Green shoots in the Basque Country

After 50 years of terrorism and hundreds of victims, peace is taking hold in the northern region. The questions now are: when and how will the hatred be buried?

This time, the ceasefire announcement doesn't move me. In fact, not even an announcement of a definitive end to violence will move me, because it will come too late. To nationalist euskalzales like myself, ETA has besmirched the history that our parents passed down to us, and which was very presentable," says the Basque nationalist writer Ramón Saizarbitoria, standing in front of Kursaal, the glass cube erected by Rafael Moneo in San Sebastián that houses concert halls and the city's international film festival.

Saizarbitoria's early novel Ehun metro (One hundred meters), one of the first modern literary works in the Basque language, is set just a few hundred meters from here, across the Urumea river, in the heart of la Parte Vieja - literally the Old Part of town, which these days is almost devoid of pro-ETA graffiti. The book, which was banned for a while, is the fictional story of an ETA member who is running from police across Plaza de la Constitución; as he covers the last 100 meters, his life flashes before his eyes. Before falling under the volley of gunshots, he remembers a meeting with a friend in France and the song that was playing on the jukebox: Song in the Blood, a Jacques Prévert poem sung by Joan Baez:

"If we came so far with ETA, Basques could be champions without them"
The policeman who thwarted the attack on the Guggenheim was later killed
"I never saw in the old Batasuna guys the hate I see in their children's eyes"

"Où s'en va-t-il tout ce sang répandu

le sang des meurtres...

le sang des guerres...

le sang de la misère...

et le sang des hommes torturés dans les prisons..."

(Where does it go, all this spilled blood / the blood of murders... / the blood of wars... / the blood of misery.../ and the blood of men tortured inside prisons...)

And that is, precisely, one of the great questions that Basques are beginning to ask themselves, although still in a hesitating way because it is too early to look the problem in the face. Where will all the blood spilled during these decades go? Will it, in time, get diluted and absorbed by Basque society? Will ETA's disappearance bring concord or, at least, normal relations? Will a decade be enough? What will it take to bury the hate, to regenerate Euskadi's broken emotional backbone, to close the yawning gaps now dividing members of the same family, neighbors, and even friends?

Driving to Bilbao on the A-8 turnpike, one cannot help but wonder if the lack of communication between residents of the adjoining provinces of Guipúzcoa and Vizcaya (the largest towns of which, San Sebastián and Bilbao, have been eternal rivals) could have something to do with the nature of this road, which is expensive (the toll for all 99 kilometers is 8.66 euros) and winding. The words of the economic analyst Emiliano López Atxurra come to mind: "Since ETA has torn our souls apart, the first job of all Basques must be to attain moral regeneration. But in order to survive as a country, we also need an educated, united society."

"Without ETA, Basques could be champions," a businessman named José Eguzkiza once said 12 years ago, during an earlier ceasefire. Looking down from Mount Pagolar, the industrial park of Llodio is wrapped in a milky nebula where the thick fog from the valley blends with the factory smoke. This is the headquarters of Tubacex, the world's second-largest maker of seamless stainless steel tubes, which exports 95 percent of its production.

"As soon as the abertzale (pro-independence extremists) repudiate ETA, we will make a quantum leap on the economic front. If we have managed to achieve a per capita income that is higher than the European average despite half a century of terrorism, imagine what this hard-working, innovative and enthusiastic society could do without it," asks Álvaro Videgain, president of Tubacex and a man who has personally suffered harassment by terrorists.

Although the ceasefire has provided some comfort to the Basques living under threat, many of whom are sending their bodyguards home, there was no collective sigh of relief. The dissipation of the terrorist threat spread like a soft breeze, not like the torrent of hope that washed over the region four years ago (during the previous ceasefire of the Zapatero era), knocking down obstacles and objections and calling upon everyone to show generosity in the name of a peace that seemed to be within grasp. It would seem that the parable of the prodigal son has stopped working with ETA. Basques have grown weary and are choosing to put their emotions to one side and instead remember that, no matter what ETA does or decides, it is doomed to become a fringe movement. That's what happens when you bury people's hopes under the rubble of the T-4 terminal at Barajas airport - an act of bloody-mindedness that destroyed the talks of 2006.

Thirty-seven years have gone by since the publication of Ehun metro, and the figure of the young ETA member who sacrifices himself for his cause has morphed into that of a freakish executioner; a dangerous, heartless terrorist without a cause; a murderer of freedom and peaceful coexistence.

"This is not like when a war ends, and you have a before and an after. This is a process in which violence progressively loses weight, and attitudes and behavior patterns gradually change," says Juan Ignacio Vidarte, director of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. In his opinion, Basques are already behaving as though ETA were disappearing or about to. Ever since its inauguration 13 years ago, the Guggenheim has been the centerpiece in the dissemination of an image of Euskadi as a cultivated, cosmopolitan, advanced region that is just as real as the image of a nation contaminated by violence.

