As silently as it made its debut in times of trouble, pacifist platform dissolves

A Gesture for Peace decides to disband in the wake of an end to ETA violence

Balloons shaped like doves are released in Bilbao to mark the end of A Gesture for Peace.
Balloons shaped like doves are released in Bilbao to mark the end of A Gesture for Peace. Miguel Toña (EFE)

For 28 years, A Gesture for Peace (Gesto por la Paz) pushed for a broad understanding between the political parties in the Basque Country, its citizens, and the rest of Spanish society to help find ways to end the terrorist violence that had gripped the volatile northern region for four decades. On Saturday, the platform, which attracted people from all walks of life, was formally dissolved after its members agreed that they have accomplished their objective. Basque terrorist group ETA announced a “permanent, general and verifiable ceasefire” in 2011.

On Saturday, around 300 people stood silent for a minute in Bilbao’s Circular Square, which was the site of A Gesture for Peace’s first protest in 1985, after four people were killed by an ETA bomb that year. But it wasn’t until months later that it was formally organized into a platform for peace, and later became internationally recognized for its push for a pacific solution to the Basque conflict.

Professor Imanol Zubero, a former Socialist senator, remembers the first time he participated in “a gesture” against ETA. It was in 1987, in Alonsotegi, Bizkaia, the town where he was born.

“That day there were only two of us holding a placard,” Zubero recalled. “A Gesture has been able to help Basque society cope and not become too embarrassed by what was happening.”

During a May 4 assembly, its members voted to officially disband now that the violence in the Basque Country has ended. ETA declared a cessation of armed activity in October 2011, but the Spanish government is still demanding that the terrorist group officially disband before holding talks on its members’ petitions to be allowed to rejoin society and play a part in the political process.

Even though the organization — a recipient of the Prince of Asturias Prize in 1993 — fought hard to pressure ETA by holding scores of 15-minute silent protests following terrorist attacks, kidnappings and even cases of abuse of ETA prisoners, some of its members said they had always expected the day would come when their campaigns would come to a close.

“We always imagined that it would happen because it was born with the conviction that [the movement] would one day come to an end,” said Fabián Laespada, a spokesman for A Gesture for Peace. “We still have to resolve the consequences of violence.”

But not all people at first welcomed the initiatives of A Gesture for Peace. Marilen Ceberio, who joined that movement when it was first organized, recalled that it was “very difficult” in the beginning. “We had to put up with the dirty looks and insults; sometimes your friends for life would ignore you and distance themselves,” she said.

A Gesture for Peace held 8,150 silent protests in 1996, the same year when ETA made two high-profile kidnappings — José Antonio Ortega Lara, a prison official who was held for 532 days in inhumane conditions, and Cosme Delclaux, a businessman who was released after spending 232 days held at a secluded location.

“It was a moment when we were under a lot of pressure,” said Jesús Herrero, one of its founders. “There were counter demonstrations that were organized by the Basque radical abertzale left during the time of the kidnappings. We were living in a period that was full of misunderstanding, and now, as time has passed, there is a sense of frustration because all the sinister violence that took place never accomplished anything,” Herrero said.

To mark the occasion on Saturday, hundreds of balloons shaped like doves disappeared into the gray skies of Bilbao.

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