A Mother's Story

Vogue -- May 1997

by Rhoda Berenson

March 1. It is Saturday and I should be in Peru visiting my daughter Lori. Instead, I'm at home in Manhattan. As disappointed as I am about not being allowed to visit today, I can only imagine how devastating the cancellation must be for Lori. I suppose she will spend this day like all others as she continues the struggle to maintain her physical and mental health under horrendous conditions in Yanamayo prison in Puno, Peru, at an altitude of 12,700 feet. As a non-Andean, Lori suffers physically from some high-altitude-related ailments -- circulatory problems due to a lack of oxygen, which result in purple swollen fingers and an inability to digest certain foods (primarily legumes, the main source of protein in the prison). The temperature inside the prison rarely gets as high as 40F. There is no heat and no running water. Food is extremely insufficient, and the remote location of the prison makes it difficult for families to deliver supplemental food as they do in other Peruvian prisons. Both drinkable and non-drinkable water (used by prisoners to wash themselves, their clothes and their bedding, and to keep the hole in the concrete floor that serves as a toilet clean) are dispensed in inadequate quantities. Prisoners are denied access to the outside world -- no radio or TV, no newspapers or magazines, and no telephone calls. Lori can receive and send mail only in Spanish, and mail and other written materials are censored. She is allowed out of her cell only one half hour each day. In January 1996 a Peruvian military tribunal sentenced her to life in a harsh Andean prison, and I have been permitted to see her only once since that time. The Peruvian government canceled today's scheduled visit. So instead of seeing Lori, I will spend the day as I spend most of my days, trying to help clear her name and get her home.

Lori is 27 years old. She went to Peru in 1994 to study the people and their culture, to write about the plight of the Peruvian poor and the response of their government. At the time of her arrest, she was a free-lance journalist, researching articles on women's rights and poverty in Peru for two American magazines. On November 30, 1995, she was arrested while on a bus in Lima. The following day, Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori appeared on television waving her passport and condemning Lori as a North American "terrorista", allegedly associated with a rebel group, the MRTA (Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru). President Fujimori never met her and probably knew nothing at all about her, but his immediate personal, public condemnation was an early indication that regardless of facts, she would be spending a long time in prison.

Lori was never accused of any violent crime; instead, she was charged with being a leader of the MRTA, a charge she has termed totally preposterous; it is ridiculous to think that a young American woman who had been in Peru for only one year could become a leader of this group. It is now clear that this charge was not based on any evidence but was made solely to ensure that Lori would be tried in secret by a military tribunal. Any lesser charge could have allowed her case to be heard in an open civilian court. There she could have had a trial with some due process and an opportunity to defend herself. The Peruvian government is not willing to let the world scrutinize their alleged evidence nor hear Lori's defence. They want to continue waving her passport and frightening human-rights workers and journalists.

It is common in Peru for alleged leaders of what are deemed "terrorist groups" to be presented to the press. After her arrest, Lori was told by police that since she was not being accused of leadership, she would not be presented. Apparently, Peruvian officials did not want to present a soft-spoken, polite young woman to the public and accuse her of being a \ terrorist. However, a few days before her sentencing, the police manipulated Lori into making angry statements they knew would have a negative impact on the judge and the public.

For five days, Lori was confined to a tiny cell shared with a wounded prisoner just released from the hospital. This woman, who was lying naked on a dirty mattress, had a catheter, a colostomy bag and a shattered kneecap, was denied further medical treatment. Lori spent five days and nights trying to care as best she could for this unfortunate woman. Listening to her moan in pain, Lori grew angrier and angrier at the cruelty of the Peruvian officials. By this point, authorities knew that Lori was ready to be presented, that she was sufficiently sleep-deprived, disheveled and anguished. She was ready to be shown to the public. She was told that there would be no microphones in the large room where she was to speak, so she must talk as loudly as possible to be heard.

What came across to the press was a woman who was "screaming", even though Lori's public statement was a compassionate expression of her love for the Peruvian people and her belief that she was being persecuted for wanting to help them. But nobody paid any attention to Lori's words. The image of a screaming woman was enough to falsely brand her an MRTA leader, although she never once admitted to being any such thing. Watching a videotape of this presentation was devastating for me. I knew that she had been subjected to intense psychological, if not physical torture. I could only imagine the pain she was suffering.

