Published in Monocle.com, October 14, 2011.
When the Basque separatist group ETA announced a permanent ceasefire in January, Spaniards were understandably wary. After all, the 2006 “permanent” ceasefire had lasted only seven months and ended with a van exploding at Madrid airport and killing two people.
However, on Friday, 23rd of September, imprisoned members of the terrorist group took the surprising and unprecedented step of endorsing a proposed peace agreement that vows the abandonment of all violent activity in favour of a political solution to the Basque struggle for independence. The agreement, known as the Gernika pact, was put forward by the Izquierda Abertzale, left-wing political factions favouring independence, in October 2010 and calls for peace through democratic means and the easing of strict penitentiary policy against ETA prisoners.
While it doesn't represent an actual commitment to disband, the endorsement by the Association of Basque Political Prisoners, which represents the 732 ETA inmates who haven’t left the organisation, marks ETA's most outright renunciation of violence yet and has raised cautious hopes. It has also put the spotlight onto a little-known mediation programme that aims to help heal the deep rifts ETA violence has caused in the Basque society.
In May this year, four prisoners formerly belonging to ETA met with family members of their victims in one-on-one conversations in order to apologise for their acts and ask for forgiveness. (Since its first assassination in 1968 ETA has killed over 800 individuals, most of them civilians inside the Basque Country.) The encounters were set up upon the prisoners’ initiative, supported by victims’ and prisoners’ government organisations and preceded by months of psychological preparation on both sides. Of the four civilians, one met the person actually responsible for their relative’s death; the other prisoners spoke as former members of the organisation.
“Every victim had their own reasons to participate, but a common element was the feeling that by doing so they could in a small way contribute to the improvement of relations inside the Basque Country,” says Chema Urkijo of the Basque government’s Office for the Victims of Terrorism, which contacted potential candidates. He stresses that the programme doesn't aim for reconciliation and that granting forgiveness was not a necessity, despite the apparent sincerity of the prisoners' apologies (they receive no counter-benefits for their participation).
Still, the outcome has given reason for hope. “I can't go into details, but the overall result for the victims was satisfactory,” Mr. Urkijo says. In an interview with El País newspaper, one of the civilian participants said that the encounter was worth it if only for making him realise that the terrorist in front of him was also a human being.
The second phase of the project is already under way. In the coming months another four victims of ETA violence will meet four imprisoned former members of the terrorist group. And while Mr. Urkijo warns that the initiative could only possibly reach a tiny fraction of all ETA prisoners or victims, they still plan to carry on. “It’s worth it,” he says. Even if ETA doesn't keep its promises, when it comes to healing the wounds of terrorism, every little action helps.