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For Example of Forgiveness, Nation Looks to Her Parents

July 29, 1998|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Still, people stop them in Cape Town and ask with wonder: Amy's parents? You've come back?

Five years after their daughter's slaying in South Africa, Linda and Peter Biehl have remade their lives to carry on their daughter's legacy, returning again and again to the country where she lost her life. In the process, they forgave her killers, and became national symbols in the new spirit of healing in South Africa.

"It's something that Amy would have understood because she understood very clearly . . . what drove these guys to a high level of militancy," said the slain student's father, Peter Biehl, whose family has long supported the amnesty process that on Tuesday let his daughter's four killers walk free.

Peter and Linda Biehl, who had returned Sunday from a trip to South Africa, were notified about 1 a.m. Tuesday that their daughter's assailants would be released from prison. The former Newport Beach residents said they had braced themselves for this development but were still struggling to come to grips with the announcement.

"We certainly did expect it," said Peter Biehl, a 55-year-old business consultant, "but that doesn't make it any easier."

Biehl, a 26-year-old Fulbright scholar from Newport Beach, was stoned and stabbed to death in August 1993 by a mob chanting anti-white slogans in a South African township.

The Biehls didn't plan to take this path after their daughter's death. But their loss drew them to South Africa, where they discovered they had no energy left for hate or bitterness.

The Biehls started by carrying on their daughter's work helping South Africa's underprivileged, but then the work took on a life of its own. Since Amy Biehl's death, Linda and Peter have built the Amy Biehl Foundation, turning it into a formidable force to help a country that is still reeling from the aftershocks of apartheid. Most recently, the U.S. Agency for International Development awarded the Biehls a $500,000 grant to run an anti-violence project in Cape Town.

They are using part of the grant for a community baking project. Under their plan, dozens of unskilled workers will bake and deliver bread door to door in townships and squatter camps. The Biehls convinced local businesses to donate space for the bakery and help train residents.

The baking project is in addition to the Biehls' other work in South Africa. Their daughters, Molly Biehl Corbin, 28, of San Diego and Kim Biehl, 32, of Newport Beach, joined them on a trip to South Africa this month.

Biehl Corbin, executive director of the Family Literacy Foundation in San Diego, set up a program at a youth center in which high school students volunteer to read to preschool children each week.

The Biehls say they understand the social forces that drove the young men to kill their daughter. From the moment Linda and Peter Biehl learned of her death, they never harbored anger against her killers--only sadness at the apartheid system that drove them to murder.

"For me, it was this complete empty feeling," Peter Biehl said in an earlier interview. "This sense of loss that I'd never see her again or talk to her again. And that was the selfish part for me. Hate is also extremely selfish. And self-serving." Linda Biehl pitched in: "And self-defeating."

Amy Biehl used to talk about how thousands of blacks died in the struggle for freedom in South Africa, but it took a white death to make headlines. It was something the Biehls recalled after their daughter's death became international news, and would help drive the family to work for change in South Africa.

The Biehls' volunteer work is so demanding that Linda Biehl, 55, quit her job as couture manager at Neiman Marcus in Newport Beach, and Peter Biehl scaled back his work as a private business consultant. The Biehls travel to the country so often that they are recognized at every turn.

Retired Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, who heads the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the panel that granted amnesty to Amy Biehl's killers, cites the Biehls in speeches as the epitome of forgiveness. Earlier this year, in an interview with The Times, Tutu said the Biehls have earned the country's respect by carrying on their daughter's work.

Every other month or so, the Biehls travel from their home in La Quinta, near Palm Springs, to the South African neighborhood where Amy Biehl was attacked and killed while dozens of neighbors watched and did nothing to help.

The Biehls did not oppose the amnesty applications for Amy Biehl's convicted killers. At amnesty hearings last year, the couple shook hands with the men and hugged their family members.

Biehl Corbin said she had no choice but to support their release. Her hope is that the convicts will turn their lives around.

"One thing I would wish to communicate to the four individuals is that they got a second chance at life that my sister didn't get, and I hope they would do something productive," Biehl Corbin said.

Late last year in Cape Town, a prison guard who met the Biehls said he could not believe they keep coming back to South Africa.

"It's a massive moral lesson," he said. "I was surprised that people could give so much of themselves after they lost so much. . . . They are more than just Amy's parents. . . . They are participating with us in building our country."

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