During my recent trip to Spain’s Basque Country, I served as a judge for the 40th annual Idiazabal cheese contest in the small town of Ordizia, an experience I wrote about for ZesterDaily.com. There was one moment, however, that I did not mention, because it was not relevant to a food publication. When it comes to the issues I’ve written about in my novel, however, it could not have been more on point.
About halfway through the contest, as I and the rest of the judges sat at our tables, an announcer began addressing the crowd in Euskera, the Basque language. In streamed a line of people who took up spots behind us—a man with an infant strapped to his chest in a carrier, a few children, several older men and women, and folks who were middle-aged—most holding signs or wearing them draped over their shoulders.
A friend of mine had clued me in about this procession ahead of time, so I knew that the moment of silence we were being asked to observe was in recognition of those locals currently being held by either the Spanish or French authorities as suspected members of ETA, the Basque separatist group that has set off bombs and committed other violent acts against Spain’s central government and its perceived representatives.
It was hard not to feel uncomfortable and conflicted about the entire proceeding. On the one hand, it’s true that the atrocities committed against many Basques (and Catalans and Galicians and progressives and homosexuals and on and on…) during the Spanish Civil War and the decades of dictatorship that followed it were horrific beyond words. [If you don’t believe me, read Paul Preston’s The Spanish Holocaust, in which he details the systematic government-sanctioned rape, torture, exile, and execution of tens of thousands of political dissenters.] Though my novel takes place in Galicia, where my parents were raised, the decision to write it was partly inspired by the many folks I’ve met in the Basque Country who have shared with me the upsetting experiences of their own families and friends during that dark period in Spanish history.
Reading the accounts of those atrocities (crimes that in most cases were never prosecuted, punished, or even publicly discussed) is to understand how the colors and contours of such a deeply embedded rage can be blurred and absorbed into the very marrow of otherwise gentle, peace-loving individuals. And yet, meeting violence with more violence is never a true solution, no matter how justifiable and pure the drive for vengeance might feel in those wounded interior spaces.
Still, looking around at the folks holding signs that read “Etxean Nahi Ditugu” (“We want them home”), I did feel compassion. In their faces, I saw brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, aunts, and uncles who just wanted their loved ones home. These were folks who either believed fervently in the innocence of their family members or who felt that the notion of guilt and innocence was a luxury that they and their countrymen were never afforded. It was like watching the relatives of the accused in a made-for-TV courtroom drama; whether or not those being tried had committed any crime, it was clear that their families were already being punished—collateral damage of the kind that seems inevitable in any war.
But what then should one say to the families of those who’ve been killed in these attacks—in some cases, folks who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and who in no way could be accurately held up as representatives of an oppressive and unjust regime. The grief of their relatives was legitimate as well.
In the end, it seems to me that the only moral response, as unsatisfying as it may be to some, is to recognize the humanity of all involved, for that humanity was the first thing to be stripped from people so many years ago. It also means shining a light on the past, instead of pushing it under the rug. It means talking about what happened with compassion, but still holding the guilty accountable in a court of law—and by that I mean all of the perpetrators, including the state-sanctioned ones—even in cases where those individuals no longer walk this earth. Maybe if that were to happen, that small child strapped to his father’s chest in Ordizia might someday know a better world.