Trumping pain: four peacemaking lessons from “El fin de ETA”

An English filmmaker’s recount of the waning days of Basque terrorism is a chance for Spain to reconcile with repressed remembrances.

Growing up as an inquisitive, politically-savvy kid for my age through the final days of the ETA’s terrorist ventures, I recall often growing frustrated at the deliberate silence of my elders over the issue, an odd mismatch with the profuse press coverage of every frequent attack on TV and in the papers.

At the time, it felt like they were awkwardly concealing the sheer hideousness of the conflict from our innocent minds, as if too embarrassed by the brutish violence and muffled sorrow on air. To my insisting questioning about the motives behind the killing of innocents by death squads of otherwise average-looking young males with unpronounceably intricate Basque names, I even recall my mother offhandedly responding “they’re just not well in their minds”.

Today the climate looks like nothing of the sort. The unsuspecting little ones who, like me, were spared the violence at the time and denied the understanding of it have now grown into full-fledged citizens who won’t take “it’s too complicated” for an answer. They demand a version — some version — of how a country of predominantly well-meaning folks allowed a protracted climate of such cruelty to claim the lives of countless innocents for so many years.

For long, independent scholars of the conflict and sourly aggrieved families of victims alike have bemoaned the lack of a cohesive, unified narrative to rationalise the events of the time. Four months after the ETA gave up the last remnants of its weapons arsenal and more than six years since the last victim capped a gut-wrenching 40-year death toll, there has never been a better time to concoct it.

Encouragingly, popular and media conversations in the Basque Country are conquering an ease to dig into the pain and sorrow where the norm back in the day was to sweep it all under the rug. The roaring success of Fernando Aramburu’s latest literary drama Patria is a testament to that newfound appetite to undergo the type of cathartic airing of grievances that, though bitter at first, can help us get closer to some form of reconciliatory tale of how much terrorism has undermined our sense of togetherness.

Another highly-acclaimed must-watch to understand where we’re coming from and where we’re heading is “El fin de ETA”. A collection of interviews and personal accounts starring the full range of actors involved, it recounts the end-game negotiations that ultimately led to the ETA’s definitive ceasefire in the early 2010s. Although some degree of individual gut reactions strives to creep into the story, the film is primarily concerned with the political machinations at the highest levels of the state and the terrorist group that put an end to decades of violence.

Particularly, it focuses on the casual talks between the then head of the Basque Socialist Party, Jesús Eguiguren, and the iconic, longtime leader of the “abertzale” left Arnaldo Otegi, running in parallel to the main negotiating channels and yet presumably an indispensable element to the final bargain. The film carries several key lessons of peacemaking that helped secure the peace:

I. Re-surfacing at every turn of the negotiations lays a core axiom of peacemaking when dealing with terrorists and their addictive tendency to ramp up violence when they go for long without victories: talks with them ought always to keep the technical separate from the political. As a matter of take-it-or-leave it principle, any and all political demands by the ETA — such as the repatriation of convicts and a greater degree of self-determination for the Basque Country and Navarra — were to be systematically ignored until all minutiae had been hammered out for the band’s unconditional disarmament. Captured in the pet phrase “o las bombas o los votos” (either the bombs or the votes), this obstinate strategy earned the government an even worse name among pro-independence leftists but arguably forced killers around the negotiating table.

II. The role of external actors is also depicted as a key piece of the puzzle. Starting with the Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva-based hub of expertise in international peacemaking, the rush of assistance from go-betweens and the support of institutions — including the French government and Northern Irish mediators — supplied an equanimous space for parties to meet in the middle and build a vital amount of trust, which couldn’t be afforded at home without the arousing of fanatic sentiments on both sides.

Premised on the notion that whatever commitments by the ETA would turn harder to break if made to an all-foreign coalition of the willing, an assortment of global leaders met at the Aiete peace conference to demand a definitive end to ETA’s violence, a major milestone in the final days leading to peace.

III. Perhaps the most salient lesson to be drawn from the documentary is the role of civil society in turning the tables against the ETA’s way of terrorising anybody who dared to oppose them vocally. For the better part of the conflict, their sheer violence caught most Basques in the crossfire and left them either arguably too scared to speak out or, in the case of the “abertzale” left, doing machievalic acrobatics to condone an ever rising pile of dead by deflecting the blame on the old spectre of anti-Basque Francoism.

Scholars concur to ascribe the end of that long lethargy to Miguel Ángel Blanco, a young local councillor whose kidnapping and subsequent murder sparked what’s become known as “Espíritu de Ermua”, a turning point in how Basque civil society looked on terrorists. Besides causing wrath throughout the nation and beyond, his repulsive, cold-blooded assassination thrust scores of Basques onto the streets in outrage who had previously made a point of refusing to pick sides.

With less consensus over whether it was prompted by the same humanist repulse or by the menace of a growingly tougher electoral law closing in on their refusal to explicitly condemn violence, the “aberzale” left underwent a parallel shift, going from de facto complicity to an internal ballot ushering in a motion to repudiate the ETA.

IV. The victims are one last common theme throughout the film. Irreparably dissatisfied with any settlement that doesn’t return their loved ones and having to live with the spectre of terrorism every hour of every day even decades after it’s over in everyone else’s home, we owe them to demand justice and to honour their dead.

In addition, the film credits the progress towards some manner of reconciliation on the victims themselves, of all people. Most famously, it is the case of Maixabel Lasa, who, fourteen years after losing her husband to terrorism, made a habit of meeting up with the man who shot him in the neck in cold blood at a bar, Ibón Etxezarreta.