Out of the dark: Five years on from Eta ceasefire

Five years after armed separatist group Eta declared a permanent ceasefire, Basque journalist Alberto Letona is still wondering when the dialogue will begin.

Out of the dark: Five years on from Eta ceasefire
Eta members made a ceasefire declaration in January, 2011. Photo: Gara / AFP

Five years ago today, the armed group Eta declared a permanent ceasefire. Three masked militants made a statement on video that the band was giving up violence. They urged  Mr. Zapatero’s Spanish government to start a political dialogue. Many Basques and Spaniards felt relieved and thought that the  time for politics have finally arrived.  Without  the threat of terrorism everything would be easier, or that was at least what we were led to think.

It is difficult to express in words how happy I was with the announcement. The burden of violence had engulfed not only my own community, but the whole of Spain for five long decades.  It was like coming out of a dark and suffocating tunnel.

I had no experience of my country without demonstrations, tortures, detentions, killings and bombs. I was only fifteen when thousands of people in the Basque Country poured out to streets to protest against the trial of sixteen Basque Eta activists. 

I still remember the bloody face of an elderly woman battered by the police in Bilbao. I have never forgotten it.  Spain was under Franco’s dictatorship and the regime’s brutality was unquestionable. At that time you could be punished or even go to prison for speaking in Basque.  Any sign of national identity was tantamount to separatism.

By the time I entered university Eta was popular amongst the students. We believed in a “new” world, and the experiences of Algeria, Cuba, and even Vietnam had caused a great impact on us.  Socialism and the independence of the Basque Country seemed then like a very achievable goal. How naive and wrong we were.

Franco died in bed. Many of his former comrades were swift to adapt to a fledgling democracy, some of them without sincere convictions. Democracy progressed, sometimes with great difficulties, and formal liberties  were restored.

Eta went on as if nothing had changed. The killings, mainly police and security members,  were more and more frequent and the action-repression mechanism  was soon in full flow.  In 1980 alone, the most tragic year, 93 people were killed by the group,  more than double the number of the (Eta) victims during the Franco’s years.  At home, my mother, a Basque refugee from the Spanish civil war, sentenced: “Violence won’t work. Sooner or later people will turn their backs on them.” 

In its mad blindness Eta lost a large part of the support they had enjoyed in the precedent years of Francoism, not only in the Basque region, but  also in Spain.

They never regained this support, not even when years later  (1983- 1987) twenty-six people, many of them members of Eta were killed in the south of France by an obscure organization called GAL funded with money from the Ministry of Security. The minister and a high rank politician ended up in prison, but with lenient sentences.

For many years the Basque independentists of Herri Batasuna ( a coalition that had to change its name multiple times in the past) was seen as a close ally to Eta.  It was banned in 2003 and its leaders arrested.

Basque separatist leader, Arnaldo Otegi in San Sebastian. Photo: AFP

With growing dissatisfection within its ranks, more than five hundred prisoners scattered in Spanish and French prisons, and very poor political achievements, the independentists opted for the obvious but most difficult task ; convince Eta to give up violence and follow the path of politics.  Arnaldo Otegi, the veteran leader of Bildu and former member of Eta, managed to persuade his old comrades.

Eta has not  yet handed over their arms, but here in the Basque Country we are convinced that they will not use them again. Five decades of hate, pain and suffering  has been enough.

In the regional elections of last September, Bildu, the pro- independence coalition, was the second most voted for political force. The most centralists options (Popular Party and Socialist Party) were relegated to the lowest ranks.

“While violence exists, we will not engage in political dialogue” used to be the line from successive Spanish governments.  Now, that the guns and bombs have been silent for five years, many Basques wonder where the dialogue is, and if “terrorism” was just a perfect excuse to hide a political problem that Madrid chooses to ignore.

Alberto Letona is a Basque journalist living in Bilbao. He is the author of Hijos e Hijas de la Gran Bretaña – Sons and Daughters of Great Britain – in which he delves into the psyche of the British in an attempt to explain them to his own countrymen. 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


How a remarkable novel is helping Spain come to terms with the Basque Country’s violent past

While politicians remain at loggerheads, the arts bring resolution to the Basque Country's long history of violence, writes Caroline Gray.

How a remarkable novel is helping Spain come to terms with the Basque Country’s violent past

Western Europe’s last remaining home-grown terrorist organisation finally ceased operations in 2011 when Basque separatist group ETA declared a permanent ceasefire. And yet the decades of violence continue to cast a long shadow over Basque society and political life. As politicians on both sides remain as antagonistic as ever, novelists and other writers are taking on the challenge of tackling the subject with far more eloquence and nuance, telling stories that could provide a much-needed form of remembrance, catharsis and understanding.

