The first blast reverberated through the old quarter of San Sebastián at one o'clock in the afternoon. It rattled the windows of the ornate buildings around the 18th-century Santa Maria del Coro church and sent a flock of pigeons into the sky. We were standing in a cobblestone plaza outside one of the town's most famous pintxos—tapas—bars, La Cuchara de San Telmo, eating braised rabbit and sipping red Rioja wine when we heard it. A minute later came a second explosion, and then a third. "Let's go see what's happening," said my companion, Gabriella Ranelli de Aguirre, an American tour operator married to a San Sebastián native, who has been living there for nearly 20 years.
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I didn't know what to think. This was Basque Country, after all, the homeland of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or ETA (Basque for "Basque Homeland and Freedom"), which has been waging a violent campaign for independence from Spain for nearly four decades. True, the group, which has killed some 800 people and maimed hundreds more, had not carried out a bombing or shooting for three years, and momentum appeared to be building toward a lasting peace.
This past March, in a communiqué that stunned Spain and the world, the group had even declared a "permanent cease-fire" and said it was committed to promoting "a democratic process." Batasuna, ETA's political arm—which had been banned by the Spanish supreme court in 2003—has engaged in quiet talks with the Basque Nationalist Party and other Basque political parties about establishing a road map to a permanent peace. And, in another sign of changing times, Gerry Adams, the head of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, and Gerry Kelly, a convicted bomber turned Sinn Fein deputy, traveled to the Basque Country last spring to give Batasuna advice on peace negotiations. The Sinn Fein leaders, who once gave ETA counsel on bomb-making technology, have also been lobbying the Spanish government to drop charges against top Basque separatists, legalize Batasuna and move 700 ETA prisoners held in Spanish and French jails closer to their families. "We are approaching the beginning of the end of ETA," Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero declared in February 2006.
But as Ranelli and I raced toward the harbor, I had to wonder if the group had returned to its old tactics. Then I saw the cause of the commotion: a white-haired man wearing a blue Napoleonic military uniform with epaulets and brandishing a musket was firing into the air. He belonged, he explained, to Olla Gora, one of San Sebastián's dozens of "eating societies," male-only clubs dedicated to the pursuit of socializing and gastronomic indulgence. "It's our [society's] centennial," he said, and its members were reenacting the Napoleonic battles that raged here in the 19th century. As Ranelli and I made our way back down through the quaint alleys of the old quarter—rebuilt after 1813, when British and Portuguese troops burned down almost all of it—she said my reaction was all too common. "San Sebastián is a wonderful town," she went on, "but the violence has eclipsed everything else. A lot of my friends have had the impression that this is a scary place—another Beirut."
Comparisons to Lebanon may be exaggerated. But this rugged region in the shadow of the Pyrenees has long been an anomaly—an enclave marked by an ancient language, a tradition of fine food and wine, and a political culture soaked in blood. Feeding on Basque pride and decades of repression by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, ETA's campaign of terror turned elegant cities such as San Sebastián and Bilbao into caldrons of fear and violence. At the height of its violent campaign for independence, in 1980, the separatists murdered 91 people, and countless business enterprises have fallen victim to ETA extortion over the past four decades. "Everybody in Basque Country has a cousin or an uncle who has either been a victim or a member of the group," one Basque journalist told me.
Now ETA is widely regarded as an anachronism, a holdover from the days when radical groups such as Italy's Red Brigades and West Germany's Baader-Meinhof gang were recruiting European youth with their Marxist-Leninist rhetoric and desperado chic. In 1997, the United States government designated ETA a foreign terrorist organization. Since then, a number of developments—the Basque Country's growing prosperity; a post 9/11 crackdown on terrorist groups; widespread revulsion at violent tactics in the aftermath of Al Qaeda's 2004 Madrid train bombing (for which ETA was initially blamed); arrests of ETA fugitives in both Spain and France; and a waning enthusiasm for ETA's aim of independence—have drained the movement of much of its vigor.
The peace process, however, is still fragile. In recent years, ETA has declared other cease-fires, all of which collapsed. The main Spanish opposition party, led by former prime minister José María Aznar, has urged the government not to negotiate. The peace initiative is being challenged by victims of ETA terror, and any deal is likely to leave unresolved the still contentious issue of Basque independence. Zapatero, in June 2006, warned that the process would be "long, tough and difficult," saying that the government would proceed with "prudence and discretion."
Then, a series of setbacks jolted the Spanish government and raised fears of a return to violence. First, in August, ETA publicly criticized the Spanish and French governments for "continuous attacks" against the Basques, apparently referring to the arrests and trials of ETA members that have gone on in spite of the cease-fire. Three hooded ETA members read a communiqué at a pro-independence rally in late September, confirming the group's "commitment to continue fighting, arms in hand, until independence and socialism is achieved in Euskal Herria [Basque Country]." A week later, a hiker in the woods in French Basque Country, near the Spanish border, stumbled across hidden weapons—including guns and chemicals for bomb-making—sealed in plastic bins, evidently intended for ETA. Later in October, some 350 guns disappeared from a gun store in Nîmes, France; it was suspected that ETA had engineered the theft. It was perhaps the starkest indication yet that the group could be preparing for the collapse of negotiations, and the resumption of attacks.
But despite all the obstacles, the mood is upbeat. Traveling around Basque Country, from the avenues of San Sebastián to mountain villages deep in the Basque heartland, I encountered a sense of optimism—a belief that the Basques have a real chance of a lasting peace for the first time in decades. "I still remember the day I heard the news [about the cease-fire]. It gave me goose pimples," says Alejandra Iturrioz, mayor of Ordizia, a mountain town where a dozen citizens have been killed by the group since 1968.
In Bilbao, Basque Country's biggest city and an emerging cultural capital (home to architect Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum), the change is already being felt. "More people came this summer than ever before," says Ana López de Munain, the communications director for the striking titanium-and-glass creation. "The mood has become more relaxed. We just hope it stays that way."