The midday sun is shining down on Bilbao, and the fantastic titanium, glass and stone curves of the Frank Gehry-designed building positively glare with an intense, cold white light that spreads out like a lighthouse, a symbol of the successful regeneration of this industrial city. Locals look out for its iridescent sheen when they turn a corner, still amazed at the miraculous incrustation of this beautiful mass that looks like it fell right out of space on to their city center. Vidarte's office looks out on to the giant Jeff Koons flower sculpture called Puppy, and one realizes that even this privileged space is part of the endless calvary that ETA has made of the Basque geography: this is where, on October 13, 1997, ETA killed José María Aguirre Larraona, the police officer who thwarted the terrorists' attempt to set off a bomb concealed inside the flowers during the inauguration ceremony.

Now that ETA's long career seems to be reaching an end, there are no indications that Basques are going to spill out onto the streets, singing and hugging each other. Still, just like 35 years ago, when Franco was on his deathbed, a growing number of families are chilling the champagne in preparation for the great celebration.

Feeling trapped, ETA is announcing its willingness - though with conditions - to close the curtain at a time when Basque society has no words left to express its contempt, and when even its political ally, Batasuna, which has now morphed into the new party Sortu, views it like a stone that's dragging it down to the bottom of the lake.

It is no longer impossible to hear acerbic comments about ETA at a bar, or to see a kid wearing a Spanish soccer team shirt without getting into trouble for it. The wall of silence is cracking, although the ice has not completely melted yet. The verses of the recently deceased singer-songwriter Xabier Lete seem suspended in the air: "Euskal herri nerea ezin zaitut maite / bainan non biziko naiz zugandik aparte. Anaien aurpegian begirada hotza / ezpainetan irainan / harrizko bihotza" ("My Basque Country, I cannot love you / but where could I live outside of you? / There are daggers in my brother's eyes / frost on the lips / a heart of stone.")

"What has happened here is so momentous that society and the institutions have assimilated the despair and the skepticism. It was a taboo subject because the survival instinct prevailed, and no solution was in sight. As the Chinese proverb says, if a problem has no solution, then it ceases to be a problem," says Iñigo Lamarka, the regional ombudsman. "We are talking about many thousands of citizens living under death threats: all the public officials of the Basque Socialist Party and the Basque Popular Party, some nationalists, all the judges and prosecutors, all the police officers, the military leaders, the prison workers, the businesspeople subjected to extortion... they add up to a huge number."

Lamarka is certain that when this threat is fully gone, there will be "a general explosion of joy, even if it brings together elements from different and even opposite ends of the political spectrum. All of Basque society will realize just how terrible it has been to live with this nightmare for so many years."

Juan Ignacio Vidarte thinks that 99 percent of Basques will feel like a weight has been lifted. "We are all going to experience a feeling of ethical freedom, because regardless of individual suffering and responsibility, we have all carried the stigma of violence," he says. One wonders whether the terrorists will also feel liberated, even if they failed to twist democracy's arm.

"I can see myself as one of those Germans who, in certain socio-historical circumstances, looked the other way," says Ramón Saizarbitoria. "Yes, I feel part German," insists the writer who also works with the Fernando Buesa Foundation, created to honor the eponymous Socialist deputy premier assassinated by ETA. It is as though the author of Ehun metro was volunteering to atone for the guilt of some politicians and intellectuals who will never see the need to redeem themselves, despite having ample reason to do so.

The death in 1987 of Koldo Michelena, a leading light of nationalist intellectuals and politicians who famously said "I am a democrat first, an abertzale later," meant a greater loss for Euskadi than was initially thought. His absence was felt in the behavior of nationalists who reached a deal with ETA to isolate all non-nationalist Basques.

"At the origin of violence, Fanon [Frantz Fanon, a Neo-Marxist who inspired anti-colonial liberation movements] was as guilty as Sabino Arana [the founder of the Basque Nationalist Party PNV], even though the people who founded ETA during Franco's time were anti-Marxist," notes Saizarbitoria. So was the romantic aristocrat Telesforo Monzón, who left the PNV to join Batasuna and spent his time writing songs that enjoined youngsters to keep up the fight. ETA has certainly not been short on poets. The most popular one, Joseba Sarrionaindia, escaped from Martutene prison in San Sebastián inside a speaker used by the singer-songwriter Imanol Larzabal, who had just performed there. Imanol died in Orihuela, where he fled to get away from ETA's harassment, while Sarrionaindia kept getting plaudits from his people with poems such as Tiro hotsak, in which the mother of an ETA prisoner sees a police officer lying wounded under her window and refuses to help him, saying she will never do so as long as her son is in jail.

