Tag Archives: Guardia Civil

War and Peace in the Basque Country

Thirty Basque men, women, children and seniors stand in the rain silently, forming a long human chain in front of the Kursaal Building in San Sebastian. The modern, stylish building stands triumphantly over the beach and the old town, a physical symbol of the Basque people’s opening their doors to the world and a peaceful future. The demonstrators at their door hold pictures of a convicted member of the militant Basque separatist group, ETA, and their message is much less ambassadorial, more personal, poignant, and polemical.

My friends and I pass their long line, reading the signs they hold solemnly to a passing crowd of mixed sympathies and bewildered tourists. I look at the images of prisoners, unintelligible Basque phrases, their red, green and white flag, and the map of the un-official borders of Euskadi, with the label Euskal Presoak etxera, a phrase I now understand to mean, Basque prisoners come home.

Such protests are a common sight in the Basque Country, though when I first arrived here I was unaware of their significance. I made my first trip to San Sebastian while working as an English teacher in a small village in rural, conservative Old Castile, deep in the Spanish heartland. From the languid villages of the meseta, it was difficult to imagine that people in the north were fighting for their independence. I researched the conflict online, discovering a complicated and bloody battle going back centuries in time. Before I left for San Sebastian, the philosophy teacher took me out for a beer and attempted to fill me in on the situation.

He pulled out a napkin and drew the map of the Basque Country, the three French provinces and four Spanish provinces that made up “Euskal Herria,” the unrecognized “Land of the Basque Speakers” straddling the Pyrenees. He then drew the arrows pointing inwards from Spain and France, forming the flag I now saw the protesters holding in the rain. He did not write or explain Presoak etxera.

“If you see this flag, be careful.” he had warned me. “This flag means it’s bearer supports terrorists. It means they support ETA and the attacks they’ve made against Spain – from bombing innocent civilians to assassinating politicians. Avoid any bar that flies the flag in it’s window, and whatever you do, don’t talk politics with anyone.”

I nodded, folded up the napkin and put it in my jacket pocket. I suspected he’d provided me a facile explanation that lacked the profundity of thought expected from a philosophy teacher. I decided to reserve my judgement until I saw the situation for myself.

I saw the flag everywhere in the Basque Country. It hung from windows of homes, from balconies of the old town, from behind the bars of taverns from Bilbao to Biarritz. It was so ubiquitous, I couldn’t believe that everyone who held it was as evil as my co-worker made them out to be. I tried to avoid talking politics as long as I could. But after a few beers at a local tavern where the flag was printed on the napkins, curiosity got the best of me.

“This flag is calling for justice,” said the bartender, leaning over the counter. “When the Spanish arrest a member of ETA, they do horrible things to our people. They torture them, they murder them, and they put the rest in prisons in the most distant corners of Spain, as far away as the Canary Islands [off the coast of West Africa]. We can’t afford to visit our friends and relatives, many of whom we believe are being unjustly held. These arrows mean we want the prisoners to come back here to the Basque Country. To Euskal Herria.”

He looked me gravely in the eyes, pushed off the bar and went back to drying pint glasses behind the bar and talking to the other patrons in Basque. I left my inquiry at that, knowing that the issue was far more complex that I could fathom at that time. I felt the weight of centuries of mutual mistrust and anger pressing down on the shoulders of both this bartender and the philosophy teacher back in Castile.

***

I was unwittingly pushed into the middle of the conflict soon thereafter. Two weeks after returning to small town Spain, the local Guardia Civil detained me and interrogated me on suspicion of being a member of ETA hatching a plot on their local police station (see post here). They had seen me writing notes in my notepad and had followed me for two weeks, during which time I went to the Basque Country. I supposed they had planned to make headlines by thwarting my operation, only to realize I was merely the town’s English teacher.   They released me apologetically, saying “We can’t be too sure these days, you know…with ETA and all.”

Months later, I moved to the Basque Country and took a picture of one of these independence rallies. A local grabbed me hand and stopped me. “Put away the camera,” she said, “People here are going to think you are a spy for the Guardia Civil.” I told her about the misunderstanding with the Guardia Civil back in Castilla. She scrunched her face into a scowl and said, “Fascists. Ignorant fascists, the whole lot of them.”

Though I laughed nervously about the irony of the incidents at the time, they revealed a deep misunderstanding and paranoia on both sides of the conflict. During my first year in San Sebastian, I avoided the subject of ETA, learning to celebrate the uniqueness of the Basque region without focusing on the more radical elements of the independence movement.

I fell in love with the Basque Country. There I discovered a nation without a country, a people with a long history largely unknown to the world, and a culture that drew me in and mesmerized me. I realized that if so many cultural treasures lie hidden within well-trodden Western Europe, the world beyond the West must hold enough diverse cultures to fill a lifetime of discovery.

