Murdered American student in S. Africa remembered for her compassion

August 27, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- In an outpouring of grief, friends and students attending a memorial service yesterday for a white Fulbright fellow who was dragged from her car and stabbed to death by a black mob recalled her remarkable compassion and commitment to the plight of South Africans.

Hundreds of mourners joined in a rendition of the freedom song "Senzenina," or "What Have We Done," during the service for Amy Elizabeth Biehl, 26, from Newport Beach, Calif., who was killed Wednesday in nearby Guguletu township.

The racially motivated slaying rocked the University of the Western Cape, where Ms. Biehl had studied for the past 10 months. During that time she had developed voter education programs for South Africa's first multiracial election in April.

Ms. Biehl had been driving three black colleagues back to their township Wednesday when their car was surrounded by dozens of black youths. The mob pelted the car with stones before pulling Ms. Biehl from the driver's seat and hitting her in the face with a brick. She was then stabbed in the head.

Two black males, ages 17 and 18, were arrested yesterday in connection with the slaying. Police said more arrests were expected.

When one of the youths at the mob scene was asked why Ms. Biehl had been singled out, he reportedly replied, "Because she is a settler," meaning she was white.

During yesterday's memorial service, Evarson Orange, one of the passengers in the car, recalled that Ms. Biehl laid her head in his lap after the attack and eventually collapsed in his arms. The passengers then carried her back to the car and tried to rush her to the police station. She died shortly after arriving.

About 1,000 people, from university officials to members of student organizations and the African National Congress, attended the one-hour service before boarding buses and cars for a five-mile procession to the location where Ms. Biehl was attacked. There, about 300 staged a peaceful protest.

Ms. Biehl had been scheduled to return to Newport Beach tomorrow before heading to New Jersey to attend Rutgers University.

In speaking with Ms. Biehl's parents by telephone yesterday, a friend said their daughter showed no fear when the stoning began.

"She was always surrounded by loving and committed black people, never thinking for a moment that she could come to symbolize the enemy," the friend said.

At Stanford University yesterday, a former professor of Ms. Biehl's and one of her advisers described her as a "highly regarded undergraduate scholar" who held much promise.

Her thesis on South African elections, said African history professor Kennell Jackson, was "in the top one-tenth of 1 percent" of undergraduate honors theses and is still requested by political scientists, government and U.N. officials. It was the first scholarly research on bringing about elections in Namibia.

"The thing that interests me about all this is that, had the people who killed her stopped and talked to her for five minutes, they would have realized that she was the wrong type of human being to do this to, and how race is a very deceptive thing," Mr. Jackson said in an interview. "It's a very inaccurate lens through which we view people."

Michael McFaul, a research associate at the university and a consultant for the National Democratic Institute in Washington, added: "The irony of her death is that here is someone who was so committed to peaceful change, and she's killed in trying to do that."

In driving to Guguletu township, Ms. Biehl may have mistakenly believed she was safe because people there were aware of her research, Mr. McFaul speculated.

"People over there were concerned about her safety all the time, but she would tell them: 'They won't hurt me. They know my car. They know who I am,' " Mr. McFaul recalled Ms. Biehl telling him recently.

At the National Democratic Institute, Ms. Biehl spent two years as a program assistant working on South and East African political issues. She was particularly interested in the role women are playing in the country's political transition.

"What she used to tell me . . . the women there seem to have a lot of good things to contribute and yet they never got the chance," said Thoko Banda, a friend from Washington. "She would say if there's anything she could do to help the women to know this, she would."

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