“Forgiveness is the first step toward true peace and healing. But it’s with reconciliation—actively restoring peace and harmony—that you can make the biggest difference.”
Linda Biehl is the co-founder and director of the Amy Biehl Foundation in the United States and the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust in South Africa, a nonprofit organization promoting justice, peace, reconciliation, and equal rights for education, employment, and health. Linda’s work is grounded in the life and death of her daughter Amy, a dynamic twenty-six-year-old Stanford graduate and esteemed human rights activist who in 1993 was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to study the role of women and gender rights during South Africa’s transition from the apartheid regime to a multiracial democracy. Just days before she was due home, Amy was killed in an act of political violence by a group of young black South Africans who were fighting to end apartheid and saw all whites as their oppressors. Four young men were convicted for Amy’s death, and in 1994 they were sentenced to eighteen years in prison. In 1997 the four men applied for amnesty to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), set up by then President Nelson Mandela, who appointed Desmond Tutu to be chairman, to help their country heal after the violence and human rights abuses under apartheid. Linda and her late husband, Peter, were strongly motivated by Amy’s belief in the TRC to achieve restorative justice rather than retributive justice for those who confessed to politically motivated crimes; thus they did not oppose the men’s application for amnesty. They testified at the amnesty hearing of their daughter’s killers and offered their support, inviting the young men to join them in continuing Amy’s work. Linda embraced restorative justice by building a relationship with two of the youths responsible for the death of her daughter. Today those two young men have become tremendous social activists in their community, working for the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust with Linda and even speaking alongside Linda at public events all over the world. In 2008 Linda was awarded the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo, the highest honor given to a non–South African. She was also the first Greeley Scholar for Peace at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Amy’s story and the work of her foundation have been covered by numerous media outlets including ABC’s Turning Point, CBS’s 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II, The Oprah Winfrey Show, NBC’s Today, CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360°, and many others. A major motion picture based on her story is in the planning stages. (www.AmyBiehl.org)
I read about Linda Biehl in an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the July 2007 issue of Vanity Fair. In the interview, Tutu discusses the African idea of ubuntu, which he calls “the essence of being human . . . You can’t be human in isolation. You are human only in relationships. We are interconnected.” He goes on to say, “The greatest good in the concept of ubuntu is communal harmony. Anger, revenge are subversive of this great good.” As an example, he tells the story of Amy Biehl and her parents and what they have done with the Amy Biehl Foundation. Tutu related how the Biehls learned who had killed their daughter from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and in response, not only did the Biehls support the TRC’s process and the decision of amnesty for the young men, but they invited the men to work with them on behalf of their foundation. I was absolutely stunned by this story of true forgiveness and reconciliation. If we could all follow the Biehls’ example, if we could all actually forgive like they have, what kind of world would this be? Linda was one of the first people I put on my wish list to interview. She was also the first person I cold-called to request an interview, so it was especially thrilling when she agreed. We spoke on the phone almost a year to the day after I read the article about her and she unknowingly helped me to forgive.