Old Basque Dude
Photo by Daniel Burgui Iguzkiza

And so now, when I see the demonstrators standing in the rain, holding up pictures of convicted terrorists, I understand that the faces in these photos are their sons, sisters, cousins and friends. The conflict is personal for everyone involved.  There are bloody hands and innocent lives lost on both sides of the battle. Many heated conversations have made me realize that the longest continuous conflict in Europe can not be solved by me alone.

Then I think back to the philosophy teacher who told me not to talk to the bartender. I think about the Guardia Civil and the activist, and the chasms that separate their perspectives. Then I realize that these divisions and misunderstandings are preserved by silence.  And so I keep talking and writing, because it is only through communication that we can hope to forge the mutual understanding we need to build peace.

How I Was Mistaken for a Terrorist (Arévalo)

“It’s that damn beard of yours, Marko,” reasoned my mom over the phone, “That’s exactly why you were supsected of being a terrorist.  I mean, what do you expect? Walking around with a backpack and a guitar case like a dirty hippy…you just stick out like a sore thumb.  It’s time you cleaned up before you get any more problems.”

I couldn’t argue with her.  I do stick out a bit in Arévalo.  Despite my best efforts to fit in – wearing more European clothes and hanging out in cafeterías reading El País, sipping café con leche and eating tortilla – I obviously hadn’t quite blended in yet.

I thought about how I must appear to the locals.  In one word: peculiar.  Dashing here and there with my notepad in hand, jotting down thoughts and ideas for articles.  Speaking in a foreign tongue. Saying “Hola” to complete strangers on the street (God forbid).  Typing away furiously on my laptop in smoky cafeterias (the closest thing Spain has to coffee-shop in the American-sense).  All the men smoking cigarettes and taking the daily 2 PM shot of aguardiente before retiring for lunch and their siesta.

Meanwhile, this strange bearded man with the only laptop in Arévalo is asking for a coffee and something called “WiFi.”  The bartender is confused.  I resort to pantomime and tweak my pronunciation to mimic that of the Spaniards – eeennnteerrnet.

“Ahhhh!” he proclaims, “WeeeeeFeeee.”  I nod my head.  He shakes his.  “No, we don’t have it.”

How the hell am I supposed to write travel articles for a foreign magazine from a town where the Internet is regarded with a skepticism not seen since the Luddites?

Unfortunately, the Internet in my apartment doesn’t cut it.  When I first arrived in Arévalo, I unknowingly broke a few social mores by walking around my apartment complex asking my neighbors if they would want to split WiFi.  There were a few signals in the building, I explained, and since my roommates somehow didn’t need the Internet, I’d love to split it with someone.  Instead of the passwords to their networks, all I received was a half-dozen perplexed looks from my neighbors.  Unwilling to pay for an entire line for myself, I bought a 3G USB card.

Little did I realize that the Internet in Spain works fewer hours per week than the average Spaniard.  My expectations were still at American levels: 24/7/365 Customer-Is-King-Blistering-Fast-Internet.  Instead I was stuck with 3G – chances are it’s faster to load this page on your iPhone than on my computer.

But I am digressing.  This rant about the Internet has distracted us from the topic at hand – how my peculiar behavior in Arévalo made me a suspected terrorist in the eyes of our local police force.

“Local police force” is not an accurate description.  I was fingered by the Guardia Civil, Spain’s equivalent of sheriffs for the rural parts of Spain.  They were originally formed by Queen Isabella II to dismantle any revolutionary sentiment amongst the rural peasantry – especially in the Basque Country.  The Guardia Civil have been a constant irritant between the Basques and the Spaniards ever since.  The Basque struggle for independence from the Spanish goes back centuries, but unfortunately it is now best known for its radical extremists, the terrorist group ETA.  ETA has made several recent bombing attacks within Spain and France, including a car bombing in Madrid’s international airport.

I first met our local Guardia Civil officers last week under rather unusual circumstances.  I was walking to Arévalo’s train station with my backpack and my guitar.  Nothing out of the ordinary – just my routine escape from the unbearable stagnation of Arévalo.  I was going to hang with some friends in nearby Avila, and I was hustling to catch the last train of the night.

A Guardia Civil truck passed me slowly.  Two officers were eyeing me as I crossed the bridge that separates Arévalo from our lonely hilltop train station.  I’d become accustomed to getting strange looks from my neighbors, so I thought nothing of it.  Then, de repente, the car flipped a u-turn and blocked my path 100 meters ahead.  Two officers came out, stood aside their truck, and waited.

