|This article originally appeared in
|'The moment will haunt me forever'
Peruvian hostage spared by smiling, doomed rebel
|By ERIC J. LYMAN
Special to the Chronicle
|LIMA, Peru -- During four months as a hostage, the only time Rodolfo Muñante thought about giving up was
the minute before he was rescued from rebel captors a week ago today.
In a violent burst of explosions and gunfire, last Tuesday's daring raid on the Japanese ambassador's residence
had begun, and a Tupac Amaru guard now held a rifle to Muñante's head. But he didn't shoot, even though he was
Peru's agriculture minister knew from overheard conversations that the young man and his 13 comrades had been
instructed to kill as many hostages as possible in the event of attack.
As Muñante sat in a deep, cushioned chair at his home over the weekend -- his first in freedom since the takeover Dec. 17 -- the panic of
the close call with death was still evident in his eyes. His clothes were loose after losing 22 pounds in captivity. His hands played with
his baggy shirt.
"(The rebel) looked at me in the eye for a moment, then smiled slightly and pulled the gun away," Muñante said, breaking a heavy pause.
"He spared my life, ran out to face the soldiers, and then a few seconds later, he was dead.
"The moment will haunt me forever."
All of the rebels were killed in the raid, which ended their seizure of a party of 500 dignitaries, all but 72 of whom they later released.
Interviews with former hostages suggest that the insurgents were trying to surrender and were shot dead in the assault by 140
Muñante, a high-ranking official in the government that saved him, declined to comment.
Sunday's issue of the local daily La Republica reported that one of the rebels may have even tried to crawl out with the hostages, either
to escape or to give up. Agence France-Presse reported that the corpses of the slain terrorists lay in the open for several hours,
exacerbating a rodent problem.
But those reports dull the luster from what many consider to be one of the greatest anti-terrorism efforts ever, one which experts say will
be studied for years. For the hostages who slept on the floor next to the rebels, ate with them, joked with them -- and then saw them
killed -- it will not soon be forgotten, either.
The Rev. Juan Julio Wicht, a 65-year-old Jesuit priest, said he thought it was a cruel joke when another hostage whispered that a rescue
attempt was about to take place during a chess game last Tuesday. A few moments later, he said, one wall and part of the roof of his
second-floor room exploded in a loud blast that filled the room with dust and plaster.
"It felt surreal, with all the noise, shouting and bullets flying past my head," he said. "I dove to the floor, but I couldn't see anything
because of the dust. I saw the boots of a soldier and heard the shouts of someone saying, `Go! Go! You're free!' So I ran."
On the way out, Wicht said, he saw soldiers firing on members of the guerrilla group and later, when he saw pictures of the inside of the
building, he saw the bloody bodies of some of the rebels he had grown to sympathize with.
"After so many weeks of wondering whether I would live or die, I had mixed feelings to see the inside," he said. "I shed a tear for the
rebels, but I think it may have been them or us. That image of the bodies is burned into (my eyes). I'll never be able to forget it."
Now, a week after the attack, the second-guessing is starting locally. Wicht's view is the one taken by the government, but there are
those who say that rebels trying to surrender should have been spared.
"Who are the soldiers to play judge and jury?" asked retired Judge Alberto Ugarte in a La Republica column. "What do we have the
There's also concern about the future of the hostages. Though the rescue saved all but one of the 72 hostages, local psychologists say
the stress of the ordeal will forever haunt the former captives.
One doctor, who appeared on the popular La Ultima Hora radio show, said it would be difficult for some of the hostages to ever return to
a completely normal lifestyle.
"As many as two thirds of the hostages may never return to a productive life after the crisis," Dr. Wilfredo Terry said. "A thing like this
changes values and priorities, It changes the way people handle pressure and stress."
President Alberto Fujimori said in a Sunday television address that he would have acted to free the hostages sooner, but he wanted to
ensure that he exhausted every diplomatic avenue before he forced the issue.
"They (the hostages) had been in there long enough," Fujimori said. "This couldn't last forever. They had lived long enough without their
The former hostages had a variety of plans for their newfound liberty. Muñante, the agriculture minister who had his life spared by the
young rebel, said the thing he most looked forward to upon his release, besides seeing his wife, was to wear clean clothes every day
Lionel Marino, another former hostage, said he most missed home-cooked food and his own soft bed.
Wicht, the priest, was looking forward to regular warm baths and tranquility. As he recalled the crisis, he sat in a stiff-backed chair and
was patient with reporters' questions. In a Spartan garden at Iglesia San Luis, one of the churches where he works, he explained that
"after four months of bathing with an old washcloth, you feel dirty."
"I had many idle dreams about a nice, long bath and some quite days without stress -- time just to think."
It was apparent in the whirl of camera motors, popping flashes and the flood of questions with international accents that the tranquility
hadn't yet arrived.
Eric J. Lyman is a free-lance journalist based in Lima, Peru.
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|April 28, 1997