Charles Lewis Cornelius: Seven months on the outside

After 12 years in prison, of which five in Huaraz´s Víctor Pérez Liendo Prison for attempting to smuggle 17kg of hydrochloride from Peru to his native South Africa, Lewis Cornelius was released on February 14th 2017. In the seven months since his release he has divided his time between barely surviving, and fighting to return to South Africa.

So where have you been living since you were released?

When I got released I battled for a place to stay, and a friend told me I could stay with him for free, and eat for free…but after one and a half month he came to me and told me I have to look for a new place, because his brothers needed the property. But one month ago he told me that his brother was dead…this guy cheated me. [sic]

I taught this guy English in prison. When I got out I found him, ‘help me I need a place to stay’. He said he had nowhere, but his brother heard me, so I left and two days later his brother called me and showed me a block of buildings he said: ‘this is my block, you’re a good person, would you like to live here?’ I said: ‘I have no option but yes thank-you so much’. [sic]

Lewis gets very emotional when discussing the kindness of the man who gave him the room. I have been to his building. He apologised for the smell, and the many bottles of ‘homebrew’ that lay about the place. ‘In the day it is an office for lawyers and accountants’.  At the back of the room there is a bookshelf, filled with legal textbooks which Lewis reads in his spare time. The office is well furnished with a sofa and two nice chairs. I had assumed that Lewis slept on the sofa at night, but he took me into the kitchen and showed me his fold up mattress which he spreads across the kitchen floor every evening. The kitchen is very small, and I was unsure whether there was any angle in which Lewis could lie straight without bending himself up against the fridge or the sink.

‘It’s ten times better than prison’. [sic]

Do you want to stay in Peru?

I don’t want to stay here. I lost my wife five months ago because I couldn’t go home, because these bastards (the South African embassy) never helped me. What hurts most of all, my niece contacted me, ‘Uncle Lewis, I am so sorry, your wife has passed away’. It hurt me so much. I was really looking forward to returning to this woman. What a woman. When they told me she passed away, it was like taking my heart out. [sic]

My baby was eight years old when I came to Peru, she’s 21 now. You know what’s more, my children don’t want to know f**k about me now. They don’t want to know nothing. When I phoned my niece, she said, ‘I’m sorry, your children don’t want to know nothing about you, because when your wife died, you were not here’. You know how much that hurts me? [sic]

I have eight children. I have 13 grandchildren and I have six great grandchildren. They don’t want anything to do with me, because I was not there when their mother died. [sic]

Lewis is visibly upset when discussing his late wife and his children, his sadness easily turns to anger when discussing the mechanisms in place that are keeping in the country. He had hoped to return as soon as he left prison.

You had two fines to pay, are they still outstanding?

 One is for 15,000 soles, reparations. The other is for 4,500 dollars for immigration. [sic]

Everyday a foreigner outstays their tourist visa, there is a fine to pay of 1 dollar per day. Lewis has been charged 1 dollar for every day in which he was imprisoned, and this has accumulated to just over 4,500 dollars.

Does the Peruvian government want you to leave?

My embassy told me I cannot leave this country until I pay the fines, and one dollar for every day over your visa. But I’ve been in prison, why should I pay immigration fees when I’ve been a prisoner? They couldn’t answer me. The problem is not the government; it is my embassy. [sic]

The South African embassy is a bowl of crap. They’re not worth nothing, they’ll rob your money and leave you to die in Peru. The problem is not the authorities in Peru, it is my own government. They say you have to pay 28,000 before you leave the country. Who the f**k are they? This law doesn’t exist. [sic]

Lewis is passionate in his hatred of the South African embassy, who paid him just two visits across his entire 12 year sentence. He claims that the Peruvian government wants him to leave, but that his own embassy is making him stay in order to pay off his debts. Lewis has recently applied for a passport and hopes that will lead him to a carnet, a Peruvian working permit. He believes that once he has this, the fines will be waived.

Since you left prison, what have you been doing day-to-day?

I was selling some stuff in the days. Things I made. But I have run out of equipment and I cannot work in the place where I am now, because of the dust. [sic]

I made money. But the man who helped me, he says I owe him 580 soles, this is a lie. [sic]

Now I look after where I live, I clean, after this I have many people on television who want to talk to me. [sic]

I speak regularly to my niece; I have hundreds of emails from my friends. I don’t respond all the time, if you respond to one, they all attack you. They want me to come back. They don’t have money to take me back. They have not visited because it is too expensive. [sic]

Were you saving up for a ticket home?

