Sunday 19 November 2017

Peru Two: 'Sometimes you just need a hug from your mum'

Michaella and Melissa talk about life on the inside, their friendship and bugs

BEST FRIENDS: Despite not knowing each other before their ordeal, Michaella McCollum and Melissa Reid have become pals in prison, giving each other vital support.
BEST FRIENDS: Despite not knowing each other before their ordeal, Michaella McCollum and Melissa Reid have become pals in prison, giving each other vital support.

THE Virgin de Fatima prison in the suburb of Chorrillos in Lima is just a stone's throw from the beaches of the Pacific Ocean.

When I went there to try to visit Michaella McCollum, there was some confusion and I think the warden ended up thinking I was a relation. Whatever, it got me in the gate.

I was stamped numerous times, searched meticulously, made remove my leggings, shades and had a bottle of Coca-Cola taken off me before I was brought into a small courtyard, which had a kiosk, some public phones and a few tables and chairs. I was carrying two yellow plastic bags containing sweets, chocolate and drinks.

Very soon, two girls came walking towards me. I had only asked to see Michaella, but when she came out, she was accompanied by her fellow drug mule, Melissa Reid. They looked somewhat perplexed, but smiling gracefully nonetheless.

Of course I had read some of the nasty stuff on Facebook, so it was nice to discover that they were not a couple of hard cases. I found the girls to be very friendly and grounded, who used bad language less than I did.

"We didn't know each other before the ordeal," said Melissa. "It's really strange, but we lived down the road from each other, so we probably saw each other. Now we get on so well, but we've never done girly things together like go shopping, have a cup of tea or go to the movies."

Michaella added: "We weren't allowed to drink the entire time before we were caught, so we haven't even had a drink together but we are the best of friends."

They find the media attention bizarre. When I spoke to them they were facing anything up to 15 years in prison, but in the end got six years and eight months.

It was natural that there would be so much interest in the fate of these two pretty young women, though it may wane some, now that their fate has been decided.

"The media attention is bizarre," Michaella says. "We're infamous, rather than famous, I guess."

I decide to ask a totally trivial question, but one I know has been asked at home many times by those who have seen her frequent television appearances going to and from court. "What about the bun on your head? I think I've seen more of them on the streets since your incarceration."

"It's just a bun," she says. The interest in her appearance is a mystery to her. "I don't get it."

They both shake their heads.

Then it occurs to Michaella to ask me the obvious question. "Who are you?"

I explained I was an Irish photographer working in South America and that I also did some writing. Sadly I was not allowed to bring a camera into the prison.

"I did photography too," said Michaella. She said she wished she had a camera so that she could document her life in prison.

Then she noticed the stamps the prison staff had put on my arm. She told me that they indicated I was a visitor and the person I was coming to see was a drug-smuggler.

For a couple of young women who have been detained in a Peruvian prison for months now, the girls look surprisingly well. The first thing I noticed is that they are a lot prettier than you would imagine from seeing them on the television. Their hair is nice and their teeth sparkle -- they said they have received gifts of toothbrushes and letters from Ireland and beyond.

The first months passed very quickly as they dealt with lawyers and prosecutors and police and judges. Now they reckon life will slow down a bit and the reality of their situation for the foreseeable future will dawn on them.

Michaella says: "Our friends are back in college or working, but we won't do any of those things for now. Our lives have changed forever and we have no idea what we'll do when we come out, only we want to do everything together."

The girls are in the low-security section of the small prison, where inmates are mostly petty criminals. "Theft, stealing a wallet will get you in here," Michaella says. "You get in trouble for small things here too, that's why the prisons are so packed."

They get woken at 6am, while lights are out at 10pm. "There is Spanish TV, but no other luxuries. We have some cockroaches, not too many though. Someone left us a Chinese meal in the kiosk and the box was covered in cockroaches, but we ate it nonetheless," says Melissa.

"We sleep in the same room with a hole for a toilet. We haven't seen any kind of violence in prison here and no drink or drugs or anything like that. We spend most of the days sleeping and reading. Obviously there's not really much else to do, but at least we'll learn Spanish."

"A far cry from Ibiza," I say. "Yeah I was having the time of my life," Michaella says.

Now they have a lengthy sentence to serve as well as a fine of $3,500 for the 11kg of cocaine they tried to bring through Lima airport on August 6 last. "At first we thought we'd get 15 years, so the possibility of six is not so bad," Michaella says.

When I met the girls they thought they might get benefits -- a concession that would see them serving only two years. That did not happen.

Talking about that fateful day at the airport, Michaella says: "It was all in Spanish, so we had no idea what they were saying. When we were in the holding rooms, there were lots of other drugs there, not just the ones in our bags. There was a guy there who had swallowed drugs and what he had swallowed was sitting on the table, it was pretty grim."

Melissa says: "The first 15 days were hell because there was only cold water and no toilet paper and hardly any food. We couldn't really wash our hair or anything and we had the same few bits of clothes."

Now they must wait and see where they will serve their sentence.

Wherever it is, the girls know it will not be easy and it will take all their resources to persevere.

"We have each other, which helps but we do cry a lot too. It's not easy not having our parents and family around. Sometimes you just need a hug from your mum," Melissa says.

By Barbara McCarthy

Irish Independent

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