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Ten years later…

15-12-2006 Feature

"On 17 December 1996, the delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross was one of the 600 guests at a reception hosted by the Japanese ambassador in Lima. When the commando unit of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru - MRTA) carried out its spectacular hostage-taking operation and the ICRC delegate made himself known to the commando unit, wondering whether in so doing he was acting as an intermediary was hardly at the forefront of his mind: he was content to take action because the situation so demanded and because the physical integrity of hundreds of people was under threat. I was that delegate." Michel Minnig, ICRC's head of delegation in Lima during the hostage taking in 1996, remembers the incident.

 
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ICRC delegates (on the right, Michel Minnig) tried to ensure the safety of the hostages.  
     
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  "Ten years later, what I remember is the long walk – in fact it was just ten metres – from the residence entrance to the perimeter..." 
     
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"(...) escorting hundreds of hostages to freedom. Among them were the wives of officials and dignitaries, the elderly, the sick and the wounded.   " 
     
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  ".. I remember the daily shuttle by the ICRC and the Japanese Red Cross delivering food..." 
     
  

Ten years later, what I remember of the hostage crisis is the fear. The fear that seized some 600 guests – Peruvian officials, diplomats, Japanese business people, socialites and myself – as heavily-armed commandos burst into in the residence garden of Japanese ambassador Morihisa Aoki while food and drinks were being served, ordering everyone to lie down.

Ten years later, what I remember is the smell of explosives and tear gas and the deafening crackle of small arms and grenade fire stinging our throats and hurting our eardrums, as rebels of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) took cover inside the residence and exchanged fire with the Peruvian security forces laying siege to the building. We hostages made for the reception rooms, trying in vain to take cover behind furniture and curtains. We had suddenly been transformed from guests celebrating the Japanese emperor's birthday to hostages of a guerrilla movement.

 
 
 
  On 17 December 1996, a commando of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) seized control of the residence of the Ambassador of Japan in Lima and took all those present hostage. Since then, ICRC delegates have continued to provide basic materials to meet the humanitarian needs of the hostages.  
 
  ICRC activities related to the hostage crisis in Lima 10.01.1997

  See also (in Spanish)La acción del CICR durante la crisis de los rehenes en Lima 
         
Ten years later, what I remember is the long walk – in fact it was just ten metres – from the residence entrance to the perimeter after the MRTA finally accepted my offer to serve as an intermediary and contact the security forces to arrange a ceasefire. With the cooperation of the MRTA and the authorities, I repeated my walk for most of the night, escorting hundreds of hostages to freedom. Among them were the wives of officials and dignitaries, the elderly, the sick and the wounded. This became a warm-up for another, far more complex operation, a humanitarian and diplomatic marathon lasting more than four months, during which the ICRC and the Japanese Red Cross made sure the remaining hostages survived and were safe.

Ten years later, what I remember is that time was suspended, like the sword of Damocles, over the heads of 72 hostages – the hard core who, after others were released during the first few days, were kept behind as bargaining chips. These were Peruvian members of government and of the armed forces, police and judiciary, and Japanese diplomats and business people. Among them was a remarkable man, a Peruvian priest who volunteered to remain behind with the others during the ordeal. Whenever time threatened to move forward again – through military action by the MRTA or a show of force by the Peruvian security forces – everyone inside the residence trembled.

Ten years later, what I remember are not only the dramatic events but also the trivia of everyday life. I remember the daily shuttle by the ICRC and the Japanese Red Cross delivering food, books and recrea tional items and providing laundry services as well as maintenance for the chemical toilets. The shuttle also delivered Red Cross messages, the sole link between the captives and their relatives outside – physical objects emanating tenderness and love, but also cries of anguish and uncertainty. But the most astonishing thing was the ability of the hostages to go on living and to organize their daily lives in the rooms they had been assigned on the first floor of the residence, in accordance with their nationality and function. Personal hygiene and housework, animated or warm conversations, studying, reading, a series of lectures, not to mention a few brief celebrations, regular board games, exercises and guitar concerts … all against a backdrop of often difficult coexistence with the MRTA members, who were living on the ground floor.

Ten years later, what I remember are the tireless efforts of the “guarantors,” i.e. the Roman Catholic church and Canada, who, along with Japan (which had " observer " status), tried to reach a peaceful solution to the crisis. With patience and perseverance, they presided over more than 10 meetings between representatives of the Peruvian government and the MRTA.

Ten years later, what I remember is the ICRC’s determination to propose its “good offices”. Its mandate did not allow it to take part in political mediation efforts, but it did everything it could in the circumstances to encourage and facilitate negotiations. In particular, it provided a framework and procedures while defending, where necessary, the hostages’ interests from the humanitarian point of view.

Ten years later, what I remember is just how young many of the 14 men and women from the MRTA were. Their heavy military equipment could not conceal their ignorance of the world and of the society from which they came. They believed that people in the Swiss Alps spoke Quechua, a native language of South America, and that in real life, as in soap operas, there is always a happy ending.

 
"...those events (...) bore witness to our raison d’être: to protect, by means of our humanitarian work, the lives and dignity of all those threatened by hostilities or other forms of violence."
 
Ten years later, what I remember is the spirit that united us – the “humanitarians,” the ICRC delegates and the members of the Japanese Red Cross who had joined us in Lima at the start of the crisis. The Japanese Red Cross helped us to respond better to the needs of the Japanese hostages and, at the same time, introduced us to the customs and traditions of their country. Tasting sushi, nigiri or yakitori – the leftovers from meals we delivered to hostages from the land of the rising sun – meant a lot to us at the end of an exhausting day’s work.

But ten years later, what I remember most of all is the greatness and tragedy of each individual. For 125 days, we of the ICRC and the Japanese Red Cross witnessed the anxiety of the hostages’ families and of the Peruvian and Japanese public. We struggled relentlessly for each individual and then trembled with fear, watching helplessly on TV as the Peruvian security forces launched their assault on the residence.

I shall never forget those events. Admittedly they were not a success in terms of peaceful conflict resolution. But nor were they a failure. Rather, they bore witness to our raison d’être : to protect, by means of our humanitarian work, the l ives and dignity of all those threatened by hostilities or other forms of violence.

 

See also: The Lima hostage crisis some comments on the ICRC’s role as a “neutral intermediary”, International Review of the Red Cross no 323, June 1998  Five years later, Michel Minnig, as head of the ICRC delegation in Moscow, had to face a similar crisis when an armed group seized hundreds of hostages at a theatre in the Russian capital. The ICRC again acted as a   neutral intermediary   to help the hostages.