Theater of Cruelty

After ETA

The separatists have put down their weapons. But for many Basques, the fight is not over. Some Basques will never stop wanting independence. Others first and foremost want peace when ETA has now announced that they will lay down their weapons for good. By Hege Paulsen (text) and Håkon Eikesdal (photo), San Sebastián


[Basque Country] San Sebastián, October 2006. Behind a huge Basque flag and 14 dancing men with national costume and cubes around the belly, march thousands of protesters. It could have been the bourgeoisie in a Norwegian city 17. May, but cheers, sugar spins and smiling faces shine with their absence.

The protesters are well grown, nicely dressed and rake in the back. They are calling out tireless slogans of independence for the Basque Country and amnesty for those over 600 prisoners who are imprisoned on foreign soil.

A little six months earlier, the 22. March this year, three masked persons have appeared on Basque TV and declared a truce on behalf of the separatist organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA). It's not the first time ETA declares a ceasefire, but now it's different. Never before has it been promised that the ceasefire will be permanent.

Ceasefire – again

Since 1960, ETA has more than 850 human lives on conscience. Politicians, businessmen, policemen and civilians have had to deal with life in the struggle for an independent Basque state. Now there can be decades of terrorism and fear in Northern Spain. If ETA keeps what they promised, the two policemen killed in May 2003 will be at the bottom of the list of terror victims. But is an end to the conflict really within reach?

In Bilbao, the sun is still warm. Two elderly ladies support each other on their way to a late morning coffee, tourists ask for the road to Guggenheim-

the museum, people meet, get separated, talk and laugh. Little evidence exists that the Basque Country has experienced one of Europe's longest and most profound ethnoregional conflicts. Some solitary graffiti, a poster announcing an imminent demonstration, and Basque flags waving from some old town house are the only visible signs of the protracted conflict. But it has not always been as peaceful.

car bomb

19. February 2002. It is four years before ETA promises to lay down its weapons. Eduardo Madina Muñoz is on his way to work as usual. He organizes the day in his head, trying to remember everything to arrange. He is on his way out of a roundabout as it slams. The car explodes. ETA has planted a bomb in his car, and only by chance does he survive the attack.

- I have always been prepared for something like this to happen, says Madina.

He had to amputate parts of his left leg and scars on both hands testify to what he has been exposed to. Madina was designated a target by ETA because he was a secretary in the youth organization of the Socialist Party PSOE in Bilbao. The attack has not scared him from political involvement. In 2004 he was elected to the Spanish Parliament in Madrid. Here, at the small end office in parliament, he turns on the TV in March this year and gets the news about the ceasefire.

After the end of the work day, he goes out and has a better dinner with the party colleagues. They talk about the future of the Basque Country, toast and remember friends and party colleagues who have lost their lives in the bloody battle.

A new time?

Today, Madina still believes that what happened in March marked the beginning of a new era.

- The situation is characterized by hope. The conditions for peace have never been better. No one thinks ETA will kill again. At least I do not think so, says Madina.

Mikel Ayuso is not as optimistic. He is a political journalist in the nationalist newspaper Deia in Bilbao, and smokes heavily while explaining why the situation in the Basque Country is so complicated. He reprimands Ny Tid kindly when we get hurt for believing that we are in Spain – you must not say that to people, they are offended, must know.

Deia was traditionally the newspaper of the nationalist party PNV, but in recent years has loosened the party ties. Another newspaper, Gara, was the voice of Batasuna, the party that was considered ETA's political wing. In 2003 it was banned because it did not distance itself from ETA's terrorist actions.

Ayuso has been following the situation in the Basque Country for over 20 years. He is vigilant about raising the flag, even though it has been over three years since ETA's last deadly attack. The last time ETA declared a ceasefire, in 1998, it lasted just over a year.

- Now people are more reserved. They are afraid of being disappointed again, says Ayuso.

Most Basque people are happy about the ceasefire, but some would prefer that ETA continue the armed struggle. They refuse to believe that negotiations with the Spanish authorities will lead to Basque independence.

- Probably there are as many as 10.000 Basques who think ETA should continue the armed struggle. They believe it is treason if ETA sits down at the negotiating table, Ayuso explains.

Ayuso describes the current situation as pending and strained.

- We are waiting for the Spanish authorities to do something, but nothing happens. Maybe there have been secret negotiations, maybe not. ETA has signaled that they want a solution to the conflict by declaring a ceasefire, but the authority has not given anything back, says Ayuso.

The government must lift the ban on Batasuna from 2003 and agree to bring home hundreds of Basque prisoners who are imprisoned outside the Basque Country, he believes.

Demonstrates every week

The resort of San Sebastián is about to go to sleep for the winter. The tourists have packed the suitcase, while the surfers, who have come for the violent waves in the Bay of Biscaya, intend to get stuck for a while. San Sebastián could have been any Spanish coastal city, had it not been for 15.000 people to pull out into the streets to demonstrate an ordinary Saturday afternoon.

