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Caught in the crossfire

By Michel Minnig

When a commando carried out an audacious raid on a party at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima, Michel Minnig, the ICRC head of delegation in Peru, first found himself as one of the hostages, then as the central figure of a highly publicized operation to come to their aid.

When I set off on the evening of 17 December 1996 to attend a reception at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima, I had no idea what was in store. Nor, for that matter, did any of the other 600 guests — a glittering array of dignitaries from government, military and foreign diplomatic circles — who had gathered there to celebrate the Japanese Emperor’s birthday.

Out in the garden the party was in full swing when, at around 8.30 p.m., there was a loud explosion. Barely had we regained our composure when a group of heavily armed persons burst into the garden, firing in all directions and shouting at us to get down on the ground. An MRTA (Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement) commando had blown a hole in the perimeter wall and in the space of a few minutes had taken control of the ambassador’s residence. The Peruvian Security Services, initially caught off guard, soon responded in kind. As we lay helpless, face down on the lawn, a fierce gun battle raged over our heads. When the MRTA pushed us into the residence, filled with choking tear gas, panic erupted.

Fearing a bloodbath, I stood up and introduced myself to a member of the group. There was instant recognition; the ICRC’s work is well known to the MRTA, particularly because of its visits to security detainees. I then made contact with the security forces outside the embassy and managed to arrange a cease-fire. I requested permission from the MRTA to evacuate immediately all the sick, elderly and women. That night, some 250 people walked free. For the ICRC, it was the beginning of an operation that was to last 126 days and involve, at one time or other, 20 delegates, as well as the Japanese Red Cross, which took care of the Japanese hostages.

 
 

Misunderstandings, criticisms and accusations

Spectacular as it may have seemed to the public, for the ICRC this operation was a classic response to a classic situation: acting as neutral intermediary, with the consent of both parties, in a situation of internal violence, providing protection and assistance to the victims and facilitating the dialogue between the parties. What did make it out of the ordinary is that it took place as if on a stage, limited in time and space, playing to a worldwide audience under the media spotlight. It was for this reason, perhaps, that the ICRC’s role was so closely scrutinized both during and after the crisis.

First to be called into question was the ICRC’s principle of neutrality. While many Peruvians recognized the value of this principle, in certain political circles neutrality was thought to have no place in the battle between “good and evil” — to use their expression — or rather between State authority and terrorism. By refusing to choose, the ICRC, in their view, was in fact choosing the other camp, that of “evil”. The years of ICRC visits to security detainees in Peru added fuel to their argument, while the work being done for the hostages — many of whom were members of the Peruvian government — did not appear to redress the balance. The climate of suspicion reached its zenith when the Peruvian authorities expelled the ICRC’s deputy head of delegation from the country just a few days before the end of the crisis.

Meanwhile, a malicious, even libellous, campaign run by one type of newspaper helped to spread and reinforce the distrust. Other media sprang to the ICRC’s defence, putting the organization at the centre of a fierce national debate. In the field, too, delegates encountered difficulties from the Peruvian authorities and security forces in their attempt to create a “humanitarian space”.

Misuse of the ICRC was another criticism levelled at the institution after the crisis was over. According to certain public statements, the ICRC had unwittingly brought electronic listening devices into the residence hidden amongst its boxes of assistance and subsequently used to plan the final assault. The ICRC’s reply to this was that everything that entered and left the residence was checked three times: first by its own delegates, then by the security forces and finally by the MRTA. At no point was anything untoward discovered.

More serious still, some claimed that the ICRC, because of its association with the International Guarantor Commission (made up of the Holy See, Canada and Japan) had exploited the good faith of the MRTA by letting them believe that a peaceful outcome could be negotiated, while the government had intended a military solution all along. Admittedly, to outsiders, the ICRC’s role of “facilitator” (see box) could easily be misconstrued as that of “negotiator”, particularly since the discussions between the parties were held in a place marked by the ICRC’s emblem. Yet, at no point did the ICRC overstep the line between creating the conditions for the dialogue to take place and becoming involved in the discussions themselves. Neither constant clarification of its role nor its physical absence from most of the parties’ deliberations could dispel the view.

Business as Usual

Despite the particular circumstances of the ICRC’s operation during the hostage crisis in Peru, all of its traditional activities came into play.

Protection: To begin with and up to 26 January, the ICRC was able to arrange the release of 549 hostages and, as it does in all the places of detention it visits, it vigorously defended the right of the remaining 72 captives to their physical and moral integrity. The institution repeatedly denounced the hostage-taking as a violation of international humanitarian law (Article 3 common to all four Geneva Conventions) and constantly reminded the MRTA of the law’s provisions.

Material assistance: The ICRC supplied the hostages with all their basic needs: meals and drinks, served several times a day, and articles for personal hygiene, since all the services to the residence had been cut off. Water was stored in cisterns via a fire hose; chemical toilets provided sanitation, candles the lighting. There was even a laundry service. To pass the time and keep their spirits up, the hostages were given games and reading material.
Restoring family ties: Perhaps more than anything else it was the Red Cross message system that provided a lifeline for the hostages and helped to maintain morale. Through 9,000 such messages they were able to exchange news with their families on the outside.

Health activities: An ICRC medical team, with the support of the Japanese Red Cross, made daily visits to check on the hostages’ state of health. At the beginning of the crisis, the MRTA refused to allow any other doctors access to the captives; at a later stage the ICRC worked with a team of Peruvian doctors, mainly ex-hostages.

Neutral intermediary: Less well known than its other activities but no less important was that of “facilitator”. To begin with, in the absence of any other intermediary, this consisted of creating a channel of communication between the parties; later, when other lines of communication had been established, the ICRC put a meeting place and logistics at the disposal of the parties and the Interna-tional Guarantor Commission.


Denouement

On 22 April, after ten rounds of fruitless discussions, the Peruvian government put an end to the crisis by carrying out an assault on the residence. The result: 17 dead, among them one hostage, two soldiers and all 14 members of the MRTA. Seventy-one hostages left the residence safely. The failure to resolve the crisis peacefully at the political level should not nonetheless detract from the work accomplished on the humanitarian front: the early release of most of the hostages and the efforts to alleviate the distress of those who remained captive.

The ICRC’s operation was obviously an intense experience for all of us. But was it fundamentally different from my other humanitarian missions of the past ten years in Lebanon, Rwanda or Bosnia, to name but a few? I think not. Lives and individuals’ basic needs were at stake, as is the case in all of the ICRC’s operations. What it showed was the typical daily work of the ICRC — the good it can do, the difficulties it can encounter and, ultimately also, the misunderstandings it can engender.

 

Michel Minnig
Michel Minnig was ICRC head of delegation in Peru at the time of these events.

 


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