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Anatomy of a miracle – The AMY BIEHL Story

It has never gone away – the nightmare of August 25th 1993.

This night was to be a celebratory occasion for Amy Biehl.  Friends were hosting her farewell party. Tomorrow she would return to her home in idyllic Newport Beach California, having completed her Fulbright Scholarship.

“I’ll drop you guys off at home.  “But I can’t stay,” she told three young African friends after enjoying her last collegial cup of coffee at the University of Cape Town (UCT)

“Gugulethu will only take a few minutes, just a detour on my way to the party.”

At 26 years, Amy’s future was an open book of promise.

In the biting twilight she shrugged off their protests and shoved the group into her little yellow Mazda.

Spirits were high and they sang as the car weaved along the N1 highway towards Gugelethu Township.

Back home Amy planned to complete her PHD on Sub Saharan Africa, focusing on active engagement with current issues, also, unbeknown to Amy, her boyfriend planned to propose marriage on her return.

Amy was that rarity; born 2nd of 4 children, an all round high achiever, beautiful, and brainy, popular, gifted and ambitious, all the attributes other girls can only dream of.

She taught herself to read even before starting school. Thereafter it was straight A’s, and a valedictory graduation.  Stanford honours and a Fulbright Scholarship working with organisations at the highest level. She was involved in conferences across her beloved Southern Africa, and been part of free election process in Namibia.

Hell, even long before that even, she had worked for US Congressman and National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Washington.

Away from academia she was an ace sportswoman, had run the comrades marathon and excelled in the worlds of swimming, gymnastics, ballet, and as a flautist.

But, a world away from the warm atmosphere in the tiny Mazda, a further ten minutes along the highway, Gugelethu Township was a festering boil.

The whole country was simmering. South Africa was on the brink of its first ever democratic elections.

Revered leader of the ANC’s armed wing Chris Hani was recently gunned down in his own driveway by a white supremacist and the PAC youth movement had lost all hope of being liberated.   

A lifetime of repression under the Apartheid regime rendered Gugulethu Township in crumbling anarchy; the everyday hardship of life was overwhelming.  Robbery, rape, armed assault and drug- induced violence were everyday events.

Unemployed fathers sat waiting for any menial job offer, or drank, or simply took off, while mothers left home predawn travelling long distances for back breaking domestic work for privileged whites with beautiful homes in posh suburbs with running water and electricity, with clean streets where garbage bins were emptied into Government refuse trucks.

Children, three and four olds and older, they roamed the streets with nothing to do all day long.  Their faces crusted with dried snot, their bellies extended from hunger.

Tonight a growing ant heap piled towards the local police station, among them 80 young Pan African Congress wing, trained by their military leaders to make the state ungovernable by killing whites. They believed this would force the apartheid regime to resign.

Dull grey smoke clouds from coal stoves rose from the shanties and bitterness was a seething cauldron. Along the road they lit tires.

A white person in Gugelethu at that time was an anomaly…

But on this night, a young blond blue eyed white was symbolic of all they loathed most – the privileged Afrikaans oppressors

The chant grew louder and louder, “WITH OUR MATCH BOXES WE SHALL FREE OURSELVES.”    

Then the yellow Mazda approaches.  The uproar, as someone shouts “Kwi Mazda! Kwi Mazda! Kukh Umlungu Kwi Mazda!  “In the Mazda there is a white woman

“One Settler! One Bullet!” Others pick up the cry.

Mob madness takes over; the car is rocked from side to side; a stone shatters the windscreen, and a sea of rocks rain from every angle.            

“Go Amy Go! Drive” shout the terrified passengers.   But the road is congested.  Stunned and badly injured Amy is pulled out of the destroyed car and bludgeoned. “She’s just a university student,” one of her friends tries to scream above the noise.  For this moment, the black youth are invulnerable, self empowered,” AMABHULU, AZIZINJA. Boers, they are all dogs,” they shout. Knives appear from pockets and are plunged into Amy.

Mutilated and unrecognisable she falls to her death.  

“Amandla!  Power!  It is ours.”

Red tongues rise from the burning car, “With our match boxes we shall free ourselves.

Meanwhile, for the Biehl family back in California, the day begins as any other. Linda Biehl is preparing for Amy’s homecoming, but takes time to go shopping with 16 year Zacaray for school wear.

The moment Linda’s daughter Kim told her the State Department wanted to talk to her, Linda’s maternal instinct kicked in. She knew it was dreadful news about Amy.

“They always tell you to sit down first,” she trails. “I wonder why they do that.”

“Our first thoughts were, ‘Is this true?’ ‘How did it happen?' Linda recalls.

The family were engulfed by a sea of media with TV crews encamped outside the house. It was front page news everywhere.  The phone and fax never stopped ringing. There were too many flowers to fit in the home.

While the family try to make sense of it all, overwhelmed by numbness, disbelief, anger, witnesses identify four key members of the mob.

