“We must help victims get over feelings of being a victim”

Father Isaac Díez, who was first called in to help his sister when her husband was a kidnapping victim, believes that ETA activists can repudiate violence

Isaac Díez in the Salesians' headquarters in Bilbao.
Isaac Díez in the Salesians' headquarters in Bilbao.TXETXU BERRUEZO

On January 17, 1996, Domitila Díez telephoned her brother Isaac, a Salesian priest, to tell him that her husband, José Antonio Ortega Lara, had not returned home from his job at Burgos prison. Fears that he might have been kidnapped by ETA were quickly confirmed when the terror group released a statement to that effect. José Antonio Ortega Lara would spend 532 days in a tiny cell measuring just three meters that he could barely stand up in, the longest kidnapping ever staged by ETA.

The crime rallied nationwide sympathy and support, with the families of other victims of ETA coming forward to call on the authorities to do everything to find Ortega Lara and to help his family. Before becoming a priest, Isaac Díez, who immediately became the family's spokesman, had worked with young people whose fathers had been killed in mining accidents, something that he says gave him a "special sensitivity."

After Ortega Lara was found alive, Díez continued working with the families of victims of terrorism. "I have never counted the numbers, but we would sometimes hold very large meetings, perhaps with as many as 70 people," he says.

Díez says he is a great admirer of Viktor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust, but lost his parents and wife, and later wrote Man's Search for Meaning in which he outlines his therapy based on the ability of humans to overcome just about any situation or suffering. Díez began applying some of Frankl's theories during his conversations with survivors and victims of ETA's armed campaign for an independent Basque homeland.

"Many people probably do not really understand the many problems that an experience like that can cause. It is not possible to simply move forward in life by positive thinking alone - there will always be moments of crisis, and people are especially sensitive; anything can open old wounds and trigger desperation. There are people who you can work with because of their education, their situation, their environment, family [...] and there are other people with whom it is very hard to find a way forward because, quite simply, they have been broken."

The impact of a former ETA terrorist repenting can be enormous"

Question. Does recovery necessarily mean forgiving?

Answer. No, forgiveness is very hard. To be able to talk about forgiveness a personal relationship is required and before talking about forgiveness, we have to talk seriously about healing, which means that the victim recovers their self-esteem and is able to live normally with their family, their environment, and to fit into the world of work, and to be interested in what is going on around them once again. We tend to talk about reconciliation, which means something like coming to terms with oneself.

When he saw the images of the march on October 24 to protest the European Court of Human Rights overruling of the so-called "Parot doctrine" by which ETA prisoners have been kept in jail longer than should have been the case, Díez says his first thoughts were for the victims he knew and how this decision would affect them.

Q. Should the victims be allowed to play a part in the peace process, or to influence antiterrorist policy? Who should write the final chapter in the history of ETA?

A. The first duty of the victims' associations is to help them overcome the feeling of being victims. If not, they will continue to suffer. What is their role? That is their role. And the first duty of any institution is to help victims stop feeling like victims. If an organization has to be created, that means we are not doing what we are supposed to be doing, which is to help them overcome their current state and to no longer need support organizations.

Q. Do you think the law should be changed?

A. Laws are formulated by governments and applied by the judiciary, whether we like them or not, but there must also be mechanisms to protect the fundamental rights of everybody: everybody.

Díez describes the victims of terrorism as "testimony of the moral degradation of a society that has allowed aggression against the most sacred thing there is: life, and for that reason they are and always will be an uncomfortable reminder for those responsible for articulating policy." He prefers not to comment on the Parot doctrine.

He chooses his words carefully, aware that they carry great influence for some people and that it is "very easy to hurt the victims." Díez says he has seen many people give up on the recovery process. "I would say that my brother-in-law is among the healthiest, but it isn't easy. Sometimes the biggest problem is a lack of communication: these people do not talk about what has happened to them because they do not want to cause any distress for their friends and families."

Q. What can the terrorists do? How can they help?

A. This is a difficult process, both for the victim and the terrorist. If the terrorist, who is also a person, is prepared to go through a process of awareness, recognizing the harm he or she has done, this can be very important and highly valuable. But this is an extraordinarily complex process. The impact of a former ETA activist repenting can be enormous. From a position of faith I believe that everybody can change. And we will do everything to help those people make that step.

Q. So the victim stops being a victim, and the executioner stops being an executioner?

A. We can all change. This means coming to terms with who you are and what you have done, which is saying something [...] In many ways, overcoming what has happened is more difficult for [ETA activists]. Nobody knows what a mother who loses a child goes through, but nobody knows what the person who took the child's life has gone through. I believe that an executioner, as a human being, can evolve, although it is an enormously difficult challenge for somebody who has spent their life destroying lives to build a new personality.

Asked if he believes that ETA has finally been beaten and if the situation should be seen in terms of the defeated and the victors, the priest replies: "I do not know what the real situation is, but I do not like that kind of language." That said, he is optimistic about the future, and believes that peace is taking hold.

Q. What can both sides do to help overcome the trauma of ETA? What is the main obstacle to beginning a healing process?

A. It's not about sides; it's about the whole of society. We can all help build, and we can all help demolish what has been achieved. We all have something to contribute. I am doing it from here, helping the victims and working with them from an educational perspective. The politicians have to do their job. We have to celebrate the positive aspects of this, because what is left uncelebrated eventually dies.

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