It’s 120 degrees here in the Death Valley desert, where I spend my days in a trailer pouring words into my computer, mixing them up, hoping they will come out right. Outside, the sky stretches as far as the eye can see. At night, the stars cover the world like an old soft quilt and everything is quiet, except the slithery night creatures foraging for food.
Thousands of miles away, high in the Peruvian Andes, in a concrete cell where the temperature never gets above 40 degrees, a young North American woman named Lori Berenson lies awake and watches a sliver of sky through a tiny window. I think about Lori when I look at the stars. I’d give my sky to Lori if I could – just wrap it up and sneak it through that narrow window – and hope that it would comfort her.
As a writer and a human rights activist, I went to Chiapas, Mexico, in 1997 to work with women in the rural villages in the zone of conflict between the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) and the Mexican federal army.
In 1995, Lori Berenson went to Peru as a writer and a human rights activist. She was appalled by what she saw, by the poverty and misery that continued long after Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori proclaimed his austerity measures of the early 90s a success. "Sixty percent of the nation’s people live in poverty," she wrote in a letter just after her arrival. She went on to talk about the upcoming elections (in which Fujimori retained his office), calling them a farce to support the country’s claim of democracy. "As if picking garbage out of a dump to feed your kids could ever be called democracy," she added.
In early 1998, I was stopped outside the rural village of Acteal in Chiapas, where I had gone to work on a story. (TF, May 1998) I was questioned about my purpose, my visa was taken, and I was ordered to leave the country. It was nerve-wracking, and inconvenient, but all it really meant was that I came home to the US to visit family and friends.
In late 1995, Lori Berenson interviewed members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), a guerrilla group in Peru often confused with the much more violent and incendiary Shining Path. She had also interviewed members of the Peruvian Congress. In November, she was forcibly taken off a public bus in Lima and arrested. She was accused of being a MRTA leader and charged with conspiring with the group to plan a raid on a session of the Congress. Shortly after her arrest, Fujimori went on national TV and condemned her as a terrorist.
Her trial was conducted by military officers whose faces she couldn’t see, a practice which has since been outlawed in Peru. If there was any evidence against her, Lori says it was never explained to her or her defense attorney, who was allowed less than two hours to review a 2000-page document covering 22 different cases. She was convicted of treason by this hooded tribunal, and sentenced to life in prison.
Behind the Angry Words
Before the tribunal passed judgment, Lori was "presented" to the Peruvian media at a press conference of sorts. Told she would have a very short time to make a statement, she was instructed to yell so they could hear her. She had been in custody some 40 days, the last ten spent with another prisoner who was severely wounded and in need of medical attention. Most likely, she was angry beyond belief.
"I am to be condemned for my concerns about the conditions of hunger and misery that exist in this country," she screamed in Spanish. "If it is a crime to worry about the subhuman conditions in which the majority of this population lives, then I will accept my punishment. But this is not a love of violence. This is not to be a criminal terrorist, because in the MRTA there are no criminal terrorists. It is a revolutionary movement. I love this people. I love this people and although this love is going to cost me years in prison, I will never stop loving and never lose the hope and confidence that one day there will be a new day of justice in Peru."
Lori didn’t cry for the cameras, proclaim her innocence, or beg for mercy. Many people say this is the reason she was given so harsh a sentence. It’s also why she has become a symbol of courage for me.
Consider her situation. She had been a human rights activist in one form or another for most of her life. Her mother, Rhoda Berenson, says Lori was volunteering in soup kitchens when she was in junior high school. She left college before graduation in order to go to Nicaragua, where she worked with refugees from the civil war in El Salvador, and later witnessed the cease-fire and subsequent peace process in that country. She had wholeheartedly devoted her life to international solidarity. It meant something to her; it wasn’t just another vacation.
Like many other US human rights activists who travel all over the world, building homes and schools, teaching literacy, or giving workshops on small business skills, Lori believed that all people have a right to justice and dignity, and she supported their struggle to achieve it.
