For whom the bell is still tolling

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao has focused the attention of the world on the Basque Country. But what about the war that is being fought on its doorstep? Elizabeth Nash reports
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They Were doing a brisk trade in fancy flowers the other evening in Bilbao. Stiff bouquets of carnations, chrysanthemums and gladioli lay regimentally along the cobbled riverside promenade, supervised by sturdy Basque flower-sellers in aprons. It was All Saints' Eve and this devoutly Catholic community was preparing to honour its dead. As dusk descended, the scarlet blooms seemed to turn a bloody purple, then black.

The next morning a tidal wave of pilgrims visited the graves of their loved ones. Many, their duty done, went on to see the latest and most dazzling symbol of Bilbao: the futuris- tic Guggenheim museum. Queues of cheerful families - a record 7,000 visitors that day - spilled across the vast creamy forecourt of a building that has taken the world by storm.

Some paused as they stepped past a small pile of bouquets, similar to those on offer the night before. White and pink carnations marked the spot where a young member of the Basque police force, Jose Maria Agirre, was fatally shot by Eta marksmen last month, days before the museum was inaugurated. Agirre has become suspicious of two men installing some flower pots, and asked them for their identity papers. They shot him in the back and he died within hours. Hidden in the flower pots were 12 rocket grenades primed to go off during the ceremonial opening by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia.

Spaniards are used to Eta violence. For some 30 years, Basque separatists have been kidnapping and assassinating generals, policemen, judges and politicians, planting bombs in barracks, supermarkets and underneath cars, killing more than 800 people in their pursuit of an independent homeland.

Most victims were carefully selected, some targeted by mistake, others passed by at the wrong moment. But Agirre was a Basque, the Guggen-heim the most potent flagship for the Basque country since Guernica, Picasso's 1937 painting commemorating the horrors of the Nazi bombardment. Is Eta turning against its own people?

Madrid's responses to Eta down the years have ranged from undercover hit squads to attempts at dialogue. Anti-terrorist policy is wreathed in official doubletalk that veils both their contacts and covert assassinations. Cover-ups and botched killings by the illegal Anti-terrorism Liberation Groups, Gal, organised by the former ruling Socialists, fatally corroded Felipe Gonzalez's government, which fell last year after more than 13 years in power.

Today Madrid's ruling conservatives, the Popular Party, favour the hardline and talks are, for the moment, off the agenda. When the Bishop of San Sebastian, capital of the Basque region of Guipuzcoa, suggested last week that contacts with Eta should be revived, opponents denounced him as a Nazi and urged the Pope to sack him. Meanwhile, the Basques have, in 20 years, achieved more autonomy than any region in Europe, and now control education, police, tax collection and a couple of television stations. None of this moves Eta, which remains intact and operational, immune to both blandishments and the cosh.

For a few days in July, something changed. Eta kidnapped a young conservative councillor Miguel Angel Blanco from the Basque village of Ermua, gave the government a 48-hour ultimatum, then left him dying in a wood with terrible bullet wounds to his head. It was a bog-standard Eta operation, its people admit, but it had cataclysmic impact. Across the country, from the Pyrenees to the Canary Islands, millions of people erupted on to the streets in protest at the killing.

Days before, the Civil Guard had rescued Antonio Ortega Lara, a prison officer who had been held by Eta for 18 months in an underground cell known as a zulo, the Basque word for hole. Eta demanded that some 500 Eta prisoners, dispersed throughout Spain, be brought nearer to home. Stooped, skeletal and barely conscious, Ortega Lara looked like a survivor from Auschwitz. Convulsed with fury and grief, the Spanish nation rose up and said "enough".

But with the autumn chill approaching, those summer outpourings seem a distant memory. The fusillade of attacks goes on, and more suffering seems inevitable.

