Saturday, 23 February 2013

What we did and didn't see

Yesterday morning I was working in a school in Zaragoza, right on the northern fringe of the city, outskirts that weren't even outskirts until a very few years ago. At morning break I went to find a bank, and I thought I could hear a protest march. There was chanting, like the chanting of slogans, but nobody was there. Aside from me, and a couple of empty trams, the streets were deserted.

I expected a march to come round the corner without warning, like the car in Blow-Up, but it never did. From where I was, high up on a hill, I could see down into the city centre, and across to the ludicrous, overblown station with its disused cable-car connection to the park where the Expo took place, and I even wondered whether the sound had carried up the hill from some other part of the city on one of Zaragoza's characteristic winds.

It hadn't. When I got back into the school I could hear gunfire, and after a short time bothering myself as to whether I had imagined two sounds that morning, I realised that both had come from the officer training school just to the north. You drive past it if you come off the motorway at that end of the city: a huge barracks with a man in uniform, on the gate, carrying a sub-machine gun, stood next to what appears to be a small pile of cannonballs. I've never got close enough to see.

You don't have to be a Guerra Civil buff to find you can't go into Zaragoza - not from the north, anyway - without thinking about the army. On 23F, the 23rd of February, you can't avoid it at all, this being the anniversary of the coup of 1981, the failure of which ended the era in which the Army was a powerful and quasi-independent force in Spain, and began the era, not of democracy as such, but of stable, guaranteed democracy. For thirty years since then it has been assumed that there would be, and could be, no more coups.

I remember it. Not well, but I remember it, from television news in Britain at the time, when I was fifteen. Ths man in a funny hat coming into the Spanish parliament and firing a gun: I ever remember knowing the name, Colonel Tejero, and being puzzled as to why somebody who wasn't even a General was apparently in charge. I'm not sure I knew, at the time, that there had been a period of forty years in which Spain had been ruled by a General, though if I didn't know, I was to find out soon enough.

This 23F is the day of the Mareas Ciudadanas, The Tide of Citizens Against The Coup Of The Markets, a series of demonstrations all over Spain against the cuts and for a democracy that has been rendered farcical by the corruption of the political parties and the demands of the financial institutions.

I nearly went, though I have been ten years retired from active political involvement. But every time I see Olli Rehn dictating its own self-destruction to another country I think seriously about taking to the streets again. If Rehn and his friends are going to throw Spain back a generation, as they are surely going to do, and if they are going to render the will of the Spanish people as irrelevant as Colonel Tejero tried to render it, then perhaps they will take me back a generation too, back to what I was in 1981 - angry and idealistic and wondering what could be done about the capitalists.

Of course, el golpe de los mercados is not the same as the coup of Tejero, let alone that of Franco. But the contempt for the population is the same. And there is always the fear that economic collapse will lead to social collapse, and that will lead to a new conflict, a new Franco or Tejero. They were defeated in 1981, and everybody thought they had gone away for ever. But we are travelling backwards so fast in Spain, as they are in Greece and Portugal, that the past is not, for certain, a different country any more.

Even after 23F in 1981, they didn't go away completely. Not straightaway. Just the other day I was in the bar of a hotel above Calatayud, a place we often stay when the journey home, or to the city where we're working, is too long to be managed without an overnight stay. Reading the Heraldo de Aragón, I came across the story of the mock-execution in Abena, which took place in 1984, and which I had not previously heard of. According to El País a week later, on the 6th of June 1984:
Un grupo de militares 'fusiló' al alcalde de un pueblo de Huesca durante unas maniobras.
A group of soliders "shot" the mayor of a Huesca village during manoeuvres. Firing blanks, it turned out, but a bizarre and nasty event all the same. Having gathered the locals in the main square, they accused the mayor and the odd-job man of being collaborators, and "shot" them. Up against a wall, with all the normal ceremony attending a real execution.

