Peace at Last?

Home to glittering beaches, robust wines, piquant foods and Bilbao’s sparkling new Guggenheim Museum, the Basque Country of northern Spain has been riven by separatist violence for decades. Though political tensions linger, terrorists agreed to a cease-fire this past March. Will it mean peace at last?

In San Sebastián (where condos dot the beach), a real-estate boom reflects a region betting on long-term stability. (Christopher Anderson)
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Later I walked through the town center to a flagstone plaza, where a single rose painted on a tile marked Ordizia's most notorious killing: that of María Dolores González Catarain, known as Yoyes. An attractive, charismatic woman who joined ETA as a teenager, Yoyes tired of life in the group and, with her young son, fled into exile in Mexico. After several years she grew homesick and, reaching out to ETA's leaders, received assurances she would not be harmed if she came back. In 1986 she moved to San Sebastián and wrote a critical memoir about her life as a terrorist. That September, she returned to Ordizia for the first time since her exile to attend a fiesta and, in a crowded plaza, was shot dead in front of her son. David Bumstead, an English teacher who ran a language school in the town, later observed the scene. "I remember seeing her body, covered in a sheet, lying on the cobblestones," he says, recalling that "sadness enveloped the town."

Though Yoyes' murder caused widespread revulsion in Ordizia, enthusiasm for Basque independence has never flagged here. In 1991, Batasuna received 30 percent of the votes in municipal elections and came close to naming the town's mayor. (A coalition of other political parties formed a majority and blocked the appointment.) In a dank, smoke-filled bar beside the town's marketplace I met the man who nearly won the post, Ramon Amundarain, a grizzled former Batasuna politician. He told me that 35 percent of the highland population favored independence. "I didn't even speak Spanish until I was 10," he said. "I don't feel Spanish at all." He pulled an Euskal Herria ID card out of his wallet. "I carry it in protest," he told me. "I could be arrested for it." When I asked whether he believed violence was an acceptable way of achieving his goal, he answered, cautiously, "We did not reject it."

The next day I drove farther south into the province of Alava, part of the Rioja wine-producing region. Alava is considered the least Basque, and most Spanish, of the Basque Country's three provinces. Here, the weather cleared, and I found myself in an arid, sun-splashed valley framed by gray basalt mountains. Jagged mesas loomed over groves of cypress trees and a rolling sea of vineyards, and medieval walled villages climbed hillsides; the landscape, the climate, all seemed classically Spanish.

The 12th-century village of Laguardia was having one of its summer fiestas, this one celebrating San Juan, the town's patron saint. Then I heard a distant clattering of hoofs, and I leapt into a doorway just as half a dozen bulls roared down the main street. I had stumbled into one of the hundreds of "running of the bulls" festivals that take place every summer across Spain—this one, unlike Pamplona's a few dozen miles to the northeast, relatively unspoiled by tourists.

Later that morning, I made my way to Bodega El Fabulista, a wine cellar owned by Eusebio Santamaría, a third-generation winemaker. Santamaría has chosen to keep his operation small—he produces 40,000 bottles a year, entirely for local distribution—and he makes most of his money from the private tours of his cellar he conducts for tourists. Since the ETA cease-fire, he told me, the number of visitors had grown significantly. "The atmosphere across the Basque Country has changed," he said. I asked him whether people felt their Basqueness strongly here, and he laughed. "It's a mixture of identities here, Rioja, Alava and Navarra," he said. "I say I belong to all of them. Wine does not understand or care about politics."

But people do, and everywhere I traveled in Basque Country, debates over Basque identity and independence still raged. In Vitoria-Gasteiz, a modern city on the arid plains of Alava Province and the Basque capital, María San Gil vented her contempt for the cease-fire declaration. San Gil, 41, a gaunt, intense woman, saw the separatists' brutality firsthand in 1995, when an ETA gunman walked into a bar in San Sebastián and shot to death her colleague Gregorio Ordoñez, a popular, conservative Basque politician. Soon after that, she entered politics as a candidate for San Sebastián's city council, and is now president of the Populist Party in the Basque Country. San Gil has likened Batasuna's leader, Arnaldo Otegi, to Osama bin Laden and, despite ETA's truce, remains adamantly opposed to any negotiations. "These people are fanatics, and one cannot legitimize them at the political table," San Gil told me. She dismissed comparisons between ETA and the IRA, whose cease-fire call in 1997 was embraced by the British government. "Ours is not a war between two legitimate adversaries. It's a war between terrorists and democrats, so why do we have to sit down with them? It's like sitting down with Al Qaeda. We have to vanquish them."

Others, however, see such intransigence as self-defeating. Gorka Landaburu, the son of a leading Basque politician who fled into exile in France in 1939, also knows the extremists' brutality firsthand. Landaburu, 55, grew up in Paris and moved to San Sebastián in his 20s. There he began writing for French and Spanish newspapers and became a leading voice of ETA opposition. "My parents were Basque nationalists, but I've never been," he told me as we sat in a café in front of San Sebastián's Hotel Londres, a whitewashed, early-20th-century landmark with filigreed iron balconies and French windows, overlooking the seafront promenade. "We have our own taxation, our own laws, our own government. What do we need independence for? Money? We have the euro. Frontiers? The borders are open. Army? It's unnecessary."

Landaburu's critiques made him an enemy of the separatists. "I got my first warning in 1986—an anonymous letter, with the ETA seal"—a serpent coiled around an ax—"warning me to ‘keep quiet,'" he said. "I ignored it." In the spring of 2001, a parcel bearing his newspaper's return address arrived at his home. While heading out the door to work the next morning, he opened the letter; five ounces of dynamite blew up, mangling his hands, destroying the vision in his left eye and lacerating his face. "I remember every second—the explosion, the burst of fire," he told me. He staggered out the door covered in blood; a neighbor took him to a hospital. "Every time I pick up a drink, button my shirt, I think about the attack, but I can't let it dominate me or I'd go insane," Landaburu said.

In the months after I spoke to Landaburu, increasingly belligerent pronouncements by ETA, increased incidents of street violence and the theft of the handguns in Nîmes seemed to strengthen the arguments of hard-liners such as María San Gil. But it was difficult to know whether ETA's vows to carry on the struggle were rhetorical or whether they foreshadowed another campaign of terror. Nor was it out of the question that a radical splinter group sought to sabotage the peace process—the Basque equivalent of the Real IRA, which killed 29 people in a car bombing in Omagh, Ireland, in August 1998 in reaction to the IRA's cease-fire the previous year.

Landaburu told me that he expected setbacks: the bitterness and hatred caused by decades of violence were too deeply engrained in Basque society to be overcome easily. Even so, he was willing to give peace a chance. "I'm not going to forgive, I'm not going to forget, but I'm not going to oppose the process," he told me. He took a sip of orujo blanco, a strong liquor distilled from white grapes, and gazed upon the Bay of Concha—the crescent of beach, the azure waters framed by forested cliffs, the hundreds of people strolling the promenade at sunset. "After 40 years of Franco's dictatorship, and 40 years of a dictatorship of terror, we want to live in a world without threats, without violence," Landaburu said. "I want peace for my kids, for my grandkids. And for the first time, I think we are going to get it."

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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