“We are not murderers or terrorists, but politicians “. The guerilla leader, a well-spoken man in his forties, addressed his captives lying on the floor in their cocktail dresses and dinner suits. ” We are the defenders of the poor. We do not believe in the extreme violence of Sendero Luminoso. We wish to enter the legitimate political system, but in the present climate are prevented from doing so by the extreme position held by President Fujimori. One day, I hope it is possible that I could be President.”
The show had been a dull one so far, and Liam didn’t know if he could bear another three and a half hours of such turgidity. His far-from-lively phone-in was interspersed with sad little reports to underscore the point he was trying to get across, that the divide between the north and the south of England was growing. He was struggling to inspire his listeners and the calls were already beginning to slow down. When the newsflash was slipped into his hand, he was unprepared for the pot of gold he was now holding.
” Peruvian rebels have taken one hundred people hostage at the Japanese ambassadors residence in Lima. The captives had been attending a Christmas party for the Peruvian diplomatic community when the attack took place, and it is believed that many foreign officials, including Britain’s deputy ambassador, are being held. The rebels, claiming to be from a small left-wing terrorist organisation known as Tupac Amaru, have yet to make their demands known “.
The siege had been carefully planned, with armed rebels being driven to the attack in a vehicle disguised as an ambulance. Clad in full combat fatigues, they burst into the cocktail party which was in full swing in a marquee behind the diplomatic residence. Waiters suddenly transformed into rebels, grabbing automatic pistols and grenades out of champagne cases. Their comrades, armed with machine guns, filed in through a hole blasted in a wall. They had missed their main target President Fujimori, who had dashed away just a few short minutes before the attack started. But they had caught several officials who had strongly backed the governments stance of non-negotiation with rebels. They now had some bargaining material to use to try and get their imprisoned comrades freed.
Liam noticed as he read the report that Lima was an anagram of his name. Spurred on by this discovery, he put some gusto into his description of the events. He felt slightly invigorated by this injection of urgency into the dreary little show, and his dejection at having to return to the North-South debate was almost apparent. His professional tones just masked the disappointment in his voice.
The Tupac Amaru attack squad was a small and efficient unit. The chief never stated his name to his captives, and in his communiques to the outside world identified himself alternately as Commander Huertas and Nestor Cerpa Cartolini. His deputy, a shorter and well-educated man, was the one who did most of the talking inside the residence. The remainder, twenty one men and two women, looked and sounded like poor Peruvians.
It was with some glee that Liam got the news that it was five hundred hostages, not one hundred ” as earlier reports had suggested “. He stopped the taped report on Northern and Southern humour, and relayed word for word the new Reuters report.
Two teenage girls aged 16 or 17 arrived in Lima in September to train for the rebel take-over. Their untamed hair and peculiar accents distinguished them as coming from the jungle regions. After the attack on the residence, they spent many hours glued to the television until the fuel for the generator ran out. Soap operas, especially the Mexican ” Maria from the barrio ” were their favourites. They were even impressed by the commercials. When the girls came on the screen dressed in bikinis or bathing suits, they would sometimes sing along with them.
It was only after the second report that switchboard began to light up. Listeners offering their prayers to the hostages, suggesting how to end the stand-off or questioning the role of terrorism in the world. The seemingly unsolvable nature of the crisis began to take a hold on the nation. Families gathered around their radios, pubs stayed open late as a hush fell upon their customers, anxiously waiting for every word to squeeze its way through the smokey atmosphere.
Liam could sense what was going on beyound the walls of the studio. With each ten-minute interruption into the half-hour his voice became a further echo into the land, each word resonating into the distance as he spoke. Pulling together every ounce of strength he could muster, he fought the good fight on behalf of his listeners, finally persuading the powers that be to let his programme run on indefinitely, and to turn it almost all over to the crisis, to cover every twist and turn as it happened.
On his release, a member of the Peruvian congress read a statement on behalf of the rebels in a horse, dry voice. ” A military attack on the residence would not only cost many lives, but would leave deeper wounds in Peruvian society. Such an assault would also eliminate the opportunity for a wide-ranging solution to the problem of the guerrillas .” Some of the other freed hostages talked of how many of the rebels appeared to have explosive devices strapped to their backs.
And so it came to be that for eleven days and eleven nights, Liam told it as it was over there as best he could. He was humble in his soft-voiced prayers, when the negotiations were not going well. The strength and joy that came forth when a hostage was released was almost a boyish ” We did it ! “.
At the eleventh hour the rebels agreed to release the last group of hostages. The twenty-nine men left their confines and walked very tentatively towards a bus waiting in the no-mans land between the ambassadors residence and the army cordon.
In a press conference to a select group of the media, Nestor Cerpa Cartolini condemned the harsh conditions in which his jailed comrades were being held. They were, he claimed ” equivalent to a slow death sentence.” ” All we have left is struggle. What we face is state terrorism that kills thousands and thousands of children from starvation.” He urged the news media to visit the prisons and report on the plight of inmates with the same concern and compassion that they had shown for the hostages.
As the first freed hostage stepped forwards, the gathered reporters quietly commented on how fit and well he looked despite his long ordeal. A journalist from his home country even joked that ” Why , it even looks like he has put on a little weight during the siege.”
The first man forward had a large amount of plastic explosive strapped to his waist and arms. He knew that if he made a break for it, he would be set off immediately, and the others would have no chance of getting away. The bomb was to be set off when the bus was safely inside the cordon. So he bided his time. He sat nearest to the doors, waiting for everyone to file in and perch down on their seats. As the bus began to move away, he mouthed to the driver in a low rasp ” For the love of God, open the doors now.”
” It was like a cocktail party without liquor, and the guerrillas would come up and say ‘ Everybody back to their rooms and don’t come out ‘. But ten minutes later we would drift out again and start talking .”
The driver hesitated for a second, and then jammed the lever open. The hostage dived off his seat, and almost made it to the tarmac before the guerrillas blew him up. The blast ripped the front off the bus. When the emergency services eventually got to the driver, the whole front half of his body was badly burnt. Even in his pain and terror, he had kept control of the bus until his passengers were safe. The nearest two hostages had their legs torn apart, but other than that they were all fairly intact.
The rebels tried to blast their way out in the confusion, using up their stockpile of mortar bombs in a remarkably short space of time. The assembled military forces waited patiently for the smoke to clear, and then carefully cut them down one by one. Finally Nestor Cerpa Cartolini stepped forward with a machine-gun clasped firmly above his head. He placed it down carefully in front of the tanks, and lay down on the ground as instructed. Two eager young soldiers rushed forwards. When they were standing over him, he yelled something that sounded like ” no compromise ! ” and then shattered into a million tiny pieces.
The only tragedy in the minds of the hostages and to the country that hung on Liam’s every word was that of the first hostage. His companions had seen him disintegrate into shards of bloody meat before their eyes. Some had wounds from where splinters of bone had pierced their skin.
Liam paused for the first time after he had finished reading out the last report. A silence that no-one would ever quite be able to pin down how long it was, something between thirty seconds and two minutes, and it then became apparent that he had been gently sobbing for all of that time; under all of that silence you had been unable to detect the source of the noise.
note: this was written before the end of the siege, and is an amalgam of news coverage and fiction. what actually happened was less spectacular, but more tragic. to see more See one of the BBC stories from the time