Tag Archives: Peace

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.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail (Near Laotian Border, Vietnam)

From Kom Tum I traveled to Nham Duc, 150 km north and within a day’s ride of the ancient trading town of Hoi An.  I had crossed more than half of the distance to civilization, but I was still deep in the jungle near the Laos border and the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

I left Kom Tum and entered a land entirely shrouded in mists. The rains of the south had transformed into a one massive misty cloud that hung across the northern section of the Central Highlands.  I revved my engine and leaned into the deep curves of the road as it traced the course of a mocha colored river through the basin of a steep valley.  Everything was dark – the sky was thick and grey, the road was black with dew and the jungle was the darkest green imaginable.  The tops of the surrounding mountains were invisible; I could barely descry the ridgelines through the clouds that flowed and rolled over the hills like a river of fog.

Hilltribe villages emerged from the mist.  Gone were the solid houses of the lowlands; they were replaced by thatched huts strewn along the red muddy banks of the river.  Communal thatched huts stood at the center of the villages, their roofs arching sharply skyward like hands steepled in prayer.

Families of hilltribe people walked along the road, some smiling at me and the others staring confusedly at the sight of a foreigner so far removed from the tourist trail.  The men walked at the head of the family and rested a 20-inch long machete across his folded arms.  He was followed by his wife, who carried their produce to the village on her back in a 3 foot-tall woven basket.  The daughters, some only eight years old, cradled the infants of the families like young mothers in training.  The eldest boys followed behind and led the family’s buffalo by ropes strung through their noses.

In the center of each village were dominated by large communist propaganda posters depicting villagers and soldiers standing united before the Vietnamese flag saluting the picture of Ho Chi Minh.  The hilltribe villages were recruited by the Americans to fight against the North Vietnamese during the war, so I assume these posters are intended to bolster their patriotism for their new leaders.

As I was driving through one village I heard a loud clank clank! and looked down to see my transmission falling apart.  I pulled the clutch lever but it went slack.  I was stuck in 3rd gear.  I needed a place to pull over and make a repair, and I saw a young hilltribe boy smiling and waving at me so I approached him slowly and smiled back.

Then he pulled out a huge wooden stick from behind his back and whaaaacked me right across the back and started throwing rocks at me!  Ahhh, that cheeky scoundrel!  I gunned my engine and whizzed out of town with rocks flying over my head and my transmission falling apart between my feet.

I attempted to hold the transmission together with my foot, but the heat of the engine started to melt my shoe.  The engine was stuck in 3rd gear so I tried to make it to the next town where I hoped to find a mechanic.

No luck.  My bike died on quite possibly the most dangerous section of road possible: a sharp turn on the steepest section of a hill, where the guardrails had been completely destroyed from an earlier collision, leaving nothing between me and a deep gorge below.  I envisioned the horrific accident that must have occurred here, just another shocking news story from SE Asia:

This just in – a fully laden bus carrying 139 passengers, 200 chickens, 4 tons of rice, and three motorbikes flew off a 500 foot cliff today in Vietnam.  Authorities attribute the cause to bad driving, complete disregard for safety guidelines, more bad driving, and the unbearably loud Vietnamese techno music playing at the time of the collision.  God rest their souls, and let us all pray that one day South East Asian bus drivers will finally read the Safety section of their owners’ manuals. 

Large tourist buses came barreling down the road, swinging around the curve just a few feet away from my bike.  There were shrines all around me with pictures of young Vietnamese who had perished on this very spot. Yikes!

I had no choice, I had to repair my bike on the spot.  After fifteen minutes of tinkering with the transmission, I somehow patched it together and took off as quickly as possible.

I continued down the road and came upon a segment of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail, the underground supply line through which the North Vietnamese Army supplied the anti-US Viet Cong resistance in South Vietnam.  In the late 1960s, this was a site of horrific fighting as the US tried to pinch off the supply line before the goods could get into neighboring Laos and then down into Cambodia and to the Viet Cong in Southern Vietnam.