FOR CRISTINA CUESTA, a glamorous young woman from San Sebastian, it has already been a long haul. For 12 years she has led a movement urging reconciliation between the families of victims of both Eta attacks and police violence. Several times a week, with every new death or kidnap, she stood silently in the city's cathedral square holding a placard, hand- written in the early days, calling for peace. People were initially stunned at her bravery - the norm was to lie low for fear of reprisals - but gradually the local people came in increasing numbers to stand beside her.

She was only 19 at the time and, as she puts it, "totally unpolitical", when gunmen killed her father in 1982, shooting him on the corner of his street as he was going home for lunch. Enrique Cuesta was the local boss of the state telephone company, which Eta suspected of tapping its phones on police instructions.

Sitting in her little office, fielding a stream of phone calls, Cristina tries to explain the see-saw changes of recent months.

"When Miguel Angel Blanco died, it was the last drop that overflowed the glass of horror. The outpouring was a cry of pain over something we'd always expressed in silence. But since then our hopes for a just solution have frozen. I can't imagine that even greater mobilisations can have any effect. If that effort was not enough to make Eta give up violence, then I don't know what we can do. We're back to square one. The politicians have defrauded the expectations of the 85 per cent of Basques who don't want Eta, and no one has the stomach for talks."

Some things, though, have improved, she concedes. "People have lost some of their fear. Two people saw my father being killed, saw his killers' faces and where they ran, and for years were too afraid to testify. Not long ago, they came to me and apologised for their silence."

San Sebastian is a handsome beach resort designed for pleasure, where Hispanic gaiety meets Gallic chic. Once the summer haunt of Europe's aristocrats, the city offers the finest pastries in Spain and remains so civ-ilised that the French come here to eat.

One of the landmarks of the old quarter, where visitors spend the evening moving from bar to bar, is Maria Teresa Castells' bookshop, Lagun, which means "comrade" in Basque. She opened in 1968 and was imprisoned three times after run-ins with the generals. Last year separatist radicals, who claim this part of town as their territory, started attacking the bookshop, throwing fire bombs, bricks and paint through the windows, night after night.

Castells, 62, has a gentle smile and speaks timidly. "In the end we had to put up metal shutters, which we always refused to do under Franco. People liked to come by at night and look at the books in the window, and return next day to buy. We sold banned books, like Simone de Beau-voir, Sartre, sometimes tucked away in a corner. It's a bitter feeling that we had to cave in now, when we resisted for so many years."

Basques, who have defended their independence and their extraordinary language fiercely down the centuries, remained always at the margins of the invasions that crisscrossed Europe. They tell you they have never been subdued by an outside power, not even by the Romans, who left them alone in exchange for free transit between Gaul and Hispania.

Even when France chopped off part of their northern territory and successive Spanish dynasties carved out chunks to the south, they clung to their ancient liberties and elements of sovereignty - until Franco pulverised the historic town of Guernica in 1937 and stripped them all away.

Particularly persecuted were the northern provinces of Viscaya and Guipuzcoa, which held out against Franco for the Republic, and it was here that Eta - whose initials stand for Basque Homeland and Freedom - emerged in the Sixties and where it remains strongest. Those responsible for breaking Lagun's windows never declared themselves, but it is supposed that they were youths attached to Herri Batasuna, the pro-Eta party that wins some 15 per cent in Basque elections, more than 180,000 votes. The HB headquarters, an apartment in a solid, curlicued fin de siecle building, is a couple of hundred yards down the road.

Joseba Permarch, 28, a San Sebastian councillor and HB's regional spokes- man, is a rising star in the movement, and a hardliner. In a conversation that seems more like a catechism, he rattles off the line with practised ease. "Since the Popular Party came to power in Madrid [in March last year] police repression has clearly increased. There've been more arrests, more imprisonments and therefore more tension in the Basque country. It's not a democracy as we understand it."

Why did Eta kill Miguel Angel Blanco? "He was a PP councillor, not the first to be killed, and the PP bears a great political responsibility for the suffering of the Basque people, and because the Spanish government made no gesture towards bringing political prisoners nearer home." Weren't you surprised at the popular response? "No, the media and the political parties had a key role in organising the protest. It was not spontaneous. It was propaganda prepared in advance in the expectation that Ortega Lara would die in captivity."

