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