Fernando Aramburu’s novel Patria (“Fatherland”) is a stellar example – and sets the bar high for others to follow. First published in Spanish in September 2016, it has reached a wider audience than novels on the subject written in Basque, and it has topped the bestseller lists – not only in the Basque region, but also in Spain every month so far this year. This is the novel that Spaniards are reading on the metro or bus on their way to work and packing in their suitcases to take on holiday. Translations into several other languages are now underway, including an English edition set for publication in 2019, the author told me.


In the past decade, Spain has been coming to terms with its 20th-century history of civil war and dictatorship, ever since the historical memory law of 2007 put an end to the unwritten agreement known as the “pact of forgetting” that had facilitated the transition to democracy.

Now, Aramburu has recognised that in the wake of ETA’s permanent ceasefire, there is another story that needs to be told and remembered in a sensitive and reconciliatory fashion. This cannot be achieved by politicians fighting over how best to facilitate ETA’s disbandment and address the legacy it leaves. It must be writers and other cultural practitioners who do that.

A history of violence

Originally founded in 1959 in opposition to Spanish dictator Franco’s suppression of regional identities, ETA persisted with its campaign of violence well into the 21st century, long after Spain’s transition to democracy. The separatist group has not killed since 2010, but its disarmament was protracted until April this year and its full disbandment remains pending. Moreover, politicians and society remain divided over controversial issues such as the treatment of ETA prisoners, who under Spanish law have their rights reduced and are subject to policies such as dispersion.

For too long, the Basque “conflict” was primarily portrayed, in a misleadingly simplistic fashion, as pitting Spain (or “the Spanish state”, as Basque nationalists put it) against the Basques. ETA itself, and the wider social and political movement linked to it, was responsible for propounding this vision to justify its existence. But sectors of the Spanish right then compounded the error by associating all Basque nationalism with ETA for their own political motives. In reality, however, one of the biggest tragedies caused by ETA is that it also pitted Basques against Basques.

Patria eloquently draws attention to this through its depiction of the impact on a typical small Basque village (which could be any one of many), focusing in particular on two once closely knit families that are torn apart when the father of one family ends up an ETA target while the eldest son of the other joins the terrorists. It is not only the relationship between the two families that suffers, but relations among parents and siblings within each individual family, too.

Aramburu is sensitive and sympathetic towards ETA’s victims and their families, and he conveys their suffering with tremendous poignancy. His real achievement, however, is to do so without descending into facile moralising or politicising. He shows the full complexity of the tragedy by seeing things from different perspectives.

This includes reflecting the way in which many naïve young Basques, brought up in pro-ETA towns and villages and subject to intense peer pressure, ended up buying into ETA’s ideology and somewhat unthinkingly obeying its orders.

Terrorism is unacceptable in any circumstances, but Spain’s way of dealing with it has not always been appropriate either – and Aramburu does not shy away from depicting the torture used on ETA prisoners or the violence wrought by the GAL, Spain’s covert paramilitary death squads back in the 1980s.

Family tragedies

This is first and foremost a novel of excellent literary quality that the reader is compelled to keep reading to find out what happens to the two families and whether there is any hope of reconciliation after ETA’s reign of devastation. The novel starts with ETA’s ceasefire and then darts back and forth to different periods of time in each chapter, telling snippets of the story in a non-chronological and non-linear fashion, keeping the reader waiting until the very end to get the complete picture.

Aramburu never intended for the novel to be political or didactic, but precisely for that reason, the end result can actually serve a much better purpose than most intentionally didactic novels. Propagandistic Basque novels portraying ETA terrorists as heroes or martyrs have tended to be intensely bad literature. But a brilliantly written novel such as Patria provokes the reader to think and reflect without him or her necessarily realising it.

For Basque citizens, the novel provides a sensitive portrayal of their community and its recent history. Perhaps even more significant, however, is the way in which the novel can contribute to an understanding in wider Spanish society of the complex social situation in the Basque Country prior to, and in the wake of, ETA’s ceasefire – something which is often quite misunderstood, due in part to Spanish politicians’ simplification of issues for electoral purposes. Once translations of the novel start to appear they will promote understanding even beyond Spain’s borders, while also providing a compelling read.

Through its popularity, Patria has far surpassed the author’s own expectations. Aramburu himself has aptly described this work as escaping his creative control as it becomes a social phenomenon with a life of its own.

Spain may have been rather late in confronting the ghosts of the civil war and Franco period after years of attempting to brush them under the carpet, but lessons have been learned. Patria provides a healthy dose of understanding and remembrance about the Basque Country’s violent past by a writer who is well aware of the need to talk of the past sensitively, all the more so when politicians remain at loggerheads.

Patria has been translated into English under the title Homeland and is available on HERE

By Caroline Gray, Lecturer in Politics and Spanish, Aston University

This article was first published in The Conversation. Read the original.