The protesters' message is clear. The Basques themselves have to decide what kind of relationship they want to Spain. And the 640 prisoners who are considered political prisoners must avoid being jailed in prisons outside the Basque Country. The leading protesters carry posters with pictures of the prisoners. Most of them are young and, according to the protesters, sit under unworthy detention conditions. They are nationalists who have spoken warmly to an independent Basque country. Some may have been affiliated with ETA. Others have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Jon is one of those marching through the streets of San Sebastian. He does not want to give his last name to the press, you never know. Jon is an experienced demonstrator. As long as he gets off work, he participates in demonstrations. Lately, it has often been several times a week, in various Basque villages. He faithfully carries the poster with the image of Eider Ijurko Ruiz. She is in her mid-20 years and is in a prison outside the Basque Country. She has several years to spare, but hopes to get out sooner.

- No difference

The students at Deusto University do not think the situation will change much in the Basque Country, despite the ceasefire.

- I have not noticed any difference, says Ana Vega.

Together with her friends Garazi Artuñedo and Sandra Bengoa, she has pulled out on the lawn to sneak sun and potato gold between the lectures. The girls were born and raised in Bilbao.

- After the ceasefire, they showed pictures from Bilbao on TV and made a big point of people strolling peacefully around the streets, but hello, that has always been the case. I have never felt insecure in Bilbao. Nothing has ever happened to me or anyone I know. Of course, there has been violence here. But it's everywhere, right? said Artuñedo.

The girls think Basque independence is a utopia. For if the Basque country gains independence, then Catalonia and Andalusia will surely demand the same. The authorities will not take such a chance, the girls believe.

Not surprising

- The question was not whether ETA would lay down its arms, but when. There is no other way to go for regional nationalists in today's Europe, says Marcus Buck, Spain expert and first amanuensis at the University of Tromsø.

He points to several reasons for the ceasefire. Terrorism has been lifted to another level after 11. September 2001, and this has led to tougher reactions against suspected terrorists. Another reason is the positive impact of the IRA's ceasefire. The ETA has traditionally collaborated with and set up the IRA, and the ceasefire in Northern Ireland certainly contributed to the ceasefire in Spain. A third reason is the long-standing cooperation between the Spanish and French authorities in the fight against ETA.

Explosion of joy

Buck believes in a solution to the conflict.

- But it will take at least five years, probably ten. There are plenty of obstacles on the road. One is that the negotiations are kept strictly secret, so that there is fertile ground for speculation in the press. Another is the fact that all Spanish conflicts are exploited to gain party political advantages. In the UK, there was broad cooperation in the fight against the IRA. In Spain, the Partido Popular, which is the largest opposition party, has in practice opposed the peace talks from day one, Buck says.

Legorreta in the Basque Country, 29. July 2000. Juan María Jáuregu is home for a summer vacation and has just celebrated a silver wedding with his wife María Isabel Lasa Iturrioz. In recent years, Jáuregu has lived in Chile in South America. He moved overseas on the advice of Spanish authorities, who believed he had encountered too many enemies in the Basque Country after working as the government's representative in Guipúzcoa, the Basque province where San Sebastian is the capital, from 1994 to 1996. The couple talked on the phone every day. When they visited each other on vacations, it was just like being in love again.

It is almost six years for ETA to declare a ceasefire. Jáuregu will meet a friend in a cafe in Tolosa. On the way out to the car, he tells of a strange dream he had had that night. "I dreamed that ETA killed me," he tells his wife. She swallows. Thinking about how their house has been tagged with murder threats. On the friend for nearly 30 years, journalist José Luiz Lopez de la Calle, who was killed by ETA in May of that year. It is with an aching feeling in her stomach that she waves the man away. A few hours later, the phone rings. Her husband is shot in the head. Before she reaches the hospital, he is dead.

joy Tears

It takes a long time for her friends to realize that the phone has stopped ringing. The daughter is studying in Huelva, in the south of Spain. The house is empty and cold. After the man's death, she was asked to take the job of director of Atención a las victimas del terrorismo, an interest organization started by the Basque government for those who have lost someone in terror attacks. 22. March came the news of the ceasefire.

- I felt I exploded with joy. I cried and cried and never thought I would be able to stop. I called the daughter of Ernest Lluch (politician who was killed by ETA in 2000. editor's note) and there we sat, at each our end of the pipe, crying in torrents, Lasa Iturrioz recalls.

She believes the ceasefire could mean the end of the story of ETA – forever.

- I really, really want it to end. I think this time it must be definite, this time they can not return to the weapons. For some of us it is too late, but for the Basque Country it can mean a whole new future, she says.

In San Sebastián, protesters have packed together for appeals, applause, Basque song and even more applause. The posters with pictures of the prisoners are stacked in a van, ready for almost any time.

Jon smiles, the demonstration has been successful. Sure, he thinks peace is possible. Nor should a Basque state be impossible.

- I want the Basque Country to be a country

just like Spain and Norway. An impossible dream, some say, but dreams come true every day. If you stop dreaming, you can just as well stop living.

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