When will Eta stop killing? "We have to sit down to prevent armed attacks. We can't ask people to put down their arms first. Behind the armed action are political conflicts which have to be solved first." What does Eta want? "Eta will give a ceasefire when the state recognises the right of self-determination, and the Basque people's right to opt for an independent state."

But you have won more rights than any other region in Europe. "We have partially recovered rights that were already ours and were taken away. We are not a region, we are a nation, with our own language, our ancient customs that have nothing to do with Spain. We deserve the same as France and Spain."

What is the relationship between your party and Eta? "Eta is an armed organisation that functions clandestinely and HB is a legal party with MPs and we work openly for our ideas. We share Eta's objectives but not its means. The PP is trying to criminalise HB by associating it with Eta ... "

In the wake of the July days, the government called for the political "isolation" of HB, a policy of non-cooperation with its political representatives. Some interpret this as amounting to sending members to Coventry and boycotting bars and shops own-ed by HB sympathisers. A mistake, according to a Socialist leader in San Sebastian, Manuel Fuertes.

"These people are already isolated. They live in their own bubble, their ghettos of fanaticism where they make no contact with the world. We should be trying to extend bridges towards them, not isolate them even more. But we should not cooperate with them politically until they condemn violence. They can demand independence if they want, so long as it's only with words, and not arms. All we ask is that they distance them- selves from Eta. They ask for independence. They should first establish their own independence."

The truth is that social isolation is probably unworkable in these closely knit, gregarious communities, where ties of family and affection cut across political boundaries and provide HB - and Eta too - with a substantial cushion of support.

"Most people in the Basque Country have someone close to them connected to HB. Every family is divided and we have to live with it. We don't hide our views, we just don't talk about things, we don't want to be confronting our own people all the time," says a labour lawyer in San Sebastian. "That's why many people keep mum."

This lawyer tells me of a top HB lawyer in the town, Miguel Castells, who telephoned to express his sympathies to his sister when her bookshop was firebombed - a human gesture of family solidarity that was perhaps not to be taken as a condemnation of the action.

Most Basques consider themselves nationalists in some form or another, but it was Ms Castells' colleague, Ignacio Latierro, a lapsed Communist, who pointed out the leap of faith that Eta demanded: "This idea that we are a nation isn't a problem. I can accept that. But they insist that there's another nation that is our enemy, as if we were a colony, and that's not true at all. If it were, then we'd be at war. But in reality it is a struggle among ourselves, the Basques.

"Most people go along with the ambiguous role of the ruling conservative Basque National Party [PNV], which maintains the ideal of real nationhood as its ultimate objective, but in its day-to-day actions tries to win the maximum advantage for the Basque country without questioning the existing system. Those who think the contrary are a minority, but they're important because they support an armed organisation that causes a lot of damage."

A 15-MINUTE bus ride from San Sebastian's golden beach takes you to a different world. It looks as if a careless hand had grasped the pine- clad hills, screwed them up, then cast them down, jagged and cramped, and then rammed hideous dwellings and factories into every available crevice. In the town of Hernani, sheep graze on steep little hillsides just yards from industrial parks and ugly flats.

Booms in the Thirties and the Sixties transformed towns like Hernani into raw industrial suburbs, swelling them with immigrants who came from throughout Spain, often from the poor regions of Andalucia and Galicia. Mostly the incomers made common cause with Basque workers to form powerful trade-union "red belts" that resisted the repression of Franco until his death in 1975, and left a lasting tradition of political militancy.

Hernani is the heartland of radical Basque nationalism. It is where the newspaper Egin [Action], the standard-bearer of the separatist left, is published, and where the militant youth organisation "Jarrai" is based. Herri Batasuna, still the biggest local party, held the town hall for three consecutive terms until it was ousted by a coalition supporting the left-wing (but anti-Eta) nationalist Jose Antonio Rekondo in 1991.

