I remember my sister, Maryam, telling me about the time they took her to the torture room and beat her without reason. “It was toward the end of my sentence,” she said, after she was released as a political prisoner under Khomeini’s regime in Iran. “I think they just wanted to teach me a lesson before releasing me so I would never forget what prison was like.” I tried to convince myself that Rosewater, my interrogator, was doing the same.
I thought I had done everything I could to avoid the suffering that Maryam, and my father before her, went through as political prisoners, and yet the authorities came for me shortly after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial reelection in 2009. Since I’d first begun reporting in Iran, in 1997, making independent documentaries and writing for NEWSWEEK, I had taken every precaution to stay below the radar. But my time had come, and they tortured me for 118 days before I was released because of a global campaign spearheaded by my wife.
Soon after my arrest, I endured a beating that made me wonder: it was just the beginning of my time in Evin Prison—how far would they go? I’d heard too many stories, and I couldn’t block the horrifying thoughts from my mind: fingernails pulled out. Electric shocks to the testicles. “The first thing he did with the pliers was squeeze my earlobe,” my father, who was a prisoner under the shah, would say. “If you think that’s painful, just wait. Nothing hurts more than when they use those pliers to pull out your nails.” My father related this story many times throughout my life. As a child, I was in awe of him. How could he resist such pain? I didn’t know if I had his strength, but remembering his words gave me hope: “They thought that by exerting maximum pressure, they could force me to reveal all the information I had about my comrades. But I never did.”
His voice was running through my head the day after that horrible beating when the metal slots of the other cell doors started to open and close, startling me. It was time for breakfast. I always looked forward to that click-clack sound. This meant it was time to eat and, especially, for tea. But that morning, the sounds of metal against metal made the panic I felt more intense. I waited for the lower slot to open and my breakfast to appear, but it didn’t. Instead the blue-eyed prison guard opened the door. He was the only guard who didn’t mind showing his face to prisoners. He placed a blindfold on the floor and poured me a cup of tea. “Have your breakfast as soon as you can. Your specialist wants to see you right away,” he said as he closed the door, “I’ll be back in 10 minutes.” “Specialist” is a euphemism for torturer in Evin.
I stared at my nails as I held the tea. Would I still have them at the end of the day? I felt Maryam sitting in the corner of my cell, watching me. Dropping to the floor, I started to do push-ups. What if they pull my nails and lash my feet, how many push-ups will I be able to do then? I thought.
The thought of Maryam getting knocked around by an animal like Rosewater brought forth the tears that I’d been holding back since the beating. As I did my push-ups, I watched the carpet under my face grow dark with my tears, “Maryam joon, I will be strong,” I said. “But how will I survive this? How much worse will it get?”
“Who are you talking to?” the guard was standing at the door to my cell. I ignored him, sat up, and took a sip of tea. “Come on, it’s time to go.” I followed him to what was going to be another session with my torturer.
I’m one of the lucky few who finally escaped. But nearly two years later, as I think about hundreds of friends and colleagues who are languishing in Iranian jails, I still promise my sister, “Maryam joon, I will be strong. I will not forget my friends.”
Excerpted from Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari. © 2011 by Maziar Bahari with Aimee Molloy with permission by Random House. All rights reserved.