Nobody knows why the soldiers did this, and that is not the only mysterious aspect to the event. As the El País story reports, that same evening, the local radio station was robbed and equipment destroyed. The "executed" mayor fell over himself to say that it had all been a practical joke and that he forgave everybody involved. And everybody in the village developed amnesia. According to another piece later that same month:
Ninguno de los habitantes de Abena que ayer se encontraban en el pueblo admitió haber estado en la plaza cuando el pelotón de las COE fusiló a Galindo y a Ara. Todos parecían ser víctimas de una fuerte amnesia que les impedía recordar nada de lo sucedido. Sin embargo, recordaban perfectamente "las barbaridades y mentiras que habéis escrito los periodistas".
"None of the inhabitants of Abena that we came across admitted having been in the plaza" when the shooting took place. "All of them seemed to have been victims of a powerful amnesia preventing them remembering anything at all of what had taken place." However, as the writer snarkily adds, "nevertheless, they recalled perfectly the nonsense and lies that the journalists had written".

Very strange. The piece alludes to some stories in the press that the village had been a hideout for the maquis, Republican guerillas behind Fascist lines, during the Civil War, and the vehement denials of the villagers that this has been so. The very fact of their vehemence says a great deal, as does the comment of a thirty-year-old man, who had been there to help his parents with the harvest (June is not early for the harvest, round these parts) that he had been asked to say nothing to anybody, and that
Aquí la gente, la gente mayor especialmente, tiene mucho respeto, casi temor, a los militares.
"Here, people, expecially older people, have a great deal of respect for the military. Fear, almost."

When I say that this says a great deal, I don't assume that it says they were lying about the maquis. I mean that it demonstrates the effect of civil war, mass executions and two generations of military dictatorship upon the people who lived through it: their keenness to say nothing and to have nothing said about them, to see nothing that they should not have seen, to just want to be left alone. Most importantly, nobody should ever complain. (The absence of a complaint was, the following month, advanced by the lawyer for the soldiers involved as a reason for asking the military court to drop the case. In the end minor punishments were applied. The lieutenant in command was recently promoted to Brigadier-General, which prompted Heraldo to recall the 1984 events.)

I've been to Abena. It's in the northeast corner of a remote, hilly and mostly wooded area between Jaca, Ayerbe and Huesca, which one passes through on the spectacular train ride between Huesca and Canfranc, the old station of which is permanently closed and almost permamently due to be restored.

Having taken a the train a couple of years ago, we went thought the area by car last summer, turning off the main road just after the bridge over the Embalse de La Peña, then eastwards, if direction means anything in describing a winding passage through the practically-deserted hills. Then, just before reaching the main Huesca to Sabiñanigo road, turning northwest towards Jaca, and stopping, by coincidence, in Abena, like so many other villages in the area is on a hill, which we climbed to see if we could see a house, between there and Sabiñanigo, where a friend of ours had been working.

On the map, it's just a couple of miles from the town. But you can't see it: there's a mountain in the way. On the ground, as opposed to the map, everywhere in the mountains is a long way from everywhere else. Everywhere feels isolated. During decades of military rule, everywhere and everybody feels isolated.

One can understand, from this, why the Pact of Forgetting was not just a matter of political convenience, both for the Right who wanted the protection it gave them, and the Left who wanted the democracy for which the Pact was their side of the bargain. It also allowed many people to persist with the amnesia which they had learned, and which, in many different ways, they felt protected them.

In Abena, at least, the agreement was to forget the fusillado as soon as it had taken place, democratic era or not. In fact, when I read about the story a couple of weeks ago, it didn't even appear on the Wikipedia entry for the village.

Mysteriously, just in the past fortnight, the entry has been revised - maybe by somebody who saw the sme story that I did - and the village's memory has been restored. (It is more accessible than the Heraldo story, which online, at least, was behind the subscriber-only barrier.)

The reason why we learn the art of amnesia is because we don't forget. The reason why we learn the art of seeing nothing is that we see. The only people who do not see are those who do not want to. As I write, there are people on the streets of every Spanish city. People who can see. But the country is run, within and without, by the blind. By the wilfully, the ethically and the culpably blind.

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