Rekondo receives me hastily and, giving the impression he will rush away at any moment, talks for an hour. "HB subjects us to a constant, daily confrontation, which splits the town socially from top to bottom," he says. "They think they should be in control. They never forgave me; first for taking over, and then for not becoming their puppet, for supplanting them as their local leader in defence of liberty and condemnation of violence." They wave the nationalist flag, he goes on, "but it's just a bait to win people so they can impose a dictatorship".

He leans forward earnestly. "Once you accept that political debate can be mediated by the pistol" - he taps his hip - "that debate dries up". People are less and less convinced by HB's political arguments, he says, and are increasingly intimidated by its shows of force in street attacks and counter-demonstrations. "If these people offer a truce it's a trap, a tacit threat. They are going to deceive you. If you sit at the table with someone with a pistol in their belt, that doesn't mean talks; it means war."

The only response, he concludes, is not to drop your guard, to denounce them constantly and to fight for the defence of liberties. Isn't all this aggression rather wearing? He lets slip a rare smile. "Oh this is my home. I'm used to it. I always prepare for the worst."

Hernani is daubed with aggressive graffiti. "La Demokrazia Espanola Tortura y Asesina", says one slogan, alongside a bull's-eye containing the names of all the democratic parties. "Dispersion: Torture" says another. Posters show a dove of peace being menaced by a huge dog baring its fangs. In the dove's beak is a tiny red, white and green Basque flag, the ikurrina, and suspended from the dog's collar is a disc of scarlet and gold, the colours of Spain.

In the last two or three years, Eta has supplemented its bomb-and-bullet strategy with persistent street violence and sabotage carried out by Jarrai. Rarely has a week gone by without a bus, phone-box, bank or party office being burned or firebombed somewhere in the Basque country by hooded youngsters, some as young as 15. "Socialisation of the suffering" they call it, but there are signs that some people who are close to Eta think the results of this strategy have been disappointing, and are planning a change of course.

Some observers suggest, with a nod to the experience of Sinn Fein, that HB might now start to emerge from its self-isolation and seek more autonomy from Eta. Permarch gave a hint of this when he said: "I'm convinced that if the Popular Party showed the will, something like a Downing Street declaration, then Eta would respond ... We want to unblock the situation and will try in the next months; we don't want to barricade ourselves in."

Sceptics reckon, none the less, that the hardline will be deepened and that, faced with dwindling electoral support, HB may withdraw from the electoral process. However, it is widely supposed that pro-Eta circles, deeply shaken by the events of the summer, are engaged in serious internal debates.

As Permarch noted, the security forces have arrested more people, but there is no evidence that sympathy for the radicals has swelled as a result. Some reckon Jarrai can mobilise up to 10,000 disaffected Basque youths, others say their impact grossly exceeds their numbers, which they put at fewer than 1,000.

But every time you tackle an HB sympathiser about Eta violence, they offer a formula like that of Javier Salutregi, the editor of Egin, who said: "Independently of whether Eta are right or wrong, we must stop armed actions. But if a people is denied bread and salt they have a right to take up arms."

Eta supporters also denounce the suffering of hundreds of families who have to travel vast distances to visit their relatives in jails in Andalucia or the Canary Islands. Sympathisers lay on buses, and even pay the fares - perhaps help that is funded by the "revolutionary taxes" or protection money extorted from Basque businessmen - cementing thereby a belt of support among prisoners' families. The government refuses, except in rare cases, to accede to these demands.

WANDERING around the old quarter of Bilbao the other night, stopping for the occasional glass of wine in ikurrina-draped taverns, I came upon a group of some 150 chanting youngsters, with elderly folk among them, unsmiling grey-haired men in leather bomber jackets, their heads leaning towards each other in earnest conversation. They were working-class people, celebrating the return home of a prisoner who had served his five-year term. The party congregated around a bar that was draped with flags and banners welcoming the returning hero. "We are not a violent minority, we are the real people," a little old lady assured me. "The Spaniards are torturing our sons."

