Basques seek fresh start as Eta campaign ends at last

Life gets back to normal in Spanish region as separatist group declares peace after 43 years

Church bells did not ring out across the Basque countryside yesterday, nor were there mass celebrations in town and city squares following Eta's announcement on Thursday evening that, after 43 years, its guerrilla war is finally over. Instead, something far more valuable and long-lasting appears to have broken out in Euskadi, as the Basque country is known: normality.

"There is a huge feeling of contentment and relief that the news has finally come through," said Alain Laiseka, a journalist from Bilbao.

"Last night when I was watching the announcement on television, the presenter got very emotional and started to improvise because she said after so many years of just talking about bombings and deaths, it was amazing this day had finally come. But in many ways it was seen as something logical and today, for example, when I went into a bar this morning, the ceasefire wasn't even being discussed.

"For the vast majority of Basques, their lives aren't going to change. My life won't. But that in itself says something about the way things already changed here over the last few years."

Certainly, the sense that Eta's declaration of a permanent ceasefire – already effectively in force for more than a year – was all but inevitable stretches back far further than Monday's high-profile international peace conference that issued a five-point programme condemning the violence.

Mr Laiseka, 34, said political trouble on the streets of the Basque country is already a fading memory, and that even the low-level rioting with separatist overtones that used to take place with monotonous regularity in the old quarters of its major cities most weekends vhas disappeared. The last time the Basque police had to use force was when squatters were ejected from a city centre building this autumn.

But until Thursday, the latent threat of political violence nonetheless remained, and Mr Laiseka recognises that for a significant minority – the families of Eta's 800-plus victims, or those permanently escorted by a bodyguard, as is still the case for town councillors – "there will be a real sense of liberation. It'll feel like the fall of Gaddafi."

To judge by yesterday's newspapers in the Basque country, the blossoming of wide-ranging discussion, inhibited for so many years, has already started. Publications such as the nationalist-leaning Deia dedicated 55 pages of a total of 80 to the ceasefire, while the Noticias de Gipuzkoa ran a two-word headline on an otherwise completely blank front page: "At last."

"The process that follows will not be straightforward by any means," Pablo Muñoz, director of four Basque newspapers and a political analyst of the conflict, told The Independent. "But at least it means that people won't have to look under their cars every morning for bombs or have a police escort."

But while the Basque country now has a real, if complicated, chance to move forward politically, any potential reconciliation between the families of Eta's 800-plus victims and the terrorists may be a long time in the making. As Josu Puelles, the brother of a Basque policeman killed in 2009, told El Pais newspaper yesterday, "They can't go unpunished."

Basque Separatism: A Brief History

*Nearly 830 lives have been lost in the armed struggle by Eta to secure independence for the Basque region, which spans the north of the country and some of south-west France.

*The campaign began in 1959 as a student movement fiercely opposed to General Franco's repressive regime. It claimed its first victim in 1968 when a Civil Guard was shot dead by an Eta member he tried to stop at a road block.

*At the height of its power in the later 1970s, shortly after the country had negotiated the delicate transition from dictatorship to democracy, attacks by the group claimed as many as 92 lives in one year.

*Violence peaked again at the turn of the century. In 2000, following a 14-month truce, 23 people were killed in Eta attacks.

*Eta's influence has waned because of a concerted police crackdown and a drop in its political support.