Basque hatred plants seeds of violence in the young

Click to follow
The Independent Online

"When my children play police and terrorists with their friends, they all want to be etarras." The words of a mother in the small town of Hernani, a Basque nationalist stronghold near San Sebastian, reveal the fear gripping many Basques since Eta separatists launched their latest terror campaign a year ago this week. Not only do they fear bombs and bullets, but also increasingly that their offspring will join the ranks of teenage street fighters whom they regard as heroes.

"When my children play police and terrorists with their friends, they all want to be etarras." The words of a mother in the small town of Hernani, a Basque nationalist stronghold near San Sebastian, reveal the fear gripping many Basques since Eta separatists launched their latest terror campaign a year ago this week. Not only do they fear bombs and bullets, but also increasingly that their offspring will join the ranks of teenage street fighters whom they regard as heroes.

The woman adds: "I've seen how the young militants of Jarrai [Eta youth] come to pick up my sons to take them to demonstrations. It was their weekend fun. The demonstration marched through the town and then the hooded boys went into action, burning bank cash machines, phone boxes, confronting police. They'd return home intoxicated by it all."

She is describing the kale borroka, street fighting by nationalist youth which provides a menacing background rumble to the more conspicuous assassination campaign that has claimed 21 lives since Eta ended a 14-month truce last December. Even during the ceasefire, violence never stopped, with centres of San Sebastian, Bilbao and outlying suburbs taken over every weekend by young pro-Eta gangs hurling stones at police and firebombing buses.

This spring the process intensified after Jarrai joined with a pro-Eta grouping in France to form a new cross-border organisation, Haika. The escalation has prompted the Spanish government in Madrid to reclassify pro-Eta street offences as terrorist crime, punishable by up to 10 years' jail for those over 16 and five years' custody for those between 14 and 16. The fierceness of this reaction, accompanied by the security clampdown against Eta's clandestine operations, has yet to discourage the formation of a vibrant recruiting ground for Eta hitmen among disaffected youth drawn into a culture of violence.

The histories of the handful of Eta suspects picked up in recent months in connection with assassinations indicate how a weekend street fighter can graduate to professional hitman. Take Harriet Iragi Gurrutxaga, 23, arrested in Seville in October after the killing of a military doctor, Antonio Munoz Carinano. Police say Mr Iragi (among Basques, Harriet is a man's name) was also responsible for the deaths of the conservative councillor José Maria Martin Carpena in Malaga in July and Andalusia's chief prosecutor, Luis Portero, in Granada in October.

He was a former Jarrai activist known to police for acts of street violence in Bilbao. He was arrested in 1996 for a sabotage attack on a police patrol and sentenced to five years' jail, but escaped when freed on bail a year later. Young men such as he emerged during last year's truce as the new generation of Eta leaders, replacing the old guard whose desire for peace they never shared. He is in prison awaiting trial for multiple murder, and faces a 30-year sentence.

What, Spaniards ask, makes a bright Bilbao engineering student organise a hit squad in Seville? "They are normal young men, but bound up in their ideological vision that they feel compels them to do this work," says a San Sebastian sociologist Javier Elzo, whose five-year study of radical Basque youth appeared at the height of this year's summer of violence.

Joining a street demo might seem a long way from shooting someone in the head, but Professor Elzo says: "I honestly believe the jump is not that brutal. It's done by stages. First they go drinking together, then to a meeting, then a demonstration supporting Eta prisoners. The next big step is to participate in some action like burning rubbish containers. Then it escalates until you punch someone. Then the next step is assassination. It's part of the same process."

Friendship is crucial in cementing bonds of loyalty among 15- and 16-year-olds, "when social life and ideology reinforce each other", says Professor Elzo. And many, like Iragi, come from families with nationalist sympathies. His father is an activist in the Basque trade union LAB, and from the family balcony flutters a banner calling for freedom for Basque prisoners. His mother, backed by the support network for Eta prisoners, considers her son a brave patriot.

That network of solidarity and social control forms a closed world, controlling bars and streets where outsiders are unwelcome, which, once entered, is difficult to escape, and forms a protective shield against society. "They move in a ghetto of their own making," Professor Elzo says. "I was afraid of this, and said we should build bridges to teenagers, but every effort has failed, and I'm disillusioned. They are absolutely closed in upon themselves."

In a small town near Bilbao the other day, 200 people filled the pelota court to welcome home an Eta prisoner who had served a four-year jail term. They hailed him as a hero.

Comments