Rachael Moshman

Shane Bauer is one of the three American travelers arrested by Iranian authorities on July 31, 2009 while hiking in eastern Iraq, near the Iranian border. Accused of espionage against the Iranian government, the three friends were placed in Evin Prison to await trial. While the only woman of the three, Shane's fiancée Sarah Shourd, was released in September 2010 for humanitarian reasons, Shane and Josh Fattal continue to sit in a small cell in Tehran.

I met Shane Bauer in November of 2001 in Peja, Kosovo when we were both volunteers for a small-non profit organization called Balkan Sunflowers (BSF). Balkan Sunflowers' main office then, as now, was in Prishtina Kosovo, and it had projects throughout the Balkans. I applied to volunteer for BSF while traveling through Eastern Europe after college. Shane had also been traveling, and after meeting an American, David, on the road, they traveled together into Skopje, Macedonia. After meeting some local volunteers at the BSF office in Skopje, they started volunteering themselves. After some time, looking for an opportunity to explore Kosovo, a region still recovering from the 1999 ethnic conflict, Shane and David traveled from Skopje to Prishtina one day, and made their way to visit the BSF operation in Peja.

In Skopje, BSF had two different projects Shane was volunteering for. Each involved small Roma communities within the city -- neighborhoods of homes built up out of scraps of metal and cardboard. Momon Potok was tucked away in a spare lot, and Klanica sprawled along the banks of the Vardar river, which flows through Skopje. Each community had a number of children ranging from toddlers to budding adults for which BSF was providing educational services. Shane and other volunteers - local and international - would visit each community several days a week, spreading a tarp on the open ground or under a bridge over the Vardar, or huddling into someone's home and squatting on scraps of swept carpet for lessons as the temperature got colder, to teach the children math and the Cyrillic alphabet and play energetic games together.

I don't know how many months Shane had spent in Skopje, but after visiting the house in Peja, he was ready to move there and try volunteering for one of BSF’s other projects. At the time, the Peja house was full of volunteers from England, Holland, and the United States. We were generally happy to welcome another volunteer to the house, though we hesitated at his age. Shane was only 19 then! But he proved to be a very mature roommate, and a great help when it came to tasks like splitting wood for the stove (our only source of heat) or teaching me how to drive stick in our 1983 VW bus - a skill I continue to have reason to silently thank Shane for. Shane also led the house that winter in fasting for Ramadan, showing respect and a cultural curiosity for the Muslim faith of the local people. We discovered loaves of bread in a nearby bakery, made especially for Ramadan, and sold so that they were still hot when sundown came. We ate them slathered in butter or ajvar (roasted red pepper spread) or peanut butter as the closest mosque would signal the end of the day's fast.

In Peja, BSF volunteers lived together on the top two floors of a tall house, and ran several projects in and around the community. The community was mostly composed of ethnic Albanians and a Roma minority . There was a Serbian enclave within driving distance, protected by NATO soldiers and barbwire. When Shane moved to Peja, he joined the project run by myself and a Dutch volunteer, Miriam. We lead psycho-social games programs with ethnic Albanian children - all of whom had lived through the conflict, many of whom had fled from Kosovo to refugee camps with their parents - and Roma children, who may or may not have fled, but were living on society's edge after the conflict as they had before the conflict. The purpose of the games and activities was 1) to enable children to be accepting of themselves and other children, 2) explore their feelings in an appropriate and child-friendly way, and 3) give majority and minority kids a chance to be kids together. After helping me finish up a ten-week program I lead and seeking out another community of children, Shane began leading his own set of workshops. Working with the kids was rewarding in many ways, but frustrating when you thought of the children's prospects in a country with a devastated economy and continued heightened ethnic tension. (Thank goodness, things are much better in Kosovo today in terms of ethnic tension though unemployment is still around 50%). Shane showed us his journalistic leanings then with inquisitive questions and an interest in observing and understanding both sides of a story.

Those last few months of 2001 in Peja were cold ones. The electricty was on for fewer and fewer hours each day and there was no hot water for bathing, but we still enjoyed each other's company and the experience of getting out in the community. One of the nicest experiences was getting to sit barefooted in the living room of a neighbor or the family of one our students, making small talk through our translator and sipping Turkish coffee and orange soda. Soon the New Year was looming, however, and different volunteers began to make plans to move on. I decided to move to the Balkan Sunflowers program in Skopje, where I spent the next nine months. Shane traveled next to Albania, and soon went on to travel through the Middle East, continuously feeding a curiosity for other cultures and genuine interest in meeting their peoples. In the next decade he would study Arabic in Yemen and Syria, and become a published journalist and photojournalist, presenting the Arab world to American viewers with beautiful photos and honest reporting.

Newsclips of Shane and Josh at their just-ended trial in front of Tehran's Islamic Revolution Court  show Shane is still as thin as he was when he was 19, though I can see he has aged and can only imagine the wear that two years in a small jail cell has taken on him. I believe that Shane and I were in the Balkans in 2001 for some of the same reasons. We wanted the experience of traveling and living in another culture, and we wanted to have a positive impact on the community we were living in. Our experience in the Balkans provided these things, and we both left that winter headed on new paths that would always be touched by that time. I trust that the experiences and lessons we learned in Peja follow Shane in his work as a journalist, a traveler, and a stranger in a strange land, as they do in mine as an attorney, community activist and friend.

Free Shane Bauer! While we wait in anticipation of a hopeful release in the next few days, add your voice to mine, and the other friends and family members of Shane, Josh, and Sarah. Help Shane by building popular support for his release, and please sign the petition to Free All Three at http://freethehikers.org/take-action/sign-the-petition/ , check out the website www.freethehikers.org , or look for the facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/#!/group.php?gid=119471126959 for upcoming solidarity actions in your area.

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