Well-Known Editor in Peru Rescued Another Man's Daughter but Later Almost Lost His Own : A Tale of Two Missing Children: One Man's Triumph and Near-Tragedy

Times Staff Writer

Nick Asheshov rescued another man's daughter from tragedy in the Andes, then lost his own on a busy London street.

Asheshov remembers plodding last year across a 14,000-foot pass on the ancient Inca highway, snow all around, a sniffling bundle named Elisabeth on the saddle before him. He should have been thinking about shelter, or Maoist guerrillas. Instead, he worried that feeding Elisabeth more candy might spoil her.

Asheshov remembers the English medium who told him just a few months later that his own daughter, Anna Jane, was dead, kidnaped outside Victoria Station. "She's at peace now, dear; the pain is over," the medium said.

Something of a Monument

There is a happy ending, but it was a long time coming, and Asheshov is still shaken. He has spent his career writing headlines, not making them.

At 47, Nick Asheshov, white-haired and night-blind, an Englishman born in Canada, is something of a monument in the Andes of South America. For more than two decades he has worked in Peru and neighboring countries as the editor of English-language newspapers and magazines.

The usual sort of things have happened to Asheshov over the years. He has been marooned in the back of beyond, hard-pressed for cash, silenced and exiled by a military government.

Soon after Asheshov came to Peru, Bob Nichols, one of his reporters on the Peruvian Times, vanished on a river expedition east of the Andes with two French explorers.

A Garden of Eden

Asheshov went looking for him, and along the way encountered Elvin Berg, the grandson of a Norwegian immigrant who had carved a farm out of the forest where the Andes fall into the Amazon Basin.

"A Garden of Eden," Asheshov recalls. "Everything grew, everything peaceful."

Berg, whose farm lay five days and two mountains from the end of the nearest dirt road, helped Asheshov in the search for Nichols and the Frenchmen. They never found them, learning only much later that the three had been stoned to death by Indians who had never seen a white man.

From their idyllic, nine-hut compound at Ossambre atop a 1,500-foot gorge of the Apurimac River in the Vilcabamba Valley north of Cuzco, the Berg family also proved helpful to British adventurer John Ridgway in his 1970 expedition to the headwaters of the Amazon.

Told of Friend's Death

Ridgway, who once rowed the Atlantic and twice sailed single-handedly around the world, is a former officer of Britain's Special Air Service who runs an adventure school in Scotland. He is an old friend of Asheshov.

In 1985, Ridgway returned to Peru with his wife, Marie-Christine, and their 18-year-old daughter, Rebecca, for a family expedition.

Peru had changed. Maoist guerrillas of a band called Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, were prowling the Vilcabamba Valley, making savage, indiscriminate attacks on rich and poor. To counter them, armed campesinos patrolled the area in self-defense.

It was a peasant patrol that intercepted the Ridgways and gave them the news. There had been a Sendero Luminoso massacre at Ossambre. Elvin Berg was dead. Guerrillas had shot him, hacked him with machetes and hung him from the rafters of the farmhouse kitchen to watch him die.

Daughter Was Found

Later, sheltering in a village that feared guerrilla attack, the Ridgways learned another secret: Elvin Berg had a daughter.

The Ridgways found the 7-year-old child, Elisabeth, squatting among the chickens on the dirt floor of a hut. She had the dark eyes and high cheekbones of her Inca mother and the wavy brown hair and light skin of her Norwegian father.

Elisabeth was living with her grandparents. Her mother's tongue had been cut out and she had gone mad, incapable of caring for the child or for herself.

Twice they had had to flee from the Senderos, the grandparents said. They were old and frightened, with little to offer Elisabeth. Could her father's friends take the child, keep her safe from poverty and violence?

Called for Help

Marie-Christine Ridgway slipped off a ring that had come from her Irish grandmother. She suspended it from Rebecca Ridgway's confirmation chain and hung it around the little girl's dirty neck. It was a promise.

Five months later, with long-distance adoption proceedings snarled in red tape, Ridgway called for help. Nick Asheshov and his 23-year-old son, Igor, eldest of the seven Asheshov children, went looking for Elisabeth.

It took them five days by plane, train, truck and horse from coastal Lima to the mountain hamlet of Accobamba, through some of the most spectacular and dangerous scenery on earth.

