El Proyecto

ETA’s Lost War

After 20 years of condemnation, a group of prisoners return to a changed, pluralistic and foreign Basque Country.


Next to a frayed flag calling for the reallocation of ETA prisoners to Basque country’s prisons, three consecutive doors explain the new Basque reality in Tolosa. La Jara, an Extremaduran cultural center, and a Mosque share the first door. In the next sits the Evangelic House of God Centre, managed by a rapper looking pastor – and then the Chinese Haozailai Bazaar which remains open all day. Only at the end of the street, you can find an authentic Basque hairdresser and a fruit store where Tolosa beans are on show along with Palos strawberries.


ETA announced its disarmament for the 8th of April on Friday, marking an end date for its penultimate chapter. Many of its prisoners, are now regaining freedom after having served an average of 20 years in jail for blood crimes – six years ago there were around 600 members of ETA in Spanish prisons and now there is no more than 280 – not only do you come across a society dressed in uniform – furniture from Ikea, clothes from Zara, but also away from their old demands. Some of them like Josu Amantes, Fernando Etxegarai, and Oihana Garmendia, don’t feel ‘either defeated or frustrated’, but according to Maritxy Jimenez, a psychologist who served ETA for 17 years at first hand, explains that others have a sensation ‘of having lost the war and they live with it under a lot of pressure.” They return to a world where, all of sudden, they don’t mean anything.


In 2003, sitting at the pediment of Zubieta, a small locality on the outskirts of San Sebastian, Arnaldo Otegi, who then was the leader of the Batasuna Party[1], declared to  ‘la pelota vasca’ (a political documentary by Julio Madem): “I have a Cuban Friend who always says that we are the last indigenous people of Europe. The day that people from Lekeitio or Zubieta eat in a hamburger restaurant, American rock music is heard, everyone wears American clothes, stop speaking their language to speak English, and instead of being contemplating going to the mountains, everyone is using the Internet; well for us that will be such a dull world, so dull that it won’t be worth living.”


Only 14 years after, just step outside the pediment of Zubieta – now surrounded by newly built town-houses-, follow the N1 for 20 kilometers and enter Tolosa to discover that, in the first building after the petrol station, lives this ‘so dull’ world which Otegi was afraid of. The end of ETA’s terrorism has favored the coexistence to the point of building a postcard of tolerance – a mosque next to a Chinese shop and a place of evangelical worship – impossible in the ultra-national landscape that the military intended to impose. In 1995, 45.3% of Basque people cited “terrorism and violence” as one of the main problems there, while in 2016, the percentage had lowered to 0.7%. After announcing the military will surrender at the beginning of April, how many Basque people will remember terrorism in the next CIS (Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas) study.



«When a very strong civil conflict ends,» explains Imanol Zubero, professor of sociology at the University of the Basque Country (UPV), «There are two groups who suffer the oblivion, the astonishing speed with which society can forget about the past. One is that of the victims, who ask themselves how those years of suffering can be forgotten; the other is for those who have considered themselves as heroes because they have gone as far as killing and being in prison for many years for the land of the Basque country. Some and others realize that society has already forgotten them.” Zubero, who for many years had a bodyguard and still went to prisons to examine ETA prisoners enrolled in university, has observed how in recent times, and in a very accelerated way, the community is being broken over the years and nobody is responsible.”



Historically, ETA took care of the militants who were kept under their discipline and put them in the spotlight – including killing, like in the case of Yoyes[2] – those who decided to embark on their own way. “This homogeneity”, explains Imanol Zubero, “has been breaking. There have been male and female prisoners who are opting for, with the support of Bildu[3], individual ways to take advantage of the opportunities of legislation and leave prison as soon as they can. And, also from outside, the families of those who welcome individual ways don’t want to have anything to do with prisoner groups. There has been a very clear breach, which is seen in support demonstrations for prisoners. You see that all of a sudden a person is missing that used to go and right away you find out that the son or daughter of that person have gone to or have been released from a Basque prison. It’s a thing that used to be done through the back door, but now is being done with the support of Bildu and this is generating a lot of conflict between the left-winged Abertzale”[4]. ATA has emerged from there, a minority group for now who accuse current political leaders – including Otegi – of being traitors for having given up on the prisoners and armed fight.


The feeling of the end of time, of every man for himself, is also observed inside the prisons. This has been greatly confirmed by an expert in the fight against antiterrorism – who asks not to be named – like José Luis de Castro, the judge of the Prison Supervision Court. “For some time now”, warned the expert, an idea exists between them that everything is over. For the past two years, orphans have been left behind to manage. Unlike in the previous era when they secretly received very precise instructions from the lawyers of the group – when there is a hunger strike, when there is a protest without leaving from the cells, now the debate is open. It was even published in the Gara[5] newspaper last December. And what lies behind the debate, which the lawyer Iñigo Iruin devised, is to link the group to Sortu[6] instead of, as always, to ETA. Like this, they would become independent prisoners as opposed to ETA prisoners.”