Lori continues to strongly deny being a member, much less a leader, of the MRTA. Again and again, she has insisted that she is totally innocent of the accusations. She was never given written notice of the charges against her nor meaningful access to a lawyer. She was not allowed to refute the alleged evidence against her; she wasn't even told in detail what evidence was being presented. There was no opportunity to cross-examine witnesses. In other words, there was no fair trial. Nevertheless, she was convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison with no parole by a hooded, faceless judge. Sadly, Lori is just one of the many hundreds of innocent people who have been wrongly convicted by Peru's secret military tribunals. The laws under which these tribunals operate have been repeatedly condemned by human-rights groups, the United Nations and the United States government.

Although I do not know exactly what Lori is doing at this moment, I am confident that she is busy. Lori has always been incredibly intense and committed, whether it was homework as a young girl or juggling musical performances and part-time jobs after class. So in spite of her swollen fingers and horrible lighting, Lori spends her time in prison doing needlework, reading and writing letters. I have sent her yarn and needles (wooden needles only; metal ones are not permitted) and embroidery thread and canvases. As I knit at home, I imagine that Lori, too, is knitting. Although we are separated by many miles and circumstances, we are still knitting together, like we used to when she was here.

We also read "together" whenever possible, except that she reads in Spanish and I in English. Recently, we both read Of Love and Other Demons, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I have just started Paula, by Isabel Allende, which Lori just finished. We both read the Tony Hillerman mysteries. Right now, I am awaiting the publication of the Spanish edition of his latest book, so Lori can keep up with the exploits of Lieutenants Leaphorn and Chee. What we cannot do together is take those long, leisurely walks that Lori and I always loved. I remember one summer when Lori worked evenings and I would meet her after work so we could walk the three miles home together, talking about our day. Now she is confined for 23.5 hours a day to a seven-by-nine foot cell, where the only walking she can do is in small circles.

For the first year of her imprisonment, Lori was allowed no family visits. Now she can have two visitors for one 30-minute period once a month. That is, of course, unless the Peruvian government decides to cancel the visit. On December 7, my husband, Mark, and I traveled 8,500 miles round-trip to see her for 30 minutes. We had so much to say to each other and so little time. As soon as we left the prison, I started making lists of all the things I still wanted to say. things that would have to wait for the next visit. I had planned to go again in January with Lori's older sister, Kathy, and then again with Mark today. Unfortunately, due to the takeover at the Japanese Embassy in Lima, all prison visits have been canceled until further notice. And not only visits from families but from the International Red Cross and church representatives.

So I am at home, thinking about Lori and how much our lives have changed in these past fifteen months. Mark and I are both college professors. He teaches statistics at Baruch College, and I teach physics at Nassau Community College. My time in the classroom, immersing myself in a discipline that is based on logic, is my escape from the unpredictable chaos that Lori's arrest has brought ot our lives. We still live in the same Manhattan apartment where Lori grew up, and the rooms are filled with memories. On shelves sit the clay sculptures Lori made as a child; on the walls, her needlepoints; and in my closet are the scarves that she knitted.

And there are so many photographs. There is Lori at about nine months, when she nicknamed "Screwball" because she liked to make funny faces, liked to make us laugh. She still does, and she always includes little jokes in her letters from prison. There are class pictures from elementary school and photos of birthday parties with home-baked cakes and homemade decorations. Many of Lori's classmates, some now living as far away as Australia, write to her in prison. They remember, as I do, that even at a young age Lori was always concerned about others.

When Lori was fourteen years old, she and other members of her school chorus made a commercial for the organization CARE. The others sang while Lori did the voice-over about helping starving children throughout the world. After that, Lori and Kathy suggested that the family join an organization that funded projects for poor children. We did, and both children contributed money from their part-time jobs to sponsor a "foster child" in Guatemala. When I spoke with Lori in police headquarters in Lima soon after her arrest, she reminded me of the CARE commercial. She told me that thoughts of starving children still haunted her. In her only public statement after her arrest, Lori proclaimed, "I am to be condemned for my concern about the conditions of hunger and misery which exist in this country..." Lori continues to respond to the urging of CARE to help those in need.

