After ETA, a slow return to normality

Politicians assess six months of the terrorist organization's "definitive" ceasefire Relatives demand contrition from the gunmen

San Sebastián / Vitoria -
People by the seaside in San Sebastián.
People by the seaside in San Sebastián.JESÚS URIARTE

Six months on from ETA's permanent ceasefire announcement, the political environment in the Basque Country has improved significantly. But talking to lawmakers, there is still a sense of unease that the armed separatist group has not handed over its weapons and disbanded once and for all.

On October 20, a half-century of bloodshed in the Basque Country came to a historic close when ETA finally renounced the use of arms and sought talks with the Spanish and French governments. Three leaders in masks announced that the group was calling a final halt to the use of bombs and bullets.

"ETA has decided the definitive cessation of its armed activity," they said. ETA was following a peace script put together with the help of mediators led by the former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, after a year in which it had observed a unilateral ceasefire.

Since then, there has been a sense of "relief" that the shadow of terrorism has been lifted and that Basque society can begin returning to normality, although politicians from the Socialist and Popular parties say that after years of armed protection that involved checking their car every morning, and constantly changing the route to work, it will take time to adjust to the new, peaceful reality.

One thing is not being shot or blown up, but these people can still give me a beating"

Although the announcement met longstanding demands from the Spanish and French governments, the United Nations and human rights groups for an end to the violence that has characterized the militants' independence struggle, it appeared to fall short of guaranteeing that the violence would never resume.

"There is no doubt that things are much better, since ETA lifted its death threat from me and my colleagues, but until ETA is gone forever, and we can live in peace and freedom, we cannot live a normal everyday life," says Ramón Gómez, the Popular Party's (PP) spokesman at San Sebastián City Hall and last year's candidate for mayor, who for 15 of his 36 years has been under police protection. He says that while he is now able to move around the city alone, he is not prepared to venture into its old quarter, which is home to many bars run by ETA sympathizers.

"One thing is not being shot or blown up, but these kind of people are still likely to get worked up one night and give me a beating," he says.

Another major stumbling block came from the fact that the PP and the Socialists played no part in the behind-the-scenes preparations for the ETA announcement. Indeed, the PP immediately said it opposed any quick peace deal, insisting that ETA not only renounce its violence and disarm, but dissolve on terms to be negotiated with the authorities in Madrid.

If they do not say sorry, then my brother's death means nothing; as if he were run over by a car"

Former Chief Prosecutor Juan Calparsoro, who put many ETA activists behind bars and therefore remains a prime target, has no illusions of the difficulties that lay ahead, but believes that there will be no return to the violence of the past. "It is not in ETA's interest: there are now democratic procedures to resolve the conflict."

Then there is the wider question of reconciliation, of how those responsible for the violence admitting the harm they did, of asking forgiveness, of being forgiven by those they hurt, and of somehow finding a way to rejoin society can play a useful role.

But the ETA statement, contrary to demands that have been made by the Madrid government, offered no apology to the victims of its past actions.

Mari Mar Blanco's brother Miguel Ángel Blanco was held hostage and killed by ETA 15 years ago. Like him, she is a member of the Popular Party, and is now a deputy in the regional parliament. She says that the most important issue now is that ETA activists ask forgiveness for their crimes.

"If they do not say sorry for what they have done, then my brother's death means nothing; as if he were run over by a car. But that isn't what happened. He was murdered because he opposed an attempt to impose a totalitarian system, and they have to recognize that."

Maribel Lasa is the widow of the former Socialist Party civil governor of the Basque Country, who was murdered by ETA in 2000, and who now heads the regional body that helps victims of terrorism. A former ETA supporter during the group's early days under the Franco regime, she says that the parties of the Basque nationalist left have sat on their collective hands rather than pushing ETA to disband.

"The nationalist left has done nothing. The rest of us are doing what we can in the space that has been created, but it is ETA and its supporters who are still deciding how far we can go. For us it is very important that what happened over the last three decades is remembered when the history books are written. We need to face up to what happened, and people need to accept their responsibilities," she says.

"We all have to live together and build a new future, but that has to be on the basis of recognizing the harm that was done."

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