They approached me as I neared their blockade.  They greeted me politely, asked for my registration papers, and motioned me to follow them to their truck.  Confused as I was, I handed them my Spanish identification card and followed their instructions.

One officer got on the horn and began radioing my information to headquarters.  The other pulled out a notepad and started asking me questions.

Who are you?  Where are you from and what are you doing in Arévalo?  How long have you been here?  Why haven’t we seen you before? 

I didn’t know where to start.  Who am I?  Well, after an extended stint of traveling and soul searching, I still can’t say I’ve got that one down.  But who does?  So for now, just write down “English teacher.”

What am I doing in Arévalo?  I ask myself that question every night.  Why, lord, why?  Is it a cosmic joke for a globe-trotter to be stuck in the least cosmopolitan town in Spain?  Fate?  Why have you placed me in this small town, so close to the action in Madrid and yet so far away from where I want to be?

The first officer got off the radio and asked if he could look through my bag.  I agreed, and I continued answering questions as they inspected all the pockets in my backpack.

How long have I been here?  I had to think for a moment.  I felt like Tom Cruise in the final scenes of Castaway. I’d have to go back to my cave and count the marks I’ve tallied on the walls.  Half a year?  Maybe more?  My mind floated off, amazed at how much time I’d spent in this town.

Why haven’t you seen me before?  Maybe because I bounce out of this place every chance I get?

Then, all of a sudden, a third man popped out of the shadows.  He was dressed in all black and wearing a ski mask.  I could only see his squinty eyes and his frowning brow.  He got in my face and started his own interrogation.  He right to the chase:

Where were you two weeks ago on Monday morning, at nine fifty in the morning? 

I had to think.  I told him I was probably teaching.

No!  You were standing in front of the Guardia Civil station taking notes on our activities from across the street! 

WTF?!?!?  What could they be talking about?  Then it clicked – they were right.  I had been in front of their station taking notes – because their station is directly across from Arévalo’s only Internet café and I had been waiting for it to open so I could use their Internet to research an article I was writing for OffTrackPlanet.  I had been brainstorming as I waited and writing down my thoughts for the article.  I told them all this and I explained that I wrote for a travel magazine.

The three of them looked at each other confusedly.  A travel writer?  Here in Arévalo?  They asked to see my notebook, and I handed it to them. They skimmed through it and stared blankly at the pages of English-language notes.   One of them scratched his head.

They looked to each other, then to me.  You’re free to go.  I asked them why they had stopped me, and they told me they had thought my suspicious behavior meant I was some sort of terrorist, planning an attack on their police station.  We can’t be too careful these days, they said, with ETA and all.

Jesus.  Me, a terrorist?  As they hopped in their car and drove off into the night, the implications of what had happened set in.  The man in the ski-mask lingered in my thoughts.  They had been following me, and when they saw I was about to leave town they popped me.  How long had they been trailing me?  How had I not noticed them?

It seemed to me that it was my peculiar behavior that caused them to notice me.  The individual in conflict with small-town Spanish society.  As my mom said, maybe I should try to blend into the crowd better.  But is conformity the best answer to avoiding problems with the government?

The terrorist problem that faces Spain is similar to that which faces western society as a whole.  The difference in Spain is that the terrorists, a handful of radical Basques, look ethnically quite similar to the Spanish.  This can trigger a paranoid fear that anyone in the crowd could be a threat to society.

After being fingered as a terrorist, I started questioning whether this approach was the best way to combat violent extremism.  Is the problem the man taking notes across the street from the police station?  Not quite.  Individual attacks are the symptoms of deeper problems, ones that these extremists feel can not be changed within the system.  Terrorism is the desperate resort of those who are unwilling to engage in the political process.  It is the responsibility of governments to engage with all members of society and to bring even the most extreme citizens of the world to the table.

I am no expert on the conflict between the Basques and the Spanish.  I know there have been wrongs on both side of the long history.  But I want to learn more about this conflict, and I hope that my neutral position as a foreigner can allow me to hear both sides equally.

As I mentioned in my last post, I am planning on moving to the Basque Country next year.  Tomorrow I leave for the Basque Country to spend 10 days traveling throughout both the Spanish and French sides of the Basque Country.

I am currently reading a fascinating book, The Basque History of the World, by Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this oft-forgotten corner of Europe.

As the Guardia Civil found out, I am not a terrorist, though my friends in Arevalo jokingly call me el etarra (the ETA terrorist).  I have not abandoned hope in resolving the all the world’s problems peacefully.  Travel has shown me that none of the cultures around the world are too different to co-exist in peace.  Hopefully we will all realize this soon enough, and one day all eccentric, bearded travel writers can take notes in front of police stations in peace.  ; )

Pax Vobiscum, I’m off to the Basque Country – on a mission of peace!