Freedom!

Early in the evening of December 17, Fr. Juan Julio Wicht, SJ, left the Jesuit community in a suburb of Lima, Peru, and headed for the residence of the Japanese ambassador. As an economist and a university professor, Fr. Wicht has worked with the leaders of Peruvian society, many of whom were fellow guests at the diplomatic reception celebrating the Japanese emperor's birthday. Before leaving home, he left a note saying he would be back about 10:00 p.m. He did not return for 126 days.

Fr. Wicht had been at the reception a short while when fourteen members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) burst into the residence and demanded the release of fellow MRTA members who were in prison. The Peruvian government refused their demands, and the standoff continued until Peruvian forces stormed the residence on April 22. Soon after the takeover, the rebels released women and elderly hostages, and during ensuing weeks released more, keeping government officials and Japanese diplomats. On Sunday, December 22, the rebels read the list of those to be released that day, naming Fr. Wicht among them. He refused to go.

Fr. Wicht tells his story to Fr. James O'Leary, SJ, who lives and works in Peru.

Can you tell us how you felt as your captivity began?

In all my life I never imagined I would ever find myself in such a long and difficult situation. None of us did. And then, suddenly, in a moment we were prisoners, unjustly deprived of our liberty and threatened with death.

The first night of December 17, there were 490 of us held hostage. The terrorists then began to allow some of us to leave, first the women and then some of the elderly. Five days later another 200 left the compound.

You were allowed to leave, but you stayed. Can you talk about that?

During those initial five days of captivity I began asking myself if I should remain or not, and also why and why not. While I believed I should accompany those who stayed even if I were permitted to leave, I couldn't converse or consult with anybody outside the residence. Finally, after some internal agony and many doubts, I decided that if they chose to free me, I would remain. And so on the afternoon of December 22, the terrorists gathered together those of us who remained and began to read off our names from an alphabetical list. When they finally got to the letter "W" and read my name, I responded by saying: "I am a priest and I am staying. While one hostage remains I, too, remain."

There was a rather long silence, and then the head of the terrorist group, Comandante Cerpa, responded: "If you want to stay, stay." The other hostages applauded, and this response confirmed me in my decision.

What went through your mind as you were debating this decision?

I was not sure what the repercussion of my decision would be outside the residence. I feared that my family would suffer from my decision, and wondered if my brother Jesuits would really understand the reasons for my decision. I hoped and prayed that they would support me and not think that I was just being a Don Quixote. However, soon after, I heard from my family, from my Jesuit brothers, and from many friends, all of whom strongly supported my decision.

I believe I stayed, then, to share this unjust situation with my fellow hostages, to be with them as a priest. I knew that if I left they would not be able to receive the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and so for me it was both an act of human solidarity and also a service of the Church that, with the help of God, I could offer.

There was something very human and at the same time something divine about my decision to stay, I believe. You have to understand that we were living under the imminent threat of being killed, either by the terrorists or by a military action, and we feared that the end could come at any moment. Those first few days of my captivity I was really angry; nobody had the right to deprive us of our freedom and use us as hostages. Frankly, I was more than indignant. I was curious. I decided to stay, then, as a protest against our enforced imprisonment.

At the same time there was something very divine that entered into my decision; I wanted to accompany Jesus Christ who was present in my fellow prisoners. I recalled the words from the Eucharist, "Do this in memory of me," and realized that God was asking me to do this in memory of his son. Looking back, I don't believe that I ever prayed so intensely or so truthfully.

What I did doesn't have any particularly extraordinary merit; it was simply a way of serving those who were living in this very difficult and dangerous situation.

How did you and your fellow hostages spiritually survive those long months of captivity?

During our long captivity God's presence in all of us was extraordinary. Although we had no choice but to be together, we became a true community in the Lord. We all know how difficult it is for any group of human beings to organize themselves, to maintain even a minimal sense of civility, peace, and order. Everybody has their likes and dislikes, their temperaments and their idiosyncrasies. Some people are more quiet while others always want to converse. Even so, I encountered in my companions a faith, a unity, and a solidarity that were unbelievable. I really don't have the words to express what we experienced praying together daily in hope and fear.

By the middle of January we were 72 hostages, and at least now we could all lie down and sleep on the floor at the same time. But life was still rather difficult. We didn't have electricity or water. At night we used candles, and water was brought in by truck. We all had to chip in to keep our living area clean. It was really something to see ministers, congressmen, and ambassadors carrying water buckets, sweeping floors, and emptying and cleaning the portable toilets.

Occasionally we would laugh; many of my fellow hostages snored quite loudly, and so we would joke with them, but they were always nervous laughs. We celebrated birthdays and anniversaries and played cards and chess. Also, at night there were lots of mice running around our beds. The MRTA terrorists wouldn't allow the Red Cross to give us mousetraps because they believed that we would use them as weapons, and so we organized a contest to see who could design the best mousetrap. One night we caught three in cardboard traps baited with bread, which mice seem to like more than cheese.

What were your captors like?

At the beginning of our captivity the terrorists were very tense. Those first days with so many hostages in such a small space, they believed that a military attack was imminent. So they, and we, were all very nervous. But after the majority of the hostages were allowed to leave, when we were that more-manageable number, the government broke its initial silence and initiated a dialogue with the terrorists. From this moment, even though these fourteen terrorists of MRTA had deprived us of our freedom, in general they didn't intentionally try to increase the tension among us. There was no physical torture; we weren't beaten. There were some isolated incidents of verbal abuse. Insofar as it was possible we all tried to maintain a tense calm.

Even though I didn't engage in extended conversations with the terrorists, far from it, they were aware that I was a priest from seeing me celebrate mass and pray with my fellow hostages. They were respectful and distant and would occasionally ask me a question about religion or faith, but they didn't participate in the Eucharist. I discovered that many of these young people had religious beliefs but no religious formation. For some of them it was the first time they had ever talked to a priest. I would tell them that all of us are God's children and all of us have to act in a way that is worthy of that. I suggested that they pray too. Only God knows if our conversations opened their eyes and hearts to God. I just don't know.

What do we have to learn from your experience?

Now that this crisis has ended, I believe that the most important lesson for us here in Peru and for all the people of goodwill worldwide is that using violence is the biggest mistake we humans can make. Violence really does beget only violence. This is what I said many times to the head of the MRTA, Comandante Cerpa. I think it's tragic that this man and other leaders of MRTA took advantage of poor young kids, fooling them into believing that what they were doing could actually accomplish the liberation of all of the imprisoned terrorists of MRTA. No nation could submit to such blackmail or tolerate the armed violence of such terrorists. And so, ultimately, if a pacific solution is not possible, an armed intervention has to be considered. In retrospect, I am glad that the army rescued us, but I also deeply regret the loss of human life, including the lives of the fourteen terrorists.

Ultimately, a true peace and justice still lie ahead of us, and we have to work for it. Together we in Peru and people all over the world have to build this more-just world. This, then, is what I believe to be the fundamental lesson of my imprisonment.


O'Leary


Fr. James O'Leary, SJ, works throughout Peru with Fe y Alegría, an international Catholic school system, and is superior of a Jesuit residence in Lima.


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