"I think what young Basques are afraid of now is being equated with Muslim extremism. They don't like to see themselves reflected in Islamist beards; they find them vulgar," says Saizarbitoria before approaching "the other side" of the feeling of being "half German." He says that "apologies must be proffered and children taught that this was wrong and should never happen again."

Is it not true that a Basque nationalist, with very notable exceptions, has taken an enormously long time recognizing the victims of terrorism? "We have this sense of gu ["us" in Basque], that makes you be understanding and forgiving with your people and establishes a great distance with the 'others.' ETA's victims have behaved in an exemplary way and the whole of Spain - where at one point there was also some support for ETA - has displayed great patience; generally, people have made the difference between terrorists and Basques."

To reach Ondarroa, on the border between the provinces of Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa, it is necessary to take the Deba exit out of the A-8 highway and drive down the twisting road to the seaside. Deba, Mutriku, Ondarroa and Lekeitio are fishing towns with a strong abertzale presence where, in the absence of the Spanish enemy, the battle is fought out between nationalist forces, and resistance, such as there is, is conducted by democratically minded nationalists.

The attractiveness of these villages tucked in the hillsides and looking out to sea can be misleading if one is not aware of the ideological battle lines and the latent political conflicts being waged under the peaceful surface. "Bi beltz" ("two red wines," although literally it means "two blacks"), two Senegalese men order with a smile inside a bar in Ondarroa displaying a sign that says in French, Basque and Spanish: "We speak Spanish." Observing their good-natured attitude, one wonders if the 500 or so Senegalese who have settled down in the area - most of them work out at sea, and have built a reputation as good seamen - will play a role in the process of rebuilding a healthy coexistence.

"There is division and fear. They set off a car bomb in front of the Ertzaintza [Basque police] station, and there were seven wounded. They firebombed my car twice. Although I lead the life of a monk, I need bodyguards in my own village, not so much because of their guns now that there is a ceasefire, but because of the risk of being beaten up," says Félix Arambarri the PNV mayor of Ondarroa. "On the streets, some people point at me or yell out to look under my car. It's hard, especially on my family, and ever since I got into this I lost friends and didn't make any new ones," adds this 70-year-old who could well play the brave main character in the classic western High Noon. His crime: agreeing to participate in the municipal committee that Vizcaya authorities appointed to run the town, given the impossibility of accepting the results of the March 2009 elections. In that poll, the outlawed ANV (another name for Batasuna) managed to get people to cast a majority of spoiled ballots, which were subsequently accepted as legitimate by the mainstream parties.

"I accepted because, as a former mayor of Ondarroa, I know how detrimental it is for a municipality not to have a council, but I don't know...," he continues. "We have to hold our sessions outside the village, and there is an unbearable atmosphere that will not change even if ETA drops its weapons."

Based on his own experience, Arambarri detects a generational degradation. "I once worked with the parents of the people now at the helm of Batasuna, and although we had lots of arguments, I never saw in them the hate I see in their children's eyes. That hatred will not evaporate from one day to the next. Those people are not going to change, and besides, there will always be the conflict between Euskadi and Spain."

Under the weight of all the hatred and the prejudices, are there any green shoots that give reason for hope? This is what a 65-year-old businessman who has spent the last 11 years under bodyguard protection because of his refusal to pay ETA's "revolutionary tax" has to say: "Half a century of murders are not going to end from one day to the next, although I detect positive changes in Batasuna voters and relatives of ETA prisoners."

A 40-year-old police officer from Bilbao and mother of two children says that "nobody should be trustful; I don't believe them." An informal survey of public officials from the Basque Socialist and Popular parties finds similar opinions: "We get the same glares as usual" and "Fear will not totally disappear until ETA is out of the way." Official surveys say that 44 percent of Basques think this ceasefire will not be the definitive one, either, while 34 percent think it will.

And yet it cannot be ignored that, by proclaiming that the "armed struggle" no longer has any meaning, Batasuna has broken with its foundational dogma, the iron principle that ruled its political universe. It is a significant step that sooner or later will open the door to a review of past behavior. If the context has barely changed, why is it that ETA is now a hindrance to Batasuna and not a year ago, five years ago, a few decades ago? Slowly, discreetly, even this world is opening up to an ethical revision of past beliefs, even if it is taking place within intellectually select circles that still prefer not to openly digress from the "collective I."

The green shoots are there, even if they are only manifest in the microcosm of family and neighborhood life: the acquaintances who replace the grimace with a smile when they meet on the street, or the neighbors who stop glaring sideways at each other. The communicative nature of human beings is discreetly reasserting itself.

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