Freedom for the Basque Country
Walking the Camino del Norte in Northern Spain is as much an exercise in history as it of the body.
Any notion of Spain as one unified nation was quietly put to rest for the autonomous regions of Spain are as distinct as the nations making up the United Kingdom.
The Camino del Norte begins in the Basque country, Spain’s most notorious separatist state, starting from Irun in the east through to the capital Bilbao near the western border.
The Basque countryside has a seemingly endless array of ancient, pristine landscapes and a stand-out food culture that includes the highest concentration of Michelin starred restaurants per capita in the world.
It is more however than pintxos in San Sebastiàn and nude bathing on its northern beaches.
The Camino traverses the town of Gernika, an important site of Basque history, where seeds of a polemic and persistent independence movement were born.
During the Spanish civil war in 1937, General Francisco Franco called on his allies in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to bomb this Basque town.
The exact number of casualties isn’t known but most estimates suggest hundreds of people were killed while going about their weekly shopping, a punishment sent from Franco for Basque support of the Republican cause.
In 1939, Franco declared victory and became dictator of Spain, under whose reign the repression of the Basque people and culture continued. Basque political groups and expressions of culture were strictly prohibited and people could find themselves in danger for speaking the language in public.
Political oppression became the breeding ground for violent opposition and in the 1950s a group of Basque separatist students started an underground freedom movement called Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom) to become known as the ETA.
What started out as students arming themselves to resist Franco’s rule, turned into nearly 50 years of largely ineffective, arbitrary violence.
ETA actions led to almost 1000 deaths, many of them civilians, and included the bombing of Madrid airport in 2006 killing two Ecuadorian construction workers.
Chances of motivating political will or support for a Catalonian-esque model of sovereignty in the region were dashed with the Spanish government refusing to negotiate with a terrorist organisation.
In 2011, the ETA declared it was renouncing the armed struggle once and for all and while apologising for the suffering caused, sentiment remains that the actions of the Basque separatists were valid.
Remnants of the Basque people’s discontent still permeate the autonomous region where independentzia signs and graffiti are displayed proudly and ubiquitously along the roads, pathways and buildings on the Camino.
Understanding the fuel for this fire requires understanding the Basque country is an anomaly.
They speak a most ancient language of Europe, Euskara, which is unique in the continent and believed to be remaining from the languages spoken in Europe before the Indo-European expansion and concurrent spread of Latin and neo-Latin languages.
Basque genetics are also distinct from neighbouring French and Spanish, with recent research indicating early Iberian farmers are the closest ancestors to present-day Basque people.
So a language and gene pool unlike any other in Europe coupled with political and cultural repression delivers a potent mix for independence-fuelled rebellion.
While the Basque language has now been reinstated into the education system and there are many government led initiatives to revitalise the language, still only around 30% of the Basque population speak it.
History is powerfully effective in its depth and ability to divide people and two generations of extremist tactics from the ETA has left the Basque people viewed in the eyes of many Spaniards (and French) nationalists as radical secessionists. It has also hindered a desire to learn the language for many migrants to the region.
As each year of non-violence passes though, these old sentiments may be softening. The increasing popularity of the Camino del Norte is bringing more and more pilgrims into the Basque country, who appreciate the region’s unique history and cultural facets.
This gives Basque people a reason to be proud and combined with transparent and open dialogue towards reconciliation, may allow this embattled language and culture to experience its long sought after revitalisation.