I approached a place called Charlie’s Hill, where one of the last battles of the war took place.  During the war it was known as Hill 42, and GIs and Viet Cong fought each other day and night for two weeks, but today it just looks like a peaceful green mountain.

I could not approach the hill because the rain made the mud road impassible and there were still exposed ordinances from the war.  But I gazed at the hill from the side of the road and tried to imagine what it must have been like to be pinned down on that foggy mountaintop with bullets zipping by, explosions day and night, listening to the distant chatter of invisible Viet Cong, unable to escape the explosions, the screaming, the smell of gunpowder and guts.

Consider how differently a tourist and a solider would view the nearby village. For me, it was a sanctuary from the rain, a place with friendly villagers and smiling noodle-shop vendors.  To a soldier, it was a potentially hostile environment where enemies lurked in the shadows.  Letting your guard down could get you killed, but for travelers, letting your guard down is an essential part of engaging your host culture.

War dehumanizes entire nations to make killing more palatable.  Soldiers don’t kill other people, they just shoot dehumanized target; they are just communists, capitalists, gooks, colonial tyrants, rebels, terrorists etc. – whatever they label the enemy.   It is more difficult to kill your enemy if you think of him for what is really is: just another human like you with family and with friends.

But when you travel, you don’t dehumanize, you humanize.  You come to a foreign land with an alien culture, but you inevitably realize that your two cultures are more similar than they are different.  Travel shows you that everyone around the world have essentially the same desires, the same interests, the same values, though with some different variations.  Asia, the Far East, the Orient – all these words seem so alien to us in the West, but I have eaten meals with Vietnames families, shared stories with old Cambodian men, raised glasses of beer with Thais and realized that we may have different styles, but we are all human.

Traveling makes it difficult to support a war against the same people who have hosted you in their home country.  War is a last resort, but the world relies upon it too often.  I wonder how the world would be different if the leaders of the world had traveled extensively as youths.  Would they still consider other nations’ interests irreconcilable enough to justify the atrocities of war?

Imagine if every American student had to spend one year in another country, either studying or volunteering with organizations such as the Peace Corps.  Many countries such as Germany mandate civil service of some kind, either domestic or abroad, so why don’t we do the same?  Too many people see America only through television, and too many Americans see the world only through the news.  Greater cultural interaction could only benefit both America and our friends around the world, especially in politically sensitive places like Vietnam or the Middle East.

I am glad to visit Vietnam during peacetime.  Maybe the old people in these small villages remember Americans as the ones who brought bombs and bullets, but I hope that my interactions with them are replacing those images with more positive experiences.  I imagine that even the GIs who fought here must have appreciated the beauty of Vietnam and hoped that they could one day return here in peace.  Well, that time has come.  Now when Americans travel by choppers, they are referring to Harleys, not Hueys.    Many GIs are returning here to view the country in a different light, and it seems to bring them closure and peace of mind.  Thankfully, they can finally see Charlie’s Hill not as a strategic battlefield, but for what it is – just a beautiful mountain set in a peaceful valley.

These thoughts swirled through my mind as I continued on towards Nham Duc.  After an hour or two, I wound down the misty mountains into a light green valley where water buffalo bathed in muddy ponds amongst the banana trees and rice paddies that stretched from one end of the valley to the other.  I was dead beat.  I pulled into Nham Duc, parked The Minsk, looked back towards the Ho Chi Minh Trail and Charlie’s Hill and thought about how crazy my situation was: an American riding a Russian motorbike along the Ho Chi Minh Trail Vietnam.   If that is possible, then the wounds of war have begun to heal.

That night I drank some beers with some elderly locals at a small street-side bar.  They spoke no English, but through hand signals they communicated their message – America and Vietnam used to be enemies, but now we are friends.  The eldest, most respected Vietnamese man approached me, smiled, and symbolically shook my hand in front of the rest of his friends.  We were not diplomats, we were not the leaders of our respective nations, but it meant a lot to both of us.  The old man’s eyes spoke volumes; they welcomed me to his land and said, the war is over, let’s put it in the past.  I smiled back at him, and we all raised our beers to celebrate. Here’s to peace!