Our apartment is filled with musical memories of Lori. We no longer have the tiny violin she learned to play when she was eight, but I remember how the two of us went skipping down Second Avenue, violin case swinging, on the way to music school. I don't know why we started skipping, but it was something we did every Friday. When Lori traded the violin for a clarinet, the skipping stopped but not the wonderful hours I spent listening to her practice. My own guitar, on which Lori taught herself how to play, sits, collecting dust, in the room I now use as an office. I think of it as Lori's guitar. Since she was eighteen, she has had a guitar wherever she is. When she came home to visit, whether it was from college or traveling, the first thing she would do was play the guitar and sing for us. When she was unable to come home, she would send tapes. We have many tapes filled with old folk songs, classical choral pieces, and the music of Central and South America. We have tapes in our apartment and tapes in our car. I may not be able to visit Lori, but I fill my head with her voice, remembering her joy in making music. On the last tape she made, she sang and played black Peruvian music and Peruvian love songs. She had planned to give this tape to Mark for his birthday in December 1995. The Peruvian Miltary Police took the tape after Lori's arrest. We have never heard it. Now Lori has chronic laryngitis, probably due to the harsh weather in Yanamayo. When I look at the guitar, I wonder if, one day, her vocal cords and fingers healed, she will come home and make a new tape in place of the one we never got.

Lori left New York for Boston, in the fall of 1987, to attend M.I.T. She went there with thoughts of combining her abilities in mathematics and science with her interest in music. Instead, she was drawn to study anthropology; and in particular, the people and cultures of Latin America. But after several courses, much reading, and doing research for one of her professors on land distribution in El Salvador, she decided to learn about Latin America firsthand. She went to El Salvador for two weeks with a group of Quaker women in 1988 and then again as part of a student exchange program in 1989 during that country's civil war. There she observed some of the horrors of the war; people she knew were arrested, tortured, and killed. She took a leave of absence from M.I.T., spent time working in the United States, and then moved in 1990 to Nicaragua, where she assisted the Salvadoran refugees living there while earning a living as a secretary and translator.

People often ask me how I could let her go to all these places. After all, she was so young. (She was only eighteen when she first went to El Salvador.) But I never felt I had a choice and anyone who knows Lori understands that. Mark and I brought up our children to be independent, to have the courage of their convictions. And Lori was always confident and responsible.

During the years she lived in Latin America, we always felt close to her despite the vast distance. We wrote, we phoned; we discussed books and music and food. I would have loved to have her closer to me, but I knew that she was doing what was important to her. So in the fall of 1994, when she went to Peru, this, too, was something she "had to do". As she traveled throughout Peru, Lori wrote to us about its rich cultural heritage. She started learning Indian dialects and music. She learned to cook indigenous dishes. On her visits home, we shopped for hard-to-find ingredients in the Latin markets in New York, and she cooked her newly learned specialties for us. On her last visit, in September 1995, we bought so much quinoa, a Peruvian grain, that I still have some in my pantry.

But in Peru, she also saw the enormous poverty and misery of much of the Peruvian people -- especially the children. She wanted to help, and she decided to do so by writing. In the fall of 1995, she obtained the credentials and got two assignments, from American magazines, to write articles on poverty and women's issues in Peru. So it is easy for me to understand why Lori was in Peru. What is hard to understand are the charges against her. Anyone who has met Lori knows that she's a person deeply concerned about human rights who has spent much of her young life trying to find non-violent means to improve the lives of others. Even now, despite the harsh prison life, Lori never has personal complaints. She has, however, expressed outrage at the general prison conditions in Yanamayo and continues to express concern about the mistreatment of other prisoners. It is reassuring to me that her spirit has not been broken, that even imprisoned, she cannot be stopped from fighting injustice.

Since Lori's arrest, my life has been a continuous roller coaster of hopes and disappointments. My emotions swing from sadness to anger. Sadness as I think of her in a cold cell enduring a life of increasing hardship; anger at a system that throws innocent people in prison without due process. Every day I am busy with phone calls, letters and meetings in an effort to get Lori a fair trial so she can demonstrate her innocence. We now have an extensive network of wonderful, thoughtful people from all over the world who keep in contact either by mail or by E-mail. They have written to us and to Lori and to U.S. and Peruvian officials on Lori's behalf. Last August, 87 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 20 senators sent letters to President Fujimori pointing out Peru's violations of international standards of due process and urging the Peruvian government to grant Lori a fair trial. President Clinton expressed similar concerns.

Meanwhile, I think about my next trip to Peru. Although it is a very long ride for a very short visit, and I will not be allowed to touch her or see her without the interference of mesh screens, I long for the opportunity to be with her again. And as I wait for the visit, and press officials for a trial that will free her and send her home, Lori continues to sit in her cell 23.5 hours a day, hoping the day will be bright so that enough light will shine through the high narrow window to enable her to read, hoping that her swollen hands will not be so painful that she cannot write letters or do needlework. Perhaps she hears music in her head while she waits for her throat to heal so she can sing again. Perhaps Lori, too, is consoling herself with memories of long walks, skipping to violin lessons, and homemade birthday cakes.