The change of surname could provide them with penitentiary benefits and even being relocated to a prison located in the Basque country. The Prison Supervision judge has observed for a year and a half “the increase in the number of ETA prisoners worried about updating their records, of having it ready for the next steps they can be given.”

The expert in the fight against terrorism who asked not to be named added, in any case, it isn’t foreseeable that for prisoners who are about to serve a sentence, opt for a more moderate path. “Those who have a few months left aren’t going to regret anything because their outlook is: ‘I’ve endured 20 years here, mostly in solitary confinement, and I go out with my head held high’, why is (in quotes) ‘terrorist dignity’ important for them. I want everyone to know that 20 years in prison failed to break me.”


A very changed Society


This attitude can be found in the following 3 ex-prisoners who have agreed to tell their situation after spending half of their lives in prison. Josu Amantes was detained in Brittany in 1992 and has spent 22 years in French and Spanish prisons after being convicted of explosive attacks committed in 1983 against the HQ of the Biscay bank killing 3 people. Amantes was seriously injured during a bombing of the GAL in a bar in Bayonne. Similar to like, Fernando Etxegarai, who was in prison for 21 years from 1987 to 2008 for carrying out 9 attacks without any fatal victims- and for Ohiana Garmendia- from 2009 to 2015 in French prisons for her membership as a recruiter for ETA- is neither considered defeated nor believes that the ultimate objective  –“a socialist and independent Basque Country”-is unachievable. “Yes it is true”, admitted Amantes, “that when I came out I found a very changed society. You find a youth that is a little demobilized. But of course, that also needs to be put into context. Our time was boiling, they were the times of action, reaction, action; It was all booming. But when I came out I found objectives and a very lively debate that remained the same as when I left but pursued with other tools.

However Etxegarai admitted in the same line “as the political situation is now, people won’t vote for independence in a hypothetical referendum, the important thing is letting people vote, either we win or we lose.” Whether or not it has been worth so much death and prison, no one takes a step backward, while choosing their words carefully because depending on what they say, Justice can incriminate them. Fernando Etxegarai says “ the methods were what they were, but at least I tried. I believed and believe in some objectives, and despite how tremendous it was to make the decision, at least I have the peace of mind to say I tried.” Oihana Garmendia added: “We will ask ourselves that type of question for the rest of our lives. But when you make a decision you make it with full awareness, despite the possibilities being quite grey: prison, death or disappearance.” Maritxu Jimenez, the psychologist, the third to warn: “I don’t remember anyone asking whether or not it was worth it. If at some point we mentally break, it won’t be in this way. We break because we think when we get out of prison the worst part is going to be over but we do not take into account the difficulty of adapting. ”


Fernando Etxegarai, who is part of the management of Harrera (welcomed in the Basque Country), an association that helps prisoners take their first steps out of prison- from an ID card to medical care- explains that, after so many years in prison, there are prisoners that are heading towards poverty: “There have been cases of other processes in which it is possible to provoke a crime precisely because of the marginality in which these people remain.”


Maritxu Jimenez says that some of ETA prisoners, when they go out on the street, “they do not get emotional or feel emotion, they do not identify them because they have them stored away so they do not hurt them; many have a debt to the dear people and suddenly feel nothing towards these people.” After a life of escaping, committing attacks or in prison, loneliness becomes your best friend. Josu Amantes says “When I went out on the street, since I had no walls stopping me, I walked and walked, kilometers, at a fast pace, like a madman. I needed to release the poison that was inside me.”

[1] “Batasuna (English: Unity) was a Basque nationalist political party based mainly in Spain that was banned in 2003, after a strongly contested court ruling declared proven that the party was financing ETA with public money.”


[2] “María Dolores Gonzalez Katarain, also known as Yoyes, was an iconic woman leader of Basque separatist group ETA who became a symbol because of the tragic circumstances of her life.

Yoyes was the first woman to enter the senior ETA leadership, but she decided to leave the organization to start a new life. Her former comrades regarded her as a traitor and she was killed by ETA in 1986 in her hometown of Ordizia, during a local festival, in front of her three-year-old son”


[3] “a leftist, Basque nationalist and pro-independence political coalition active in the Spanish autonomous communities of Basque Country and Navarra.”


[4] “a term used to refer to the parties or organizations of the Basque nationalist/separatist left, stretching from social democracy to communism.”


[5] “Gara is a bilingual newspaper published in the city of Donostia-San Sebastián in the Basque Autonomous Community.”


[6] Basque socialist political party founded in February 2011













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