These are my personal views on events during the recent Catalan referendum – written whilst waiting to check in for my flight at Barcelona airport. Travel isn’t all sandy beaches and cocktails. It can be gritty realism and immersion in the lives of real people. I always do my best to understand the history and to understand about the different cultures and customs of the places that I visit and this summer has been no different as I researched and investigated the history of the Spanish Civil War. As a result, the recent events that I found myself in the middle of, held even more emotion for me.
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I cried when I left friends behind in Colombia and I bawled my eyes out as my plane took off from Rio after travelling for a year in South America. On a travel day, I usually sit quietly at bus stations or at airports reflecting on why I feel driven to leave the people that I care for and whom I know that I will deeply miss.
As a travel writer and a blogger I’m very excited to be travelling again, but moving on from a place where I have begun to put down some roots will always be tinged with sadness.
This time the leaving is different. I feel as if I’m abandoning my friends. I’m leaving behind a country that’s very uncertain of her future. I have been here in Spain for more than twelve months (with many side trips around Europe) learning about Spanish history and I’m proud to say that I am becoming quite proficient in one of her languages. I’ve travelled through some difficult regions in the world but this is the first time when I have been a part of a disturbing situation unfurling live and as it happens.
Hopefully things will settle down and quickly, common sense and dialogue will prevail and no side will lose face. But we must all be aware of how seemingly overnight a small disagreement can erupt into a full blown argument followed by hatred and divisions, and even as I write this, the news reports are changing minute by minute.
Without any Latin blood in my veins I can only try to imagine how deep the feelings of mistrust, past wrongs and a sense of national pride can run. It seems whilst all around the world many people want the benefits of a globalised planet, many individuals are turning back to their ancestral roots, embracing languages, customs and cultures and wanting to highlight their self-identity within smaller communities.
My grandmother was punished
My grandmother was banned from speaking Welsh in her school and she was beaten when she was overheard speaking anything other than English. Catalans, under Franco suffered an even worst fate if they were heard speaking their language in public. I understand the need to claim an identity – I am Welsh, British and European but never English – despite having long forgotten the Welsh language that I learnt in school and that my grandmother spoke to me. I also know that to force a people to abandon their own culture and to adopt another is done in an attempt to subdue and to degrade them. It usually only harbours resentment and it can become a ticking time bomb.
Over the years there have been calls for Welsh independence but for now those voices are in the minority. Wales is not a wealthy region of the United Kingdom and it receives a lot of European money (I still cannot for the life of me understand why, apart from in Cardiff, the majority voted for Brexit), and the region is better as part of the larger unit. The people from Cardiff which is the capital city of Wales are among the friendliest and most accepting of other cultures that I have met all around the world.
I understand some of the Catalan people’s call for independence from Spain and I understand the reluctance of the Spanish government to let them vote for change. But I will never understand how, in a democracy, a government can instruct its police force or army to turn on peaceful protesters with violence. I was there on Sunday 1st October. I witnessed first hand the feelings of horror, shame and disbelief that shook the region.
The (illegal) Catalan referendum.
On 1st October many of the Catalan people wanted the right to cast their vote for independence. This election may have been illegal in the eyes of the law but the people were putting a cross on a piece of paper. They were not marching in the streets or planting bombs. They were not screaming offensive racial obscenities, burning down banks or looting shopping malls. They were simply entering schools and village halls to put a cross on a piece of paper.
Under Spanish constitution the vote and therefore the result of it was illegal. In the run up to the election, because it was illegal, no proper debates took place. Many people may not have had access to all of the facts BUT at the end of the day, they were queuing up to put a cross on a piece of paper.
And the Spanish government sent in the ‘storm troopers’. Dressed in black they first threatened and then they began beating people indiscriminately. The elderly and women did not escape. If you were in the wrong place at the wrong time you could be beaten with truncheons or shot at with rubber bullets. It might be a slower way to break up a crowd but hey, two strong soldiers could physically lift a woman out of a building without resorting to kicking her or pulling her down a flight of stairs by her hair.
History must not be repeated
I have friends on both sides of the ‘border’. I have friends in Madrid and friends in the Basque Country. I have Catalan friends and Spanish friends who live in Catalunya. People are worried and they have a deep mistrust of the mainstream media which many believe are manipulated by the government. They are starting to remember the past. Modern day propaganda in the run up to Sunday showed images of tanks on the streets in Tarragona. People became angry until they realised that the photographs had been digitally altered. Whilst facts are circulated immediately, false images are just as quickly made and fake news is pumped out. It is hard to guage the level of public feeling unless you get down at street level and speak to the people.
On 1st October I was chatting to an eighty eight year old lady from the Catalan village where I have been living. She had struggled along the road on her walking sticks to go and cast her vote. I don’t know which side she voted for but she told me how worried she was for her son and grandchildren who were sitting outside the fire station which was hosting the ballot and who were all nervously wondering whether the riot police would descend on them and when.
My friend described to me how she was sadly re-living the day when as a nine year old she, her mother and other female members of her family walked to Barcelona – a distance of more than two hundred kilometres. Her father had gone to fight in the Spanish Civil War and she was just one of a steady stream of refugees fleeing the battle zone. She was afraid that things were once again beginning to unravel.
Voting day in the Catalan referendum
On 1st October, myself and my friends felt drawn to the village centre to stand with good friends – both Spanish and Catalan – watching and waiting for the possible arrival of the troops. And standing with people who were not violent or aggressive but who simply wanted the right to express an opinion. Others, higher up on the political spectrum may have had a bigger agenda but in a village of less than eight hundred inhabitants almost half turned out to mark their piece of paper one way or another.
Whilst both sides were spreading their propaganda on the day, most people were getting their news as it happened via social media. As the ‘storm troopers’ got ever closer to our village and the network of informers telephoned and advised us that the Guardia Civil weren’t too far away it was decided to close the ballot box and hide it.
Like a scene from a film people crossed the road and took their places outside a bar opposite the fire station. Drinks were ordered, the bar staff brought out plates of crisps and children played under the trees. Everything looked normal but there was an undercurrent and a nervous tension. The children ran around blissfully unaware but the adults nervously eyed the street from where the Civil Guard could come. The music from the bar was turned up changing from pop music to Catalan songs and the Catalan news channel transmitted scenes of the violence in other towns and cities on the television screen.
It was not thrilling or exciting to be in the middle of this scene. It made me sick to my stomach that this was happening. My friends and I were not there to be voyeuristic but to watch and to bear witness to whatever might happen. Thankfully our small village avoided the wrath of the soldiers. But half of the villagers didn’t turn out to cast their vote. Whether they were afraid to vote, had no interest in the vote or were ‘no’ voters who boycotted it because it was illegal we shall never know. But because of that, the vote cannot count nor should it be claimed to be representative of the majority.
Coming together in solidarity
On Tuesday, two days after Sunday 1st October most of Catalunya ground to a halt. As I understand it, this was not a general strike or action against Madrid, but a day of reflection, a day of solidarity, a day to come together in protest and to acknowledge the heavy-handed violence that had been a feature of the previous Sunday and to try to show the rest of the world that the Catalans wanted to bring about change without aggression.
People swarmed onto the streets; many carrying red carnations (this flower was also the symbol of the Portuguese freedom movement) and waving the Catalan flag. