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Spain: Friendship amid the Basque conflict

MADRID, Spain — In many ways, Aitor Merino’s friendship with Asier Aranguren was typical of those between many boys from the Basque country in northern Spain. They went to the same school and played together, and as teenagers they talked about girls and smoked their first cigarettes together.

Then their paths diverged. At 16, Merino moved to Madrid and became a successful film and TV actor. Aranguren stayed in the north and cultivated his Basque nationalist beliefs. Despite their distance, however, the two friends remained close.

In 2002, to his horror, Merino read in a newspaper that his friend was wanted by the police for membership in the terrorist group ETA, which has killed more than 800 people in its campaign for an independent Basque state.

“My knees buckled and I started shaking all over,” Merino said of the moment he discovered his friend’s connection to the militants.

Speaking in an interview, Merino, now 40, said he was very worried about what might happen to his fugitive friend, “but also of what he might do as a member of ETA.”

“Because ETA wasn’t just a clandestine organization — it was violent, it killed people and that terrified me.”

Eventually arrested, Aranguren served seven years in prison on terrorism-related charges — although not murder — before his release in 2010.

For the peace-loving Merino, who’d made a life in the capital of the Spanish state on which ETA had declared war, their friendship took on new, disturbing dimensions.

Merino has now made a documentary about their relationship, in the process addressing the complexities and divisions that the ETA issue continues to provoke in Spanish society despite the group’s unilateral renunciation of violence in 2011.

“Asier ETA biok” (or ‘Asier and I’) was co-directed by Merino and his sister, Amaia, and although it’s yet to have a general release, it won the Basque Cinema award at this year’s San Sebastian film festival. Part-video diary, part-reportage, it’s a fascinating document of Merino’s struggle to come to terms with the unknown side of his friend — the side that belonged to a terrorist organization.

The movie highlights Merino’s own divided loyalties: between his Basque friendships, ancestry and identity on one hand and his aversion to violence and extremism on the other.

“Talking about the Basque conflict in Madrid was always difficult for me,” Merino said. “And the moment my childhood friend Asier joined ETA, the questions it generated were suddenly much bigger — both the questions my friends [in Madrid] started to ask me and those I asked myself about the use of violence as a form of achieving political aims.”

It’s easy to see why Merino values his friendship with Asier: in the documentary, the former militant comes across as intelligent, affectionate and blessed with a dry sense of humor. Even he seems to realize the funny side when, during a family dinner, he solemnly raises a toast to “independence and socialism” while wearing a Groucho Marx plastic nose and glasses.

Asier’s closeness to his family also shines through his radical politics. In one moving scene, he visits an elderly great aunt several hours after his release from prison. Weeping as he fondly embraces the frail old woman, he joins her joyfully singing a Basque protest song that celebrates shedding “Spanish blood as long as the invasion lasts.”

“Asier is someone with amazing human qualities, that’s why he’s my friend. I adore him,” Merino said. “But it’s not a portrait that is deliberately kind to him — that would have meant defending [terrorism]. Instead, this is a defense of friendship.”

ETA’s announcement in October 2011 that it had ended its four-decade campaign of violence seemed to give Spain’s Basque conflict a form of closure — and Merino a happy ending for his movie.

But although the organization hasn’t killed since then, there’s a sense a longed-for peace process still isn’t underway. The conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, under pressure from the hawkish right wing of his Popular Party, has made no moves to bring the 700 or so ETA members in jail in Spain and France closer to their families, as many had hoped.

ETA, for its part, has neither disbanded nor handed over any weapons.

“This isn’t a conventional peace process in the sense of negotiations and so on,” says Kepa Aulestia, an expert on the Basque country for the Vocento media group.

“Like so many other cases, this will be an imperfect peace, it will leave wounds and it will not be entirely satisfactory.”

The passions and anger the issue still ignites were apparent last month, when the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the “Parot doctrine,” a legal mechanism used by Spanish courts to delay the release of many ETA prisoners.

The ruling has already led to the release of convicted ETA members such as Ines del Rio, convicted of killing 23 people.

In the Basque city of Bilbao, hundreds of pro-independence campaigners celebrated the court’s decision. They saw the Parot doctrine as just another instance of Spanish state repression, along with questionable arrests of alleged ETA collaborators and police brutality.

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In Madrid, however, anti-terrorism campaigners were outraged.

On her Twitter account, victims’ advocate Angeles Pedraza posted: “Hurt. Suffering. Fear. Desperation. Shame. Grief.”

At a mass demonstration she and thousands of others attended in Madrid, protesters held aloft photographs of many of those killed by ETA. Some chanted for the death penalty for the organization’s killers.

Although he accepts many Spaniards are appalled by the convictions and actions of the likes of Asier Aranguren, Merino wants them to try to recognize his friend’s motives.

“The Spanish people need to understand that there’s a side to the Basque reality they haven’t seen,” he said.

“It’s not about justification, but understanding,” he elaborated. “When you get to know the ‘other,’ you can judge for yourself and have a more informed opinion.” 

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