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Friday, 27 October, 2000, 13:03 GMT 14:03 UK
Basques on both sides of the border
poster of man shouting at Michele Alliot Marie
Basque youth poster in cafe in Bayonne
By Arlene Gregorius

The armed struggle of the Basque separatist organisation ETA has cost over 800 lives. ETA is directly responsible for over 600 of these deaths, the others have died in police custody or were killed during the "dirty war" by the "Anti-Terrorist Liberation Group" - GAL, on behalf of the state. But, insists Maria San Gil, a member of Spain's governing conservative Popular Party: "there is no political conflict in the Basque country".

Maria San Gil, member of Spain's governing Popular Party and deputy mayor of San Sebastian
Maria San Gil

San Gil is also deputy mayor of San Sebastian on the Basque coast and whenever she walks the streets of this beautiful city that used to be a favourite holiday destination for Europe's aristocracy, she has to be escorted by four bodyguards, for fear of an attack by ETA.

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So how can she say there's no political conflict? "There's no political conflict because all there is is a bunch of assassins who go and kill people. And what's needed is not a political solution, but a legal one: just put these guys in prison."

ETA stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, which means Basque Homeland and Liberty in the Basque language. The organisation uses terrorism to fight for an independent Basque state, made up of the Basque and the Navarre Autonomous Regions in Spain, and of the three Basque provinces across the Pyrenees in France. Few people support ETA's violence, but many share its aims, or a more moderate version of them.

Up to one in five Basques vote for the political wing of ETA, Herri Batasuna.

Roughly a further third of Basques vote for the moderate Basque National Party, the PNV - Partido Nacional Vasco. The PNV condemns both ETA's violence, and Madrid's refusal to make even the slightest concessions to Basque aspirations of nationhood.

Together with the supporters of smaller parties, the Basque nationalists are in the majority in the Basque country.

So what do Basque nationalists want? A good man to ask is Gorka Espiau, a spokesman for an organisation called Elkarri, which roughly means "coming together".

Elkarri tries to promote peace through dialogue by inviting people from different ends of the political spectrum to meet and talk. According to Gorka, the real issue in the Basque country is "sovereignty, not independence. It's all about 'who decides?'"

Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar
Jose Maria Aznar

What most people here want is a Basque equivalent of a "Downing Street Declaration". In other words, they want Jose Maria Aznar, the Spanish Prime Minister, to do the same as his British counterpart in the peace process for Northern Ireland, and "promise to agree to the democratically expressed wishes of the majority of the Basque people, so that if the Basques decided on a new political framework, they could get it."

The point is one of principle, not outcome. If a referendum on independence were held now, chances are the result would be against leaving Spain.

But for now, there's little chance of a Spanish Downing Street Declaration, or any other concession to Basque nationalism. The government is refusing to negotiate whilst the violence goes on.

ETA has been intensifying its campaign, and the government is clamping down increasingly hard.

Families holding posters of ETA prisoners at march in Pamplona
Relatives of prisoners at protest march in Pamplona

Violence and terrorism are widely condemned in both Spain and the Basque country. But there's one ETA demand that a lot of Basques do feel sympathy with: that of moving Basque prisoners to the Basque country.

At the moment, over 500 prisoners are incarcerated in prisons all over Spain, often hundreds of miles away from their families. Relatives feel that they are the ones being punished by this dispersal.

Some argue that it's in fact a counterproductive policy. Jone Artola's brother Joseba has been imprisoned for fourteen years so far, for being a member of ETA and an accomplice to an ETA terrorist. His sentence is indefinite.

Jone says her brother's been tortured by policemen, and beaten by prison guards. Amnesty International regularly denounces the torturing of ETA suspects in Spain.

protestors demand return to Basque jails of ETA prisoners in other parts of Spain
Protestors in Bilbao demanding that Basque prisoners be moved to the Basque region

Joseba Artola's been in five different prisons, the furthest of which was in Cadiz in Andalucia, twelve hours drive away from his family in Bilbao. His sister Jone says that her two teenage sons "know what's happened with their uncle, and feel that they are being punished, because they can't see him or talk to him normally".

She says that this is politicising them, and worries that in future they, too, might end up in prison. "But I try to be positive, and have hope. I hope the Basque conflict will be solved before it comes to that."

But there's a long way to go before that happens.

people holiding pictures of Miguel Blanco in Madrid
Demonstration in Madrid over the murder of Popular Party councillor, Miguel Angel Blanco

So long as ETA is killing, Madrid plays victim, and as victim, allows itself to meet violence with violence, and nothing else.

In that sense, ETA is ironically the biggest obstacle to Basque aspirations to nationhood, sovereignty, or independence. But sometime there will have to be dialogue. Refusing to negotiate with even the non-violent Basque Nationalists who represent the majority is a road to nowhere.

In France, the Basque situation is very different, not least for historical reasons. The Spanish Basques suffered severe repression under the regime of General Franco, and have fought three wars against Spain - the two Carlist wars of succession in the nineteenth century, and more recently in the Spanish Civil War.

Michele Alliot Marie, Mayor of St Jean de Luz and President of RPR
Michele Alliot Marie, Mayor of St Jean de Luz

The French Basques have not had to suffer a dictatorship, and have fought for France in both World Wars. But French Basques, too, want more.

Michele Alliot Marie could be France's answer to Margaret Thatcher. A confident, no-nonsense woman in her fifties, she's president of her country's main conservative party, the Gaullist RPR or Rally for the Republic. She's also mayor of the picturesque Basque coastal town Saint Jean de Luz.

And she's worried. "I'm deeply concerned by the recent merger of the Basque youth movements from both sides of the border, France and Spain." She's talking about Haika, a militant separatist organisation.

ETA youth
Basque youth are becoming more militant

"So far they haven't done much on the French side, apart from spraying graffiti, or putting provocative posters up. I hope they won't go beyond this, because in a democracy there can be no place for violence."

At the October European Union summit there were violent clashes between young Basque activists and the police.

All but one of those who were taken to prison were Spanish nationals. French Basques are becoming increasingly militant, too, especially young people. And they're building up their repertoire of tactics.

Gorka Torre
Gorka Torre, member of Demo

Take biology teacher Gorka Torre. He's one of the leading members of Demo, or Democracy for the Basque Country, a movement that was founded earlier this year.

They use civil disobedience to make their demands heard. "We want the right to self-determination, a Basque departement. I'm not even talking independence here, just the right to have a say in what kind of political structure we live in. Otherwise the survival of our culture, our language and our identity is threatened."

They mainly use pranks and stunts to make their voices heard. For example, they stole Basque archives from the capital of the departement of Pyrenees Atlantique and brought them to Bayonne, the would-be Basque capital.

Basque costal town St Jean de Luz, France
St Jean de Luz, Basque region

The demand for a Basque departement is shared by two-thirds of local people, whether they consider themselves Basque or not. But the authorities won't budge, an attitude that could carry a heavy price.

This month, an armed organisation called Iparretarrak, or IK for short, published a newsletter for the first time in years. It warned that "for as long as the political problems aren't resolved" it reserves "the right and the duty to armed struggle" adding that it is "ready to act with adequate means".

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: a taste of Basque cuisine in one of the men-only gastronomic societies of San Sebastian.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Gorka Torre, member of Demo
on the aims of 'Democracy for the Basque Country'
Julian Pettifer
learns how to cook fish in San Sebastian
Listen to
traditional Basque singing
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13 Sep 00 | Europe
18 Aug 00 | Europe
04 Apr 00 | Europe
12 Aug 00 | Europe
12 Aug 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
19 Jul 00 | Europe
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