Basques enjoy peace but still seek reconciliation

Region marks fifth anniversary of Eta ceasefire after four decades of separatist violence

People march behind a banner reading “Gravely ill Basque Prisoners Home” during a demonstration in San Sebastian on October 15th in support of the release of chronically and terminally ill Eta prisoners. Photograph: Vincent West/Reuters

People march behind a banner reading “Gravely ill Basque Prisoners Home” during a demonstration in San Sebastian on October 15th in support of the release of chronically and terminally ill Eta prisoners. Photograph: Vincent West/Reuters

 

Late last Saturday night two members of the Spanish Civil Guard were badly beaten up by a group of young men in a bar in Alsasua, leaving them requiring hospital treatment and reminding Spaniards of the Basque separatist violence that killed more than 800 over four decades.

Although Alsasua is technically not in the Basque Country, it is in the neighbouring Navarre region, which has a deep Basque nationalist heritage and saw much of the violence waged by terrorist group Eta.

Reports suggested that the bar the civil guards were drinking in is popular with radical nationalists, meaning that representatives of the Spanish state usually stay away.

Interior minister Jorge Fernández Díaz was quick to deny that the incident was a case of kale borroka, the politically motivated violence that was a regular feature of those years. However, its timing, just a few days ahead of the fifth anniversary of the formal end of Eta’s campaign of terror declared on October 20th, 2011, has caused many to question the nature of the peace.

The conservative media, in particular, has cast the episode as part of a sinister trend, with ABC newspaper’s Manuel Marín warning: “The emotional division created by Eta through the perpetuation of an irrational hatred is still real.”

Yet despite such reservations Eta has kept its word by not carrying out any attacks since announcing the truce, and high court prosecutor Jaime Zaragoza said this week that only about 10 or 20 members of the group remained at large.

Verifiers

As well as rejecting the use of violence, Eta has attempted to instigate an IRA-style weapons decommissioning process, handing over a small cache to an international group of verifiers in 2014.

However, the Spanish government has refused to engage in any such initiative. This intransigence on the part of acting prime minister Mariano Rajoy, of the conservative Popular Party (PP), appeases many on the right, while riling the izquierda abertzale, the Basque nationalist left which has traditionally been close to Eta.

Urtzi Errazkin, whose brother Ugaitz has been in prison since 2012 on Eta-related charges, feels let down by the peace.

“Our relatives are in exactly the same conditions as they were five years ago,” he told The Irish Times. “And that means we’ve had five more years of travelling to visit them, five more years of spending money on visits and five more years of physical and psychological exhaustion.”

Errazkin’s brother is in jail in the north of France, meaning a round trip of nearly 2,000km each month or so for a 90-minute prison visit. Theirs is not an unusual case. A government-guided policy means that of nearly 400 prisoners sentenced for Eta-related offences, only four are in jails in Basque territory, according to the prisoners’ families association Etxerat.

Errazkin points out that these “vengeful policies” have not shifted at all despite the considerable concessions Eta has made.

Political landscape

By contrast, the Basque political landscape has changed dramatically in recent years. After nearly a decade without a mainstream political voice, since 2011 radical nationalists have had one in EH Bildu, a coalition that has become the Basque Country’s second political force. For many this development has made Basque politics more representative, filling the separatist void left by Eta’s ceasefire.

Yet others see EH Bildu as the terrorist group’s way of sneaking into state institutions. “This is probably the only place in Europe where there is such a high level of radicalisation,” Consuelo Ordóñez, president of the COVITE terrorism victims’ collective, told The Irish Times.

Ordóñez, like many Spaniards, wants Eta to go even further by condemning its past violence and disbanding. The group killed her politician brother Gregorio in 1995, and she sees little to celebrate today.

“Eta doesn’t kill any more but that doesn’t mean we should be grateful,” she said.

Meanwhile, despite his frustrations at the government’s penitentiary policy, Urtzi Errazkin seems to believe reconciliation is imminent.

“The politicians, maybe because they want to use this for party political reasons, are always lagging behind Basque society, which clearly wants all this to end, regardless of our political stripes, and for all the wounds to heal so we can have a real, just and lasting peace.”

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