Cresting the Andes to the accompaniment of snow geese, mountain ibis and the majestic condor, they started down the eastern slope into guerrilla country. No police patrol had been there since 1984.

Gave Village a Gift

There was a ceremony in Accobamba the next morning, Asheshov and the village head man alternating rambling speeches in Spanish and Quechua, spiked with throat-searing, homemade cane brandy. Quechua is the language of the Inca, and of Elisabeth.

It took half an hour to find a piece of paper, but eventually a document was signed that duly transferred custody of the child to "Captain John Ridgway, MBE, formerly of the British Queen's Army."

Gravely promising close economic cooperation between Accobamba and Scotland, Asheshov presented the village his binoculars. He gave rice and sugar to Elisabeth's grandmother, a Swiss army knife to her grandfather. The old man could make no sense of the corkscrew.

Then the Asheshovs rode back off across the mountains, fearful that guerrillas the villagers knew to have been watching would decide the child was a special target.

Cried a Lot

No guerrillas appeared, but for two days Elisabeth spoke not a word. They were forced to walk part of the way along steep and narrow mountain trails. Elisabeth, clad in a thin dress and sandals made from an old tire, gorged on candies until Asheshov's conscience ached. She seemed not to notice the cold, the altitude, or the ardors of the journey.

A lot of the time she cried, until early one evening they rode into sight of the town of Quillabamba, the last stop on the route of the tourist train that runs from Cuzco past the Inca ruins at Macchu Picchu. The lights of Quillabamba dazzled Elisabeth.

When a motorbike whizzed by, she burst out laughing. The sight of her first car produced an excited torrent of Quechua, although later she was reluctant to get into one.

In Lima, Asheshov called Ridgway with a victory message: "I've got her, and, what's more, she'll outwalk you home right across Scotland, in bare feet and with no food."

'Amazing--and Sad'

While Asheshov attacked the Lima bureaucracy, the Asheshov children taught Elisabeth hide and seek. Doctors rid her of intestinal parasites and filled her with vitamins. The headmistress of a British school in Lima slipped her first Quechua-speaking student into class without a blink. Elisabeth's first English words were "lunch box."

"It's amazing how bright she is--and sad," Asheshov said. "It makes you think how many hundreds of thousands of kids like her must be up there who will never have a chance."

While Elisabeth learned the ways of a new century, Asheshov's daughter Anna Jane, called Jonky, walked into the streets of London and disappeared. It was last July 26, a day after her 20th birthday.

A quiet, diffident girl preparing to enter medical school, Anna Jane had left her uncle's London apartment apparently for a Sunday stroll. Back soon, she had said, but she never came.

'We Thought the Worst'

"She had no boyfriends and her strongest drug was a spot of sherry before lunch," Asheshov recalled. "We didn't know what to think, but we thought the worst."

Aided by the British police and press, the family papered England with leaflets, pamphlets and posters.

"England is a wonderful place to lose a child," Asheshov said. "Everyone cares, everyone helps. We wrote to hospitals, libraries, schools, British consulates in Europe, hotels, boarding houses. We wrote to every bus company in the British Isles, about 60 of them, and every one of them responded: 'We are doing all we can. . . . We are pleased to help. . . . Send more copies of the poster. . . .'

Nothing worked.

Asheshov went home in despair to Lima, where Elisabeth had become a joyful and mischievous member of the household.

Couldn't Shake the Thought

One thought rattled through his head, and he couldn't shake it: "Find one, lose one."

"I couldn't talk about it," he said, "but that's all I could think. Find one, lose one. We did everything we could to find Jonky, chased rumors and false sightings, went to mediums--God knows what else. You get crazy after a while. Find one, lose one."

Last Nov. 10, a voice calling from the British Foreign Office broke the spell. A young woman calling herself Anna Jane Asheshov had gone to the British consulate in Seville, Spain, to ask for a passport. She fitted the description of a missing poster received at the consulate by mail.

The next day Igor Asheshov found his sister living as a boarder at a convent where nuns had taken her in, alone and perplexed.

"Something nasty happened in London," her father said. "She can't remember. . . ."

Jonky Asheshov still lives with the nuns and teaches English at a school in Seville, but she has been home to Peru to visit and is feeling better.

Elisabeth Ridgway lives in Ardmore Castle in the north of Scotland.

Nick Asheshov is back at work.

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