A Mother Forgives Her Daughter's Killers
07/21/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Ten years ago, in a senseless attack that made headlines around the world, a mob of antiapartheid protesters smashed Amy Biehl with a brick and then brutally stabbed the 26-year-old Fulbright scholar to death. Nowadays, in an act of remarkable forgiveness, Amy's mother, Linda Biehl, works to improve the lives of South Africa's poor, sick and imprisoned; stunningly, she has even hired two of her daughter's killers, Easy Nofemela, now 31, and Ntobeko Peni, 28, to help. Biehl knows that some people have trouble understanding her response to her family's tragedy; at first, she says, it wouldn't have made sense to her either. "If you'd told me 10 years ago that I would be here doing this now," says Biehl, "I would have laughed."
Blonde and perfectly coiffed, Linda Biehl looks very much like she did back in the days when she sold haute couture at a Neiman Marcus in Newport Beach, Calif. Yet today she oversees a foundation dedicated to improving the lives of the people of South Africa, where Amy was murdered, and spends half of each year there. Even harder to explain is the genuine affection she now feels for Nofemela and Peni, who both served four years of 18-year prison sentences before winning release in 1998 on the recommendation of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. "You must remember," says Biehl, 60—as if in anticipation of the inevitable questions of how and why—"this didn't happen overnight."
Linda Biehl's journey to forgiveness began with a devastating call from the State Department on Aug. 25, 1993. Amy, the second of her four children with her late husband, Peter, who died of cancer last April at 59, was lying dead in a Cape Town police station after her fatal encounter with a crowd of violent demonstrators earlier that day. Amy had arrived in Cape Town 10 months earlier to help South Africans prepare for the country's first-ever multiracial elections in 1994; she died just days before her scheduled return to the United States. At the Biehls' home in California, calls from the media flooded in, forcing Linda and Peter, a business consultant, to quickly decide on a course of action. "I remember what my mom said to me when I got to the house," says their daughter Molly Biehl Corbin, now 33. "She came out on the lawn and hugged me and said, 'We're going to celebrate Amy's life.' "
During a 10-day trip to Cape Town two months later, the Biehls were struck by the expressions of grief offered by many black South Africans. Linda learned more about the country during subsequent trips and from Amy's many friends there. "When you see whole towns of tin shacks," she says, "with people who don't have enough to eat, no education, then you begin to understand the rage that killed Amy." For other members of the family, however, the path was not so obvious. "I was pretty angry when I went there," says Amy's youngest sibling, Zach, 26, who has come to share his mother's views about the importance of forgiveness.
One thing the family shared from the start: a desire to keep Amy's dreams of a better South Africa alive. The foundation the Biehls named after her, using about $500,000 annually in private and U.S. government funding, has launched a dozen different programs, including a self-sustaining bakery that employs 30, after-school projects at grade schools in the black township of Guguletu and a driving range intended to keep kids off the street. The Amy Biehl Foundation Trust also operates an education project aimed at eradicating one of the country's biggest killers: AIDS.
In 1998, through an intermediary, the Biehls were told that Nofemela and Peni had asked to meet them. By then the men, both former members of the radical Pan African Congress antiapartheid movement, were out of prison and trying to organize hiking trips for children of the townships. "I began to change in prison," says Nofemela, now the father of a 4-month-old daughter, "and I began to think I needed to say sorry to Amy's parents." Says Peni: "She convinced us that this was not the end of our lives." During a recent chat at the house Nofemela shares with 14 others, he rocks his baby daughter gently in his arms. "Amy Biehl should have children," he says. "When I think about that, I cry with pain." For her part, Linda Biehl has seen the good in each of the young men's hearts. "I don't see them as evil people," she says. "They have taken responsibility for their actions and asked for forgiveness."
Peter and Linda Biehl last saw the two men together when they invited them and their girlfriends to dinner in Cape Town for Valentine's Day, 2002. Within days Peter began to feel ill and died of colon cancer a few weeks later in California. Linda Biehl was by his side. Now, from the one-bedroom apartment she rents in Cape Town, she carries on in memory of both. "When people ask me how I can do this, all I can tell them is that everyone reacts differently," says Biehl. "Coming to South Africa has made it easier to deal with the loss. Here nearly everyone has a story that would make your heart break. Here I've discovered I am not the only one who has suffered."
Maureen Harrington in Cape Town