Freed U.S. hikers Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer told reporters gathered at a New York hotel that they were so isolated in the Iranian prison where they were held for over two years that they didn't know they were being freed until minutes before their release last week.
Now that they are back on American soil, Fattal and Bauer are using their newfound freedom to discuss the two years they spent in a Tehran prison and to condemn their captors.
"Last Wednesday … something totally unexpected happened," Fattal said. "The guards took us downstairs. They fingerprinted us and gave us street clothes. They did not tell us where we were going. They took us to another part of the prison where we saw [envoy] Dr. Salem Al Ismaily … The first thing Salem said to us was, 'Let's go home.'"
Speaking at a press conference Sunday five hours after arriving at New York's JFK airport, Fattal and Bauer discussed the most traumatic aspects of their imprisonment, spoke of how they spent their first days of freedom last week and looked ahead to how they will fight for those still held as political prisoners around the world.
"How can we forgive the Iranian government when it continues to imprison so many other innocent people," Bauer told reporters.
For the first time the two were able to give the details of the isolation in which they lived and the conditions in Tehran's Evin Prison, where they spent 781 days.
"In all the time we spent in detention, we had a total of 15 minutes of telephone calls with our families and one, short visit from our mothers. We had to go on hunger strike repeatedly just to receive letters from our loved ones," Fattal told reporters.
"Many times, too many times, we heard the screams of other prisoners being beaten and there was nothing we could do to help them," he said, "Solitary confinement was the worst experience of our lives.
"It was clear to us from the very beginning that we were hostages," he added.
They were often blind-folded, occasionally beaten, and repeatedly lied to -- told their families had stopped writing letters and that diplomats had stopped pushing for their freedom.
"We have been held in almost total isolation from the world and everything we love," Bauer said.
To survive in jail, the two kept busy improvising -- testing each other on graduate school exam questions, reading novels, and exercising with whatever they could find.
"They were very serious about their exercise and they used water bottles as weights in their cells to build muscles," Laura Fattal, Alex Fattal's mother said.
Fattal, Bauer and Bauer's now fiancée Sarah Shourd were arrested over two years ago while hiking along Iran's unmarked border with Iraq.
They were accused of spying, and last month Fattal and Bauer were sentenced to eight years in prison.
Bauer, a freelance journalist, and Fattal, and environmental activist, have denied the charges, saying they were just hiking in Iraq's scenic north, and might have accidentally crossed an unmarked border with Iran.
Looking ahead, they have spoken of helping to free political prisoners around the world. The two did not shy away from criticism of the Iranian government and its treatment of political prisoners.
"Journalists remain behind bars and innocent people have been executed," Bauer said. "If the Iranian government wants to change its image in the world, and ease international pressure, it should release all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience immediately. They deserve their freedom just as much as we do."
Once free on Wednesday, the two were reunited with Shourd and their families in Muscat, Oman, where they spent a few days resting and enjoying their freedom.
"We were able to swim in the calm waters of the Gulf. We stayed up all night with our loved ones and watched the most beautiful sunrise we have ever seen. These experiences will be with us for the rest of our lives," said Fattal.
For the coming weeks, the two men will spend private time with their families. Baur and Shourd finally had time to celebrate their engagement while in Oman, and discuss the wedding bells to come.