Slow, bru­tal anatomy of long hostage cri­sis

As It Hap­pened: The Siege 8.30pm, SBS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv - Steve Creedy

IN a weird way, The Siege is a love story. There is no doubt that for­mer tex­tile worker and union or­gan­iser Nestor Cerpa Car­tolini en­gi­neered the takeover of the Ja­panese am­bas­sador’s res­i­dence in Lima, Peru, in 1996 partly be­cause he des­per­ately wanted to get his wife out jail.

Let­ters writ­ten to his young son dur­ing the four- month siege and Cerpa’s ne­go­ti­at­ing tac­tics, which even­tu­ally saw him drop all de­mands ex­cept the re­lease of his wife, make this clear.

Th­ese pas­sion­ate let­ters help paint Cerpa in a more sym­pa­thetic light, not so much as the ter­ror­ist he clearly was but as some­one try­ing to fight the op­pres­sive regime of Al­berto Fu­ji­mori. Fu­ji­mori was seen at the time as the saviour of the hostages and was widely cred­ited with restor­ing peace in his coun­try by stamp­ing out Peru­vian ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the Tu­pac Amaru Revo­lu­tion­ary Move­ment ( MRTA), which Cerpa headed, and the Shin­ing Path.

His­tory has judged Fu­ji­mori more harshly and his rule be­tween 1990 and 2000 is now cred­ited with one of Latin Amer­ica’s worst hu­man rights records. In­ves­ti­ga­tions into the 1996- 97 siege showed at least some of the 14 MRTA mil­i­tants were mur­dered af­ter com­man­dos had taken back the res­i­dence, a charge that ap­pears to be ver­i­fied by some of the wit­nesses in this doc­u­men­tary.

The siege be­gins with a 600- strong group of Lima’s elite cel­e­brat­ing the Ja­panese em­peror’s birth­day in the grounds of the res­i­dence. Cerpa and his fol­low­ers take the party- go­ers and staff pris­oner and de­mand the re­lease of more than 450 MRTA pris­on­ers, in­clud­ing the leader’s wife, and the cur­tail­ment of Fu­ji­mori’s free- mar­ket re­forms. They even­tu­ally re­duce the hostage group to 72 men, re­leas­ing even mem­bers of Fu­ji­mori’s fam­ily, and only a judge with ex­ist­ing health prob­lems would end up dy­ing.

But their dar­ing as­sault cap­tured the at­ten­tion of the global me­dia and proved an em­bar­rass­ment to Fu­ji­mori, par­tic­u­larly when jour­nal­ists man­age to get into the res­i­dence for a press con­fer­ence.

The pres­i­dent’s ini­tial will­ing­ness to ne­go­ti­ate cov­ers the se­cret im­ple­men­ta­tion of a more bru­tal plan. Par­tic­i­pants, in­clud­ing some hostages and Fu­ji­mori, paint an in­ter­est­ing if some­what slow- mov­ing por­trait of the next 126 days.

There are un­ex­pected de­vel­op­ments such as the de­ci­sion to or­gan­ise lan­guage classes in which the head of Peru­vian counter- ter­ror­ism taught Cerpa French. The Ja­panese am­bas­sador tells how each week one of the ter­ror­ists prac­tised how she would run into his room and shoot him if an at­tack came, but when the as­sault fi­nally did come, she could not bring her­self to pull the trig­ger.

There is also graphic footage of the vi­o­lent cli­max to the siege as com­man­dos storm the res­i­dence af­ter ex­plod­ing bombs in tun­nels dug un­der­neath the build­ing.

The Siege may not be the quick­est paced doc­u­men­tary, but it pro­vides a good in­sight into the anatomy of a hostage cri­sis and the po­lit­i­cal com­plex­i­ties of South Amer­ica.

Po­lit­i­cal com­plex­i­ties: A scene from The Siege

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