Farewell ETA, but Basque separatism still strong

"ETA, Farewell and go with honour" reads graffiti near the Spanish Basque village of Agurain after the separatist group announced it was finally disbanding for good, a move welcomed in a region where nationalist sentiment still runs high
AFP

Agurain (Spain) (AFP) – “ETA, Farewell and go with honour” reads graffiti in Spain’s Basque Country as the separatist group disbands, a move many feel was long in coming in a region where nationalist feelings still run high.

Not far off in the village of Agurain, several slogans and posters in favour of transferring ETA prisoners closer to home adorn walls and pillars under a grey, drizzly sky.

For the 5,000-strong village led by the moderate nationalist PNV party, the end of decades of bombings, kidnappings and extortion waged by ETA for an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwest France is welcome.

But strong separatist sentiment remains.

“It’s positive, but it isn’t completely over,” says Seve Garcia de Vicuna, a 69-year-old retiree who confesses he once approved of ETA, set up in 1959 at the height of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship which severely repressed the region and forbade the use of the Basque language in public.

De Vicuna gradually grew disillusioned and changed his mind after years of violence that left at least 829 people dead.

But he cautions that “what were once very strong feelings of support for ETA still remain.”

– ‘It hurt’ –

Weakened in recent years by the arrest of its leaders and a gradual drop in support, ETA announced a permanent ceasefire in 2011 and began formally surrendering its arms last year.

On Thursday, the group went a step further, announcing it was fully disbanding, closing a dark chapter in Spanish history.

“So many died, there was so much suffering,” says Victoria Perez Conde, 69, originally from Burgos in the region of Castilla y Leon which neighbours the Basque Country.

She moved to Agurain some 40 years ago to follow her husband for work, and remembers one moment particularly vividly — the 1997 death of Miguel Angel Blanco which so shocked Spain that it sparked mass protests in a turning point in the fight against ETA.

The 29-year-old conservative councillor was kidnapped by the group and shot twice in the back of the head after the expiry of a 48-hour ultimatum that had the country on edge.

“I was in hospital and we were all riveted, including the nurses,” she remembers.

“And it ended badly. And it hurt.”

Perez Conde believes the dissolution was late in coming, as does Adolfo Olalde, 62, owner of a computer shop in the village.

“Of all the organisations that were dissolving in Europe, it was the last one standing,” he says.

– Politics, not violence –

But now that ETA has taken this step, Olalde believes the Spanish government should take a step too.

Like many Basques, he believes those convicted for being part of or linked to ETA and still serving time should be transferred closer to the Basque Country rather than be kept in jails hundreds of kilometres (miles) away.

On a pillar nearby hangs a small poster with a black map of the Basque Country surrounded by the slogan: “Basque prisoners and fugitives back home.”

“In France they’re taking measures,” he says, referring to the recent transfer of several ETA prisoners from northern to southern France nearer the Basque Country.

“Let’s see if Spain takes note.

“And then I think that victims must be acknowledged, but on both sides.”

ETA last month recognised the harm done and apologised to some of its victims — but not to those it considered legitimate targets such as police, thereby angering many of the survivors and their relatives.

But there were also separatists killed by far-right groups and death squads backed by members of Spain’s security forces in what has become known as a “dirty war” campaign.

There are growing calls in the Basque Country that these too should be recognised in order to aid reconciliation and peace going forward.

For Alberto, a 41-year-old teacher who refuses to give his surname, ETA’s fight for what the group described in its dissolution statement as “a reunified and independent greater Basque Country” — will continue.

“But via politics, not via violence,” he says.

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