“We did not have much information except for what Amy had told us about the tension prior to the first democratic elections. But the one thing that stood out in my husband Peter and my mind was how Amy spoke about the Chris Hani and St. James church massacre as well.”

Peter and Linda Biehl accepted an invitation to visit from the City of Cape Town.  “We needed to see where Amy died.  We needed finality. Our son was finishing school and we wanted to come back to the USA in a more natural state for our children’s sake,” says Linda.

But, Amy was hacked beyond recognition and the Biehls were advised to remember her as they knew her. Her body was cremated, the ashes brought back to Newport Beach Melanie Jacobs and daughter, with whom she stayed in the Cape.  CNN and a barrage of media covered the service.

Some things can’t be explained, even by the Biehls; like their own acceptance after meeting Nelson Mandela, Bishop Tutu, and late Chris Hanie’s family – and township mammas.

It was mostly the warmth and compassion, in the townships that brought Peter and Linda back to life.

“We didn’t anticipate our future in 1993.  We didn’t set a long range plan.  It took a life of its own “I was overwhelmed going into shacks with no water or electricity or toilets inside. We were received with love and compassion.  These people actually lived in these places, made it home, survived and came out of these places,” marvels Linda.

One such mamma was the mother of one of the four identified murderers. Grief stricken, she laments in the book Mother to Mother “Shame and anger fill me day and night.  Shame at what my son has done.  Anger at what has been done to him. My son was an agent, executing the long simmering dark desires of his race: Your daughter, the sacrifice of hers: Blindly chosen. But for the chance of a day, the difference of one sun rise, she would be alive today.” 

Linda appeared several times during the year long trial with daughter Kim and Molly. The judge sentenced the four young men to 18 years in prison.

After much soul searching, trying to put some sort of semblance to their daughter’s death, the Biehls reached a decision few find imaginable.  They decided the only way to come to terms was to mark it in a relevant way.  They had witnessed the poverty and hopelessness of the people of Gugelethu.  The thought of how Amy loved South Africa and they set up the Amy Biehl Foundation, which today offers employment and assists more than 3,000 deprived young people with education and training workshops, assisted by a grant from the United States and the South African Government.

The four young men had served five years imprisonment when they applied for amnesty appearing before the forum for Trial and Reconciliation. “Just come and speak from your heart,” Bishop Tutu advised the Biehls.

In a dramatic turnabout stunning those at the hearing after the call for r the four to be freed, Peter went and shook hands with his daughter’s murderers.”This was the only way we could be faithful to Amy’s inherent wishes,” they said.

“When the Biehls forgave me, I didn’t care if I got amnesty because I felt free,” -admits Ntobeko Peni.

A year later, 1998, the four walked out of prison. (Two of the men are back in prison for rape and aggravated assault) 

Bur for Easy Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni democracy proved disappointing. The township was in decay, a culture of Government non delivery and corruption prevailed.

Ntobeko speaks of that eve long ago. 1993 was known as “The Year of the Great Storm.”  The purpose of the PAC was to make the country ungovernable. “The night of Amy Biehls murder I had just been elected head of the PAC student wing.  It was years of frustration built into one fateful night. Now I see everything as a crime regardless of one’s motivation.  In prison you learn and search what life is trying to teach you.”  

In the greatest twist of fate of all, Easy and Ntobeko Peni approached the Biehls for skills training and in a magnanimous gesture of unconditional forgiveness Linda and Peter welcomed them into the Amy Biehl Foundation.

“It was like an adoption,” smiles Linda.  “These children didn’t have a chance to have a childhood. (Two of the four men are back in prison for rape and aggravated assault.)

In 2002 Peter Biehl died of colon cancer, while Linda still divides her life between California and South Africa.

Linda has garnered South Africa’s highest honour – The Oliver Tambo Award for Companionship for the Biehls spirit of forgiveness. .

She believes what happened to Amy was awful, but she was living very much how she wanted to live.  Maybe her energy sources were used up. “This is what Amy would want have wanted, what she would do.” 

And Ntobeko? He’s programme director at the Foundation, supervising a core staff of 16, including Easy.  He is married to Lettie, his childhood sweetheart a Standard Bank employee for years who paid Ntobeko’s correspondence school fees while he was in prison.  Their eldest of three daughters, 8 year old Mihlali attends multiracial school, where both parents are actively engaged in all school activities.  Apart from coordinating the Foundations programmes, Ntobeko is self employed supplying meat to residents, and he runs a combi taking children to schools outside the Township.

“Life is so different. I grew up, born out of wedlock, raided by a grandmother who worked all day.  We identify kids who are doing well, and secure funds for them to go to Model C Schools. Mostly we keep the children busy with after school programmes, sewing, welding, block and brick making, away from thoughts of violence.  We also have a bakery where Amy Biehl bread is baked.”

Easy, a charismatic quipster is hugely popular with the youngsters. He coordinates the sports activities.

Linda’s parting words are ironic  

“When Peter and I first arrived here we thought it would all end: It ended Amy’s life and opened a new chapter for us.”


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