Healing the dark past in ETA-hit Renteria

Marianne BARRIAUX
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Renteria is slowly recovering from decades of unrest during ETA's campaign for an independent Basque homeland but old wounds are hard to heal

Since ETA declared a ceasefire in 2011, Renteria has slowly been recovering from decades of upheaval marked by violent protests, murders and torture brought about by the conflict waged by the Basque separatist group.

For some in this former industrial town in northern Spain, that involves walking the streets without a bodyguard, others are savouring living without fear, while still more say they enjoy the sight of tourists in their once-restive home.

And while news that ETA may finally fully lay down its weapons on Saturday is welcome, many are looking beyond with a pressing question -- how do you heal the wounds of a town once torn by strife and hate?

"This city has known tumultuous periods," acknowledges Julen Mendoza, mayor of the 40,000-strong town.

Renteria was the scene of more than 20 ETA killings, ranging from taxi drivers to policemen and town councillors, according to a report by regional rights group Argituz.

The report also details the seven murders and other torture cases inflicted by "parapolice" groups, such as the so-called GAL death squads established illegally in the 1980s by officials of Spain's then Socialist government to counter ETA.

Interspersed throughout were fierce, sometimes violently repressed protests -- all of which bred resentment in a town, whose fervent nationalism and sense of Basque identity appears only to be matched by its deep suspicion of the central government.

- 'Too many funerals' -

"I was six-months pregnant with my daughter, and a policeman hit me in the gut, I had to go to hospital," remembers Lourdes Irizar Rezola, a 59-year-old cleaner, pointing to a corner in the town centre where the incident happened over 30 years ago.

Staunchly pro-independence, she was attending protests for the rights of people from the nationalist left who had been jailed.

And while acknowledging the violence wrought by ETA in its four-decades campaign of bombings and shootings for an independent Basque homeland that left 829 people dead, her most vivid memory is of police violence which, she says, marked protests.

A couple of streets away, Miguel Buen sits in an office above the bar at the headquarters of his Socialist party, in power when he became mayor of Renteria in 1987, a post he held for 18 years.

His story is one marked by threats by ETA, whose bloody battle put it on a collision course with the central government, be it Socialist or conservative.

"I've sadly had to attend too many funerals of colleagues and friends, and others I didn't know, of councillors from the (conservative) Popular Party, businessmen, people who were merely passing by," he says.

The headquarters where Buen now sits were attacked 28 times during the period of upheaval -- with the occasional Molotov cocktail thrown in.

The ground floor used to have automatic fire extinguishers and bars on the windows and door -- all of which have now been removed.

Things have changed for Buen too, who at 69 is now retired.

"For five years now I have been walking through the streets of my town, of any town in Euskadi (Basque Country) without bodyguards," he says.

"People don't harass me, many people who wouldn't greet me before now greet me."

- Conciliation meets tensions -

This apparent thaw in town relations may be down in part to mayor Julen Mendoza.

He hails from the far-left pro-independence EH Bildu coalition but has nevertheless managed to rally politicians of all sides behind him in an effort at conciliation.

In 2013, he organised a public event where, among others, people who had once been jailed for their links to ETA mixed with victims of the separatist group.

A tough, emotional exercise, it proved useful to change people's mentalities, and move them away from rancour, he says.

Still, despite these kinds of initiatives that are taking place across the Basque Country, the path ahead is fraught with difficulties.

A quick walk around the town reveals several posters hung on walls or on flats' balconies calling for better prison conditions for ETA's roughly 350 jailed members.

Even if they reject the crimes committed by ETA, many nationalists in the Basque Country argue they should be allowed to serve prison time in their homeland.

But this is fiercely resisted by Madrid and other Spaniards for whom memories of bomb attacks are still all too raw, underscoring the tensions that remain.

"We have to learn to live together," says Juanma Alvarez, a retired 61-year-old, who will be attending Saturday's disarmament ceremony in France's Bayonne across the border.

"It's really important for me, and most people I know completely agree. Almost all of us are going."