Mixing Terrorism and Tourism

In this Q & A, Josh Hammer, author of “Peace at Last?,” discusses the change from war reporting to travel reporting

What's it like to shift between war reporting in places like Afghanistan and more travel-oriented stories like this one?
It's great! When I was at Newsweek for many years I was doing mostly conflict and combat reporting, and so this kind of story is a great contrast. I've got a couple of kids now and I'm really trying to scale down that danger zone stuff. The good thing about Basque country was that it did have that element of terrorism and conflict, but it was all in the past for the most part. That meant there was a good back story to be told.

How can you mix terrorism and tourism in the same story?
I tried to weave the two together because that's what the Basque Country is about: a very compelling mix of the best of Europe with this underlay of terrorism and a very violent past. Also comparatively speaking, there've been several hundred deaths in the course of 40 years of ETA activity, so it's not like Israel or Iraq. But it is Western Europe, and the fact that you have had ongoing terror in this beautiful, civilized part of the world was fascinating to me. I have to say that what appealed to me most was the journey we took to Ordizia, because it felt like this was really the heart of Basque Country, a place that a lot of tourists don't get to see. And even though it had turned a corner, you still felt this atmosphere of violence very vividly.

Why has Basque culture remained so distinct?
Parts of Basque Country are very Spanish—San Sebastián, for example—but you get to a place like Ordizia, and the mountains give it a kind of isolation that the rest of Western Europe doesn't have. San Sebastián is a very international city, with lots of tourists, fancy restaurants and lots of Spaniards coming on vacation. Ordizia is just a hundred percent Basque, rural, with fierce Basque identification, and it's an ETA stronghold. To me that was one of the most interesting things about being there— it's a very small area, but you go from one corner to another in half an hour and you're in a different world.

Franco died more than 30 years ago, and the Basques are no longer oppressed. Why is cultural and political independence still so important to them?
Well, I was going to say that the pro-independence types tend to be in these remote communities—not that Ordezia is that remote, but the mentality is remote. But that's not really true, because I did meet these very cultured, fluent English-speaking teachers at the university at San Sebastian who said that they were really pro-independent. My sense is, and I'm not an expert, that you're talking about several hundred years of oppression, so they can't just get over it. The Basque independence movement has its roots at the beginning of the 20th century, and then you had events like Guernica, and Franco was in power for 40 years. While that was a very different era, that period cemented Basque identity to a great extent. Among a lot of people now, and I think it's a significant minority, there's a great distrust of Spain. There's just this quality of Basqueness, and some people feel that any connection to Spain dilutes that somehow, compromises them. I don't think that the majority feels that way—it's sort of an unreasonable view, but definitely held by some.

This is a time when Europe is unifying without the countries losing their individual identities—isn't the whole separatist idea becoming irrelevant?
I definitely think so. The journalist who I quote a couple of times points out that all the things that independence is supposed to give you, like an army, your own currency, borders—all that stuff is completely irrelevant in Europe, so what's the point? And I think that that's a common point of view. On the other hand, as I point out in the story, when I wandered the streets of San Sebastian no one was watching the World Cup—there's very little identification with Spain. So it's a strange phenomenon.

Do you see parallels with other ethnic independence movements—for example, the Kurds?
I suppose, but the Kurd thing crosses borders. There are Basque provinces in France, but there's virtually no Basque independence movement in France, it's all in Spain. The Spanish Basques would like to create this independent Basque nation with the French provinces, but my impression is that the Basques in France aren't pushing for the same thing. There's some sympathy with the Spanish Basques, but that sympathy doesn't extend to a yearning for unification. I think the Kurd thing is just much stronger. The Kurds have been oppressed recently, it's like the equivalent of Basque country in 1946 in the Franco years. In Kurdistan they've been living with military attacks and poison gas and all the horrible stuff—it's like Guernica. That was 70 years ago for the Spanish Basques, and Spain is just a completely different country now.

What was the most surprising thing you learned there?
I guess I was surprised by the intensity of feelings of some of the people in the provinces—the feeling of being in a time warp. Hearing these big guys tell me they were still in favor of violence and that they certainly did not rule it out. I knew that sentiment existed, but it was an odd thing to hear.

Was there a most memorable moment?
Aitor Aguirre, a former jai alai player, took me to this incredibly seedy stadium filled with people who looked like they'd been sitting in the same tobacco-stained chairs for 60 years. At three o'clock on a weekday afternoon, these guys were wagering hundreds of dollars on jai alai. It was just weird.

Josh Hammer spoke with Amy Crawford by telephone from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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