Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Lubna Abdel-Aziz

Basque blues

They are unique, proud and ancient, and they want to be free.

Basques have lived in their territory since the Stone Age, occupying a specific isolated area of Europe, longer than any other identified ethnic group. Known as Basque Country, the region is located around the western edge of the Pyrenees, between north central Spain and adjoining southwestern France, on the coast of the Bay of Biscay.

Click to view caption
Picasso's lament over Guernica

The origin of the Basques is shrouded in mystery; more so is their language. The etymology of the word itself is too complex, but whether it means "forest", "bush", or "wooded area", or derived from Aquitane, German or Latin, the Basques themselves do not use it. They call themselves euskaldunak or euskotarrak, or "ethnically Basque", or "Basque speaker", derived from their ancient language. The English Basque comes from the French Basques, derived from the Gascon Basco and the Spanish Vasco, pronounced "basco". How the Basques came to Europe is also uncertain. Many historians maintain they were there before the Indo-European migration, when the Cro-Magnon's displaced and subsumed the resident Homo-Neanderthalensis population.

With a population of approximately 3.4 million, between Spain and France, they are "almost certainly the oldest surviving ethnic group in Europe". Genetically and culturally distinct, the Basque ante-date the ancient Iberian tribes with whom they have often been erroneously identified. Primarily a population of shepherds, fishermen, navigators and metal-workers, they have zealously guarded their ancient customs and traditions, especially their language, unrelated to any known tongue, yet spoken by all Basques. Isolated in the hills, it was easy for them to preserve their identity.

When the Romans arrived in the northwest of Spain 75 BC, they allowed the Basques to retain their language and their leadership. With the arrival of the Germanic peoples, the Basque were placed at the border between the warring Visigoths and Franks. They moved to the hills and mobilised against all invaders. Curiously they did not mobilise against the Islamic invaders who had seized most of the Iberian Peninsula.

A kingdom of Navarre (Nafarrao) centred in Pamplona around 830 AD, with the Basque as the dominant ethnic group. The first Basque king of Pamplona was Inigo Eneko, the Oak (c781-852). The Guernica oak tree became their symbol. During the Middle Ages, the Navarro kingdom lost power and their lands were divided between France and Spain. In Spain, the "Vascongadas" (Basques residing in that area), were given special privileges, called fueros, allowing them freedom and self-governance. During the l800s the Carlist Wars were fought between two factions in Spain, those who wished to maintain the mediaeval legal structure, and those who wished to follow the reforms of the French Revolution. The Basques fought with the conservatives, hoping to preserve their fueros. Following their loss, many fled Spain, starting the Basque diaspora mainly in the two Americas. Argentina had several Basque presidents, not to mention Che Guevara.

In 1873 Basque privileges were abolished because of their pro-Carlist stand. In 1931 Spain became a republic. The loss of the fueros became more critical under Francisco Franco who wanted total Castillianisation. Catalan, Galician and Basque were to be eradicated. After Franco's death, King Juan Carlos and the Spanish parliament returned some autonomy, but not enough.

The greatest atrocities of the Spanish Civil War was the bombing of Guernica, the traditional Biscayne capital, horrifically depicted by Picasso in his renowned painting " Guernica ". Much of the city was destroyed, and with it much of Basque history. Franco's regime introduced several laws against all Spanish minorities, with the purpose of suppressing their culture and language. This created a violent Basque separatist movement in 1968, known as Euskadi Ta Askatsuna ETA, meaning "Basque Land and Liberty", the violence resulting in 813 deaths within 40 years.

In 1960 the UN adopted the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, proclaiming that "the subjection of people to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation, constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights". It calls for the transfer of all powers to peoples in Trust and Non-Self-Governing Territories that have not yet attained independence, in accordance with their freely expressed will and desire. Does this not apply to the Basque! Seventeen applications are presently under review by the UN Committee, Basque is not among them. The UN law protects the territorial integrity of Spain.

When violence or force is involved, this process can only be achieved through negotiation. But years of endless, fruitless, negotiation, frustration, and despair, invariably give way to force and violence. This results in a quagmire, clearly evident in the case of Palestine. ETA, or other "terrorist organisations", may never have existed if the world community and their representatives at the UN were more vigilant in protecting peoples' freedoms and rights according to their Charter. Their anguished cry for freedom largely goes unheard and unheeded. In the 21st century, should they not turn to a body representing the world community to seek justice? But who do they turn to when that very body turns away? Yet, it saw fit to displace a whole people in order to grant another a homeland, leaving the Palestinians destitute, scattered and homeless for over half a century. Selective democracy for some and not others is abhorrent, leaving us befuddled and bewildered. After 40 years of violence, ETA has put down their arms, declaring a permanent ceasefire. Shall the will of the people prevail? Will democracy spread and prosper? Independence and sovereignty for a people that has lived in the same area longer than any other, seems a simple enough matter for Spain or the UN to deal with.

Maybe now, the long suffering proud Basques will come closer to achieving independence and peace in a land they can call their own. Having lived in their ancestral home possibly since the Paleolithic age, surely they deserve to be "free at last".

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible,

will make violent revolution inevitable

John F Kennedy


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