The best present ever


The greatest Christmas present I have ever received came two days early and with a rough beard. It was my father, weary and unshaven, after five days as a hostage.

He and my mother left our home in Lima, Peru, on Dec. 17, 1996, to attend a party at the Japanese Embassy in honor of the Japanese emperor’s birthday. My mother returned later that night.

My father didn’t.

A lanky and reserved man, my father grew up in Ohio but left to see the world and serve his country in the U.S. Foreign Service. In 1996, he was a political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Peru.


My parents weren’t eager to attend the event that night. It was their wedding anniversary, so they contemplated skipping the bash to celebrate privately rather than attend a 700-person party. But my mother, a good diplomat’s wife, did not want my father to be reprimanded at work for missing a political gathering.

My parents had just arrived when a bomb exploded. Then a gun battle broke out between the terrorists and the police. The guests, including my parents, rushed inside the residence -- a white mansion -- for cover.

This was supposed to be a safer and different Peru from the 1980s, when terrorist organizations, notably the Maoist Shining Path, regularly disrupted life with car bombs and assassinations. But the clampdown on terrorism had not ended it completely, as my parents discovered on that warm December night.

On the other side of the city, my sister and I, 12 and 10 respectively, were watching television at home. The maid, who watched us when my parents were away, heard a faint explosion in the distance and rushed us to bed, fearing something was amiss. I heard nothing.

My parents weren’t strangers to violence. My mother grew up in Nicaragua as the country was torn apart by civil war. My father was shot in the leg and left for dead at a shopping center one night in Venezuela after three thieves stole our family car. My parents knew how to react on hearing explosions. Inside the mansion, they took cover near an interior wall.

Soon after the bullets stopped flying at the Embassy, the police began firing tear gas. The terrorists, members of the Marxist Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru, pulled on gas masks and held the guests hostage with machine guns and rocket launchers. After hours of waiting in the hot and packed house, the terrorists let the women go. My mother cried and resisted, not wanting to abandon my father, but she was made to leave.


The next few days were a blur. Our home phone never stopped ringing, and family friends took turns answering it. The U.S. ambassador’s wife sent a daily pot of matzo ball soup to my mother -- a comfort food she sorely needed. My older brother flew in from college in Philadelphia. The several hundred men who remained as hostages after the women were released spent their days praying, reading, playing cards and sleeping. At times, my father later said, he was even bored. The terrorists hoped to trade the hostages for their jailed comrades. They were patient.

Other than having been held at gunpoint, my father was not mistreated by the terrorists. I learned later that for those five days, he sat in the same room with 50 or so men, who became increasingly smelly with no change of clothes. The Red Cross brought food and water, vital necessities after the electricity was cut the second day. My father was one of seven Americans held.

During my father’s captivity, I wrote him a note on stationary provided by the Red Cross. I told him I was having fun with friends but missed him and loved him and wanted him to come home soon. The Red Cross sent it along with a package of clothing prepared by my mother. He never received either of our offerings.

At school, I was faced with tough reminders. Classmates asked questions. My fifth-grade teacher pulled me aside and offered a hug. I never cried at school, though people’s facial expressions seemed prepared to take it. Because I was new, I soon became known as the “American hostage’s son.” I had little to say after awhile. I guess I was in shock.

On Dec. 23, my father later told us, a priest who was one of the hostages held Mass, standing in a stairwell in front of a window riddled with bullet holes. One of the captors stood guard with a machine gun. Soon after, a list of names was read, including my father’s. The named men were sent to another room, with no idea whether they would be killed or released.

Later that day, my family and I huddled around the television hoping for news. The kidnappers had announced the release of more hostages, and we scanned the faces of the men lined up to board buses home until my mother and sister spotted my father. We cheered. My mother cried and thanked God. The phone started ringing.


The released hostages were taken to a hospital to be examined, and I had to go to bed before my father’s return. The next morning, I woke up early, filled with anticipation. I popped my head into my parents’ bedroom and was relieved to find my father asleep next to my mother where he belonged.

He was home.

My grandfather spoke to a local newspaper in Ohio the day after my father’s release. “I’ve been hoping for this ever since this all happened,” he said. “Christmas is over for me.”

My grandfather needed no other present that year.

And neither did I.

James Wagner is a staff member of The Times editorial pages.