Slow, brutal anatomy of long hostage crisis
As It Happened: The Siege 8.30pm, SBS
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