Riot In Basque Country – San Sebastian, Spain

San Sebastian

San Sebastian

The Basque country in northern Spain;  a region of beautiful scenery, great food, and extremely friendly and hospitable people. However, when this region is mentioned many will also draw associations to ETA, bombs, separatism, and terrorism. It’s a shame that such a great place has to be associated with such a terrible reputation, but the area has earned its reputation for a reason. For years and decades, separatist groups from this region have fought for independence from Spain, many times using violence as a means to get their message across.

Demonstrations are regular and even scheduled occurrences in San Sebastian. The demonstrations are vastly exposed and receive a lot of attention. But, I suppose this is the definition and purpose of a demonstration. Wouldn’t be worth going through the trouble of making a statement without an audience, would it?

Sunday afternoon, and I’ve been warned by my local friend that there will be a big one that will close off some streets and limit the public transport. It turns out she’s right. A large procession walks through the streets of central San Sebastian. The police are following every step of the demonstrating people, as well as the audience. From my distant viewpoint I can’t make out what the signs are saying or what the demonstrates are chanting, so I move closer, towards the demonstration. The procession is moving rather fast, so I speed up.

All of a sudden a few loud bangs fill the air. These are not firecrackers or backfiring cars. These are gunshots. People start running, and they run towards me. Most of them appear to be tourists. Scared tourists in a stampede. Great, I dodged the bullets, but will now be stamped to the ground by a hoard of panicking tourists.

I look in the faces of the running people as they pass me. What was initially terror in their eyes have now changed to nervous laughter, as they realize that they are now at a safe distance from the action. I don’t know where the shots came from, but would imagine that the police shot a few in the air. Maybe someone came too close. Maybe they saw a threat. Or maybe they wanted to please the audience, adding to the myth of the Basque land; “Visit San Sebastian. We can’t offer you a run with bulls, the benefits of a big city, or even warm and sunny weather. But pick us, and we’ll throw in a live demonstration with serious riot potential”.

The demonstration carries on, but now in front of a smaller and more alert crowd. Maybe this is standard procedure for the locals. But, for the bewildered tourist, a few seconds of action is enough to ignite senses of…Fear? Danger? Awareness? Maybe not a near death experience, and maybe not even enough time to get scared. Definitely  enough time though to realize that the demonstration in fact is subject to a cause. Not sure which cause for this very one, but clearly one that carries more depth and emotion than the standard tourist mind is used to.

Christian Celind in San Sebastian, Spain, August 2008

Traveler Article


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