Bilbao, once a roaring industrial port, is reinventing itself as a vanguard of modern design and enterprise. Long open to the wider world, even the name of its football team founded in 1898 - Athletic Club - recalls the influence of British workers in its glory days as the workshop of Spain. But it is deeply proud of being Basque.

The Kafe Antxokia is a club and theatre dedicated to the celebration of the Basque language, Euskera. The legendary Basque folk singer Mikel Laboa, grizzled and in his sixties, gave a concert there the other night to a packed audience of all ages. He shambled timidly to the microphone with his guitar and his crumpled jeans, and as each melancholy song rang from his heart, the crowd murmured in recognition and adoration.

One of the club's founders, Jose Angel Irigaray, who describes himself as a doctor and poet, said its aim was to celebrate Basques' identity and language through concerts, conferences, meetings and books, and to overcome the differences that rend the community. Irigaray, 54, radiates the incandescent intensity you find among Jesuit missionaries in remote corners of Central America.

His own, secular, crusade was prompted by what he calls the failure of the Basque country's two main political currents: "The opportunism and sell-outs by the ruling parties, especially the PNV, and the infantile cruelty of Eta terrorists." Both, he adds, have made some gains, but at terrible cost. "Our solution offers some human dignity to a people whom most politicians have simply degraded."

But few in this cultured and industrious city find it easy to chart a middle way. With its Norman Foster metro, its Santiago Calatrava footbridge and now its sensational Guggenheim museum, Bilbao is one of the few cities in Spain where street kiosks offer, along with Hola! and the sports daily Marca, the English-language glossy Architectural Design. The city still boasts some swanky monuments to its golden age, including a clutch of splendid art-nouveau cafes.

Edurne Brouard meets me in one of them. It is crammed with scarlet-and-white clad football fans gulping a last coffee, clacking cheerily in their ancient tongue, before boarding the bus to Birmingham to support their team. A teacher of Euskera to adults, Edurne chain-smokes and speaks with fierce rapidity.

"I was born a Basque patriot. At seven I went to clandestine classes in Euskera in other children's houses and we were told not to tell anyone. My grandmother had pictures of the saints pasted on her wall, but behind San Lorenzo was a tiny ikurrina. She would peel off the saint, and the family would all sit round this little flag, which was totally prohibited in Franco's day."

Her father, Santiago, a well-respected doctor in Bilbao, was a left-wing nationalist leader who tended Eta combatants' bullet wounds, and had to flee into exile in the "northern Basque country". You mean France? "The part of Euskadi [Basque country] that is controlled by the French state, yes," she corrects me.

"I am Basque and not Spanish. I don't even think about it. Like you are English not American. It's just not a question. But it is imposed on me. No one asked if I wanted to carry the Spanish flag on my identity card. I've wonderful Spanish friends, but I wish they were neighbours, not masters of my house."

On 20 November 1984, Santiago Brouard was shot dead in his surgery by the Gal while he was treating a patient. Why? "They didn't want to end the conflict. My father wanted dialogue. He'd sent a message of peace to Madrid via the French Ambassador there, but they wanted to prolong the suffering." People always lament the fact that the separatists have proffered no Gerry Adams, she says, "but no one asks why the government has no Tony Blair."

Edurne was 25 when her father was killed. There are, she says, two schools of thought about grief. One is that time heals everything, the other that time magnifies the absence. "I feel more and more the loss of my father, as I'm sure Cristina Cuesta does."

Why then is she so reluctant to condemn violence? She hauls on her cigarette. "I just don't think it is important. It simply avoids the question. Every- one condemned my father's death and five years later they shot an HB leader who had just been elected MP while he went to collect his credentials. We condemn and condemn and nothing happens. Every Basque knows it can eventually only end with dialogue."

As she leaves for a family lunch, I ask her if she has been to the Guggenheim. "Not yet," she says, "but I like the look of it." How long flowers will continue to mark the spot where Jose Maria Agirre fell is anyone's guess. But Basques will be laying more bouquets on more graves before the conflict is ended. !