I tried but it is very difficult because I have to eat and things like this. I went to a red cross, they say they cannot help, but they gave me two mattresses, blankets and sheets, spaghetti and some sauce.

I started buying pies, it cost me a sol a day for a pie, two soles for two pies, three soles a day for food, I was going to sleep hungry, miserable, but I never bothered anybody. [sic]

Lewis has HIV, and is visibly gaunt. He tells me that if he has diarrhoea he loses weight incredibly quickly. He wraps his jeans tight around his legs to show me how thin he is. He had been selling his ‘lucky ornaments’ on the square, but now that he is unable to do that money has become even scarcer. He finds occasional work cleaning a local bar.

Have you managed to save any money at all?

No, this is my last money (he shows me a ten soles note). My money was used for transport, for my trip to Lima, for my passport, which cost me 600 soles. The day before yesterday my friend gave me 10 soles, I would like to frame it. But I need some money. [sic]

Who is helping you?

Oscar and his wife Janet, this guy is a missionary, he helped me yesterday, he bought me a valve and tube for the gas. Now I can cook my own meals. [sic]

I love this guy so much. If I tell him I’m hungry, he’ll come. If I say anything, he’ll come, if I need to go somewhere, he’ll take me. He is the best friend I’ve ever known in my whole life. [sic]

Lewis rang Oscar, and he appeared in his jeep with his wife and his daughter ten minutes later outside Lewis’ apartment. Lewis wanted me to speak to the man who has kept him alive. Lewis is proud, but he is full of praise for the people who have helped him since he left prison.

What kind of help does he need? What have you been doing for him?

Lewis: He does everything

Oscar: All aspects I can, blankets, food, travel expenses.

Lewis: Medication, food, everything, yesterday he helped me with cash. Nobody helped me, I nearly broke my knee, he took me to hospital, nobody else, he was the only guy who would help me

What do you think about his situation?

Oscar: It’s very sad, because he is living overseas, I cannot imagine living without help, his embassy is not helping

 Do you see a solution? What are the next steps?

Oscar: Number one is getting back to South Africa, he needs to go back to see his family, his home, after being in jail for so many years, he is now free, but what kind of freedom is this?

Lewis: Once you’re accustomed to 12 years in one place, seven months later it’s not easy to accustom again

Do you look over him?

Oscar – I don’t think others know, its unofficial, I’ve been available more for spiritual help. But of course, what’s spiritual help if I don’t provide other help.

Lewis: Spiritual and financial. Other people don’t really bother, but this guy is very sincere, this guy is like friend and family. I have nobody here. I try not to contact him. I cannot do this because of my dignity.

How did you get in touch?

Oscar: He was selling ornaments and candies in jail, it was very sad, so after learning he was a nice guy, a few times I bought for him milk and whatever he needs, food, meat. When I came back the jail said ‘he is free!’ The police told me we will find him selling products on the main square. Every day, I was looking for him and I found him!

Lewis – It was a great surprise, the most important person in my life is Oscar. I try not to contact him as often, but when it is really serious I phone him because i know he will come and help. Even if he cannot help, he will try.

Oscar – I was a street kid, so I know how life is like when you have no family or help.

What do you think happens to people like Lewis without people like you?

Lewis: I would deteriorate. I would be lost

Oscar: But the main thing is that I talk to Lewis, if he needs something I say please call me, any time.

Oscar hands over a takeaway box full of food, which he claims his family will not be able to finish. Lewis tries to refuse, but Oscar insists.

Janet: Lewis has been extremely generous, even when he was in jail and we hadn’t met, he was making artisan works, he was giving as gifts, and he has done that on occasion. So he is unusual in that he is not taking advantage.

Oscar – Lewis will say, ‘don’t buy this, that is too expensive’, he gives when he can and doesn’t take as much as he could.

I thank Oscar and Janet for their time, and Lewis walks me back to my apartment. He is full of praise for the help he has received, and I can understand why. Oscar and Janet are modest about the help they have provided, but Lewis makes clear the impact they have had. He points to the meal he has just been given and tells me that they would have bought this for him on the way, especially for him.

Do you like Huaraz?

Yes because it is very peaceful. I’ve built up a reputation. Everybody loves me. Everybody knows me. I am a bastard, but I’m a good bastard. [sic]

Lewis asked to have his phone number (+51 927-068-173) published on this website, and is happy to be contacted if anybody wants to hear his stories.

Interview by Frederick Clayton

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