She probably was sympathetic to the motivations of the MRTA. While in Chiapas, I was wholly and unequivocally sympathetic to the women of the EZLN communities. I thought then, and continue to believe, that EZLN members have a perfect right to do what they deem necessary to combat a system of injustice that keeps their people in dire poverty. That doesn’t mean I was ever a part of the group. The idea is laughable. It took me nearly a year to build enough trust to even convince the civilian women to allow interviews on tape. Lori had been in Peru less than a year at the time of her arrest.
In many discussions and interviews on the case, her comments on the MRTA are used to condemn her, to show that there was something more going on than an innocent journalist trying to do her job. Of course there was. A smart, sensitive woman was trying to make sense out of the world’s ugliness.
Lori felt a deep commitment to the people of Peru and their struggle to overcome decades of misery. She had been arrested and handcuffed, forced to lie face down in the back of a police car during an eleven-hour shoot-out at an MRTA safe house, and then repeatedly interrogated in jail. By the time she was presented to the Peruvian media, all she had left to hold onto was the conviction that brought her to Peru in the first place. It’s no wonder that she screamed at the top of her lungs about justice. It may not have been prudent, but it was honest.
Crossing the Line
Journalist John Richardson visited Peru in early 1996, trying to find out more about Lori’s case for New York magazine. What he discovered is that there’s no way to know what really happened, or what evidence, if any, there was against her. But somewhere along the way, he concluded, Lori crossed a line she shouldn’t have.
But why shouldn’t she have crossed that line, whatever it was? There’s no evidence she ever took up weapons, or that MRTA members would take orders from a 26-year-old US citizen. So, if she crossed a line, it was in sympathizing with a people’s struggle, and saying so out loud. If she hadn’t done that, perhaps she’d be free now. But she might have died a little inside.
Some people are like that. Truth lives inside them, clamoring to be told, regardless of consequences. When I was stopped outside of Acteal, I lied for everything I was worth. I remember wanting to scream at the men on the side of the road. "Why don’t you stop the men who kill and torture and terrorize, instead of me?" But I didn’t. I kept quiet and lied.
Lori screamed. She told the truth as she saw it. Apart from that, no evidence has ever been presented to prove that the charges against her are true. Lori was convicted by a military tribunal in the shadow of a president whose antiterrorism campaign – a tool for securing international loans and funding – has taken precedence over justice, human rights, and political sanity. She maintains she’s serving a life sentence for something she didn’t do.
In a recent interview with the first human rights delegation that has been allowed access to her, Lori emphasized the fact that many Peruvians suffer a similar fate. The most recent US State Department report on human rights practices in Peru supports her claims, stating that "trial procedures in military courts are largely devoid of due process." Like many people arbitrarily arrested for terrorism, she never received a fair trial.
The Struggle Continues
After almost four years surrounded by cold concrete, Lori has lost partial eyesight and partial use of her hands, and suffers from altitude sickness nearly every day. She has exhausted all possible appeals in the Peruvian courts. The Committee to Free Lori Berenson, comprised of parents, friends, and people across the US who don’t even know her, is pressing President Bill Clinton to negotiate with Fujimori for her release. Clinton is aware of Lori’s situation, and has reportedly agreed to mention it to Fujimori should the opportunity present itself. But so far, it seems he has other things on his mind.
To aid in the campaign, the committee has enlisted the help of members of the US House and the Senate. In June, a letter circulating in the Senate, urging Clinton to negotiate a humanitarian release, collected 33 signatures. Another letter urging the administration to do whatever was necessary – short of going to war – to bring her home, gathered 176 signatures in the US House.
Meanwhile, Lori continues to see herself, as she always has, in the larger context of the world. From her cell, she continues to lament the harsh conditions of other inmates, and criticize the overall policies of the Fujimori regime that led to the kind of arbitrary arrest and detention that landed Lori where she is today.
From my trailer, I read her letters in awe. "In the end," she writes, "what remains is the clean conscience for those of us who have it and the dirty for those who don’t. I remain here under measures of extreme harshness because I refuse to be complicit in something that I believe to be unjust … . If I have a mind and a voice, it’s to use them, not to deny who I am."
Robin Flinchum is an ordinary journalist helping to chronicle the lives of extraordinary women. Information about Lori Berenson can be found at the following new website: www.freelori.org.