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15 January 2001

“One day ETA asks . . . and if they want you, you go“

Rop Zoutbergasks why so many of Spain's young Basques are prepared to kill and risk their lives for

By Rop Zoutberg

Friday evening. In nearly all of Bilbao’s telephone booths, the receivers have been ripped off because the telephone company is Spanish. Here and there, cash dispensers have been smashed for a similar reason. The tension in the wet, narrow streets of Bilbao is palpable. “Gora [long live] ETA!” screams the graffiti next to the pulverised money-machine.

Here, three months ago, an ETA commando unit accidentally blew itself up carrying 25 kilos of dynamite. One member of the unit was 22 years old, another was 23. Harriet Iragi (a man) was also 23 when he was arrested with his friend Jon Solana, 26, for killing an army doctor in Seville. They were born in the old city centre of Bilbao, a couple of doors from each other. They shot the doctor in the face. The authorities suspect that the two were also involved in last summer’s shootings of a public prosecutor in Granada and a city councillor from Malaga.

Now their faces, looking like shiny pop stars, hang alongside those of a dozen other arrested activists above the bottles in Lariko, a bar in Bilbao.

Igor, to whom I am talking, stares pensively for a moment at the pictures, then puts the change left over from the beers he ordered in a collection box for them. “These people are all from this neighbourhood,” he says. Igor knows a few of them. “Those four were murdered by the Spanish police,” he says, echoing the inflammatory rhetoric of the abertzale, the Basque patriot movement. According to its supporters, the Basque Country is an occupied state, and the imprisoned members of ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or “Basque Country and Freedom”) are political prisoners.

No region in the world enjoys such a high degree of self-government as the Basque Country. It has its own regional rule, its own police and its own tax system, but Igor curses the Spanish identity card he has to carry. “I am Basque, not Spanish. Believe me, as long as they don’t acknowledge our rights, many more will die,” he warns, sipping his beer. He is far from unusual. A recent survey revealed that one in three Basque youths considers urban guerrilla tactics to be a good way to bring the “foreign occupation” to its knees. One in ten would not hesitate to use a weapon.

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Lariko is crowded. The music blares punk in Euskera, the Basque language. The age of the average customer cannot be more than 24. They wear sweaters and mountaineering boots, and the girls show off their striking ponytails. “Very pretty girls up here. Last summer, we had some guys from Sinn Fein visiting us. They couldn’t believe their eyes,” Igor says. “At first, those guys from Belfast didn’t understand it. It was not anything like Belfast. We don’t have soldiers marching through the streets, tanks or any physical barriers, but at any moment streets might be closed off and riot police could enter the bar. They even use girls to infiltrate our movement.”

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Lariko is run by the radical nationalist party – Herri Batasuna, the political backbone of ETA. In the last regional elections, Herri Batasuna won 18 per cent of the votes. In other words, 223,262 Basques supported ETA’s agenda. But that figure fails to reflect the support of those under the voting age. These youths join Haika, an ETA-led organisation that, in fact, controls many separate groups. Haika is left-wing, anti-nuclear power, against Spain, in favour of squatters, feminism, conscientious objectors and the IRA.

Harriet Iragi and Jon Solana are Haika products, as are all young recruits to ETA during the past decade. According to a study by the University of Bilbao, they are ordinary youths, aged between 15 and 26. The report says: “They come from middle- and lower-middle-class backgrounds and are strongly influenced by the separatist ideology preached by the moderate nationalist parties. They believe that violence is the only answer to the real oppression, exercised by an occupying force. As a result, they feel they have to do certain things.”

Igor indignantly rejects the report’s idea of a generation without any opportunity. “It claims it is something new for young people to end up with ETA. Take Harriet, for instance. He studied to become a technical engineer and was a nice bloke, timid even.”

Four years ago, Iragi suddenly vanished, after being released on bail following a petrol-bomb attack on a police patrol. “So we all knew where Harriet had ended up.” However, exactly what makes an engineering student attack a police patrol and end up with ETA, Igor can’t say. “One day, ETA just asks you . . . and if they want you, you go.”

A man and two women enter Lariko and are instantly surrounded. “They are Harriet’s parents and lawyer.” The latest news gets around: of how he has been put into isolation, and how a net has been stretched above the prison yard. “Why did they do that?” a girl wants to know. “So helicopters can’t land,” the lawyer explains. “Then why doesn’t Harriet take the subway?” This remark sets off laughter in Lariko. Iragi’s father looks weary. After a cat-and-mouse game in Seville, Iragi had surrendered to the police. “He had partly undressed himself to prevent them from thinking he was wearing a gun under his clothes and shooting him.”

New laws are being prepared. “In future, a minor may get up to ten years for smashing telephones,” Igor growls. “It’ll only make the step to armed struggle easier. Before, you went as far as you felt like. But if they give you ten years for a broken telephone booth, you might as well just kill someone.” When asked whether he would be prepared to go that far, Igor repeats his formula. “If they want you, you go.”

Under the heading “Urban Terrorism”, the interior ministry reported a 30 per cent increase in street vandalism last year. In the first half of 2000, the ministry recorded 298 attacks, mostly incendiary bombs against public buildings and “property of individuals”. In July, a member of the ruling political party, the Partido Popular, had a Molotov cocktail thrown at the front of his house, and his horses were sprayed with “Gora ETA!”.

It is Saturday evening, and Igor has invited me to a party being thrown by the Basque patriotic students union. On the way to the party, Igor says how he was in prison for eight months after being arrested for acts of public disorder. He had a plastic bag put over his head until he choked, and he claims that he is not the only one to have had such an experience. “Nobody believes that Basque prisoners are maltreated in Spanish prisons, but it definitely happens. Beatings, forcing your head in a bucket filled with water until you almost drown, humiliating people by questioning them while they are naked. Rapes.”

In a June 1999 briefing, Amnesty International expressed its concerns about “allegations of torture and ill-treatment” of ETA suspects. In several of these cases, the accusations were supported by medical evidence, “although other allegations were, by their nature, almost impossible to substantiate”. In the same briefing, Amnesty called on ETA to put an immediate end to its “numerous violent and intimidating acts”.

Rain falls mercilessly as we trudge around the muddy ground of the open-air party. It doesn’t seem to bother any of the thousands of cheerful students. A canvas, on which an axe and a snake are painted (ETA’s coat of arms), is lying submerged in a pool of water on the path to one of the stages.

Further on, two of Igor’s female friends are drinking cokes. Zaloa is 19, Irune is 21. “You know how it is. Whenever I travel to Madrid, I don’t find anything I can identify myself with. I always end up back here, in the Basque Country,” says Zaloa. What most offends her are the tourists, walking through the streets of Bilbao, clapping to flamenco. “I want them to recognise that I have my own culture.” The conversation shifts to the increase in the criminal penalties for minors. Irune shrugs. “I don’t know anybody who has not been fined. I know this guy who had to pay 50,000 pesetas [£180] for writing a slogan on a wall. That is not news to us. You’re risking your life, so you have to be prepared.”

Zaloa adds: “They want to get rid of us, though I know I sound fanatical when I say so. But I am also convinced the Basque Country would have been wiped off the maps if ETA had not existed.”

The band Su Tu Gar, playing ska, shouts: “All police officers, remain on your feet!” As one, the audience hits the ground. Mentioning the dead, killed by ETA, Zaloa bites her lips: “I am dreadfully sorry for those people, but it is the only solution we have. That is the way it is.” But would she be prepared to meet someone and just kill him? Silence. “Yes, I think I definitely would,” she says. Irune adds: “Me, too. People would be surprised at what we are willing to do.”

What is all the fuss about, asks Igor, as he drives back to Bilbao in the middle of the night with mud stuck to his knees. “People would show up on my doorstep in the middle of the night, asking me if it was all right if they stayed with me. I never knew why they asked me, but I always agreed. Everybody knows someone who might be involved . . . you never know. It’s a risk you take.”

The next afternoon, Sunday, in Abusu, a small town near Bilbao, Joseba Tzaga is being welcomed home. He has been in prison for four years for his involvement with ETA and is being received as a hero by about 200 fellow villagers. In return, he has some stirring words. “If they think they can trample us down in their prisons, they are making a big mistake,” he warns.

Aitor, a 21-year-old construction worker, applauds. He is wearing silver rings in both ears and an Adidas shirt. He spent a few days last summer in a squat in Amsterdam. “Nice people, although they didn’t understand our commitment to Basque independence at all. They confused nationalism with the things they saw in Serbia, something to do with the extreme right, and referring all the time to Nazism.” Aitor’s eyes reflect his incredulity. “They weren’t aware at all of how we were fighting imperialism, just like in Holland.”

Tzaga clenches his fist. “We’re going to win this fight!” Two people step forward, presenting him with a gift from the village. He waves it above his head. On a wooden shield, the axe and the snake are ingeniously carved. Under it, in the bleak afternoon sun, the letters of ETA glimmer.