The ambience of diplomatic cocktail parties is very glamorous. The guest list includes the usual suspects: high-ranking foreign dignitaries representing each and every international mission in the country, senior business executives from companies with stakes in the local market, and the who’s who of the domestic political and business elite. Everyone pulls out their best attire, including the military attaches looking very official with all their colourful medals. Every country is subtly recommended to send the senior most people possible from within their ranks as kindling fueling the flames of an amicable relationship. Brian and I both had the pleasure of suiting up for some of these fine occasions, which helped to refine our networking skills and proudly represent our youth to the highest possible standard. These fancy shin-dings are usually held to celebrate important events such as national days or in this case, the Emperor Akihito of Japan’s 63rd birthday on December 17, 1996 at the official Japanese residence.
|Japanese Ambassador Aoki and his wife Naoko greet Francisco Tudela|
On that Tuesday evening, Brian and I were rocking out in the living room enjoying some quality mind-numbing American television programming – we had the major networks on Cable Magico transmitting from Denver, Colorado – while Maman was stuck correcting exams as her deadline for handing in her students’ end of semester marks approached. Dad’s mobility had been somewhat limited due to contracting a treacherous stomach flu, needing to remain at close proximity of his trustworthy white porcelain friend. No need to delve into further detail there. He was the number two in our Embassy and was scheduled to attend the function that evening however, due to his condition at the time, he honourably bowed out. Our Ambassador Anthony Vincent and his wife, Lucie, were the only fine members of our corps showing their friendly faces on behalf of our country. Aside from them, many of my friends from school’s parents were there as guests, sharing the memorable occasion as a sign of respect to the Japanese. The people from the land of the rising sun were also blessed with the presence of some of President Alberto Fujimori’s family (all very active in the political world), members of his cabinet and government. Now that’s what I call an A-list.
The lavish soiree was eventually halted by the wrong kind of bang. A most unwelcome and unexpected bang shifting to a rather molotovesque ambiance. An explosion on one of the rear walls of the residence announced the rapid entrance of 14 members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (commonly referred to as MRTA), crashing the party with Nestor Cerpa Cartolini at the helm. As Tim “The Toolman” Tailor’s antics on Tool Time entertained Brian and I, Dad came running down the stairs dressed in his work attire, followed by Maman walking swiftly behind him to see him off. Ambassador Vincent’s driver, Segundo, had called him to let him know some inexplicable event had unfolded. My brother and I wondered what had occurred as there had not been enough time to tell us or to draw significant conclusions. Our mother rushed to us, asking us to turn to the local news channel. As the good sons we were, we complied only to witness live coverage from San Isidro – an upscale Lima neighbourhood – with no real tickers explaining developments as commonly observed on CNN showing all sorts of obscure live footage. Suddenly we saw military vehicles, a Peruvian version of the elite American SWAT team and other security forces taking over the streets amidst an air full of tear gas and shots rifled through the air. It seemed that even the media had no idea what was going on, except for an explosion having gone off. The locals were all very familiar with bombs and violence, but thought that the days of terrorism were long gone after defeating the Shining Path.
After hours of watching and no news update from Dad, the situation was crystal clear. This was a hostage crisis. My father was at the Embassy in Miraflores, organizing a crisis centre to keep in the loop and act as a channel for Ottawa. He brought in the RCMP attaché, security and consular staff with others on standby if need be. They were bracing for everything and anything. My first reaction was to thank God for my father’s stomach flu and my mother’s work. Otherwise, they would have been there without a doubt. Then my mind turned to the diversity of the school’s population and my friends. Actually, even those who I just knew existed. Damn! Maybe they had parents in there! What was going to happen to them? Would they ever see their parents again? Would the terrorists execute one of them to demonstrate to the Peruvian government that this was a serious outfit? Every scenario usually witnessed in a suspenseful Hollywood action movie seemed possible. Surely, this never would have happened in Canada.
|Canadian Ambassador Anthony Vincent as he was released|
As the clock struck 2:00 AM, the first hostages were released. These were primarily women and older guests. Among the women was none other than Alberto Fujimori’s mother who could have been a major bargaining chip. This was a significantly male-driven society, similarly to its South American neighbours, therefore it was impossible to conceive that any female hostage could be a potential strategic asset. Within twenty-four hours, our Ambassador Anthony Vincent was released along with Heribert Woeckell of Germany, Alcibiades Carokis of Greece (these last two fleeing Peru on the first available flight after their return to freedom) and Armando Lecaros, of the Peruvian Foreign Ministry at the time. The MRTA released them in the condition they would take their various demands to President Fujimori to begin a negotiation process. The Peruvians held strongly to their conviction of not negotiating with terrorists, and Vincent and Lecaros were continuously turned away by the closed door of the head of state’s office. It was hardly a time to breathe easy as 300 men were left and their lives were still in the balance. A good few weeks later, this number was reduced to 72 who would be in this for the long haul. Some of my buddies such as Kensuke Kobayashi and Jorge Gumucio were going to have to wait in suspense to find out if their fathers were ever going to return home safely.