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Basque survivors warn against forgetting ETA’s violence

May 3, 2018
A woman shelters from the rain while walking past a wall reading,'' There is no barrier that will deny our country's freedom'', in the small village of Hernani, northern Spain, Wednesday, May 2, 2018. The disbanding of Basque militant group ETA announced for this week has laid bare the scars of one of Europe's last violent conflicts. (Alvaro Barrientos)
A woman shelters from the rain while walking past a wall reading,'' There is no barrier that will deny our country's freedom'', in the small village of Hernani, northern Spain, Wednesday, May 2, 2018. The disbanding of Basque militant group ETA announced for this week has laid bare the scars of one of Europe's last violent conflicts. (Alvaro Barrientos)

MADRID (AP) — The disbanding of ETA, the Basque militant group that stained Spain’s return to democracy with blood, arrived as bittersweet news for Inaki Garcia, whose father died at its hands 38 years ago.

Like many in his native Basque Country, Garcia had long expected the move. But when it finally arrived on Wednesday in the form of a leaked letter, Garcia was unimpressed.

“This closure comes unbearably late and in the worst form possible,” said Garcia, whose father was the regional representative of the state-owned telecommunications company when he was kidnapped and shot dead near San Sebastian. The gunmen were never identified.

After killing Juan Manuel Garcia and 852 other people in its thwarted six-decade campaign for a Basque-ruled state, ETA began its long path to dissolution in 2011. That year, it declared it would no longer kill; getting rid of its arsenal of weapons would take six more years. Finally, in a letter to the Basque regional government and others dated mid-April and made public this week, the group said it had “completely dissolved all its structures.”

In the letter, ETA also acknowledged that it failed to solve the Basque “political conflict.” But for Garcia, the group has so far failed to recognize explicitly that resorting to violence was a mistake.

“ETA has lost a historical opportunity,” he said.

The staggered disappearance of the militants’ threat has laid bare some of the scars in the Basque region, which straddles the Pyrenees in northern Spain and southwestern France, where ETA caused deaths but also received much support.

Its end also shifts the focus to the challenges ahead, from reparations and justice for unresolved crimes demanded by survivors and victims’ relatives on all sides, to the future of nearly 300 imprisoned militants.

An online call for “an end of ETA without impunity” has already enlisted more than 50,000 signatures. The accompanying manifesto of victims’ relatives, survivors and intellectuals warns that “ETA wants to reset the counter to zero,” and calls for a full investigation of the 358 unsolved assassinations. Consuelo Ordonez, one of the initiative’s leaders and sister of a conservative leading politician killed in 1995, also warned the Spanish government to refrain from granting any privileges to imprisoned members of ETA.

The issue of the militant convicts remains a point of tension in Basque and Spanish politics. Many relatives still take weekly painful trips to distant locations elsewhere in Spain where their imprisoned relatives have been kept as part of a so-called “dispersal policy” in place since the early ’90s.

The policy aimed to weaken the network of support for the organization. But with ETA’s disappearance, a majority of Basques are asking that they be treated the same as other criminals. That view faces legal and political opposition, as well as opposition from many ETA survivors and victims’ relatives.

Garcia is among those who want for the prisoners “no more and no less” than for other inmates. He doesn’t seek revenge, he says, but adds that ceremonies that separatists hold in Basque towns to welcome released militants as heroes should end. Like many other victims’ relatives, he considers an “insult” any calls for a general amnesty or similar arrangements to those that allowed early releases for IRA members in Northern Ireland.

The 56-year-old professor is also concerned about the message that will remain for future generations when all traces of ETA are erased.

“It’s no time to talk about winners or losers, but one thing is for sure: we defeated the idea that people can be treated as military targets for political purposes,” he says. “It’s time to overcome pain without hate, but it will take a long time to heal the individual and social wounds.”

Sara Buesa said it was comforting to wake up knowing that the organization that killed her father, socialist politician Fernando Buesa, no longer exists. But she said that the personal pain and the consequences of ETA’s violence in society will remain: “We are a wounded people,” she said.

The bloody campaign reached its height in the early 1980s, as Spain transitioned from dictatorship to democracy. ETA killed, injured, kidnapped and threatened not only members of the military and police forces but also politicians, entrepreneurs, civilians and some of its own militants who wanted to leave the organization.

At least 60 people were also killed by death squads set up by members of Spain’s security forces and clandestine far-right groups. Among their victims was Xabier Galdeano, founder and journalist of the pro-independence newspaper Egin. A gunman hired by the Groups of Anti-Terrorism Liberation, or GAL, shot him dead in southern France in 1985, at the height of what has become known as Spain’s “dirty war” on terrorism.

His daughter, Karmen Galdeano, says an acknowledgement of state-inflicted violence is also necessary for reconciliation. “Right now, we, the victims of GAL, don’t even exist for many,” she says, adding that “a good starting point would be for the state to take a similar step as ETA’s, acknowledging the harm that it caused.”

“Every assassination should be at the same level, but the consequences of what ETA and GAL did can’t be equated,” said Gaizka Fernandez, warning against painting the Basque conflict as one with two warring sides.

A historian with the Vitoria-based Memorial Center for Terrorism Victims, Fernandez also says that Basque society has a long way to go in acknowledging its complicity in decades of violence. “We have a consoling image of ourselves as a society standing against terrorism, but that’s not what polls and studies tell us,” he said. “There was a pacifist minority, but most of us stayed at home when ETA was killing.”

When construction work finishes in its headquarters, the government-run center will hold archives including ETA’s internal documents. Fernandez said it wants to be a source for research and education on “all kinds” of terrorism as an antidote against future conflicts. “The broth of hate is the most dangerous because it could re-ignite violence,” he said.

Initiatives over the past decade to bring together victims from all sides are also helping to bridge confrontation and indifference among survivors on all sides. Secretive and limited to a small group at first, the meetings have widened to include some former ETA members and are now being tested in more open forums in Basque towns.

Sharing her personal experience helped Galdeano understand how “human suffering takes no sides, nations or flags.” Through the meetings, the 52-year-old also acknowledged what she considers to be her share of responsibility. “We all stopped greeting each other in the streets,” she said. “But we are now slowly turning things around.”

Both Garcia and Buesa have also taken part in meetings and shared the testimony of their respective fathers’ assassinations in schoolrooms. In Buesa’s words, victims and relatives “have a responsibility to pass on our experience of turning pain into life lessons.”

Garcia even visited repentant ETA members in prison, a challenging experience that helped him to understand how militants trained themselves not to see the human beings that their victims were.

“Reconciliation is something that needs to be built from bottom to top,” said the marketing professor, who warns against turning ETA’s page in the history books too quickly.

“Now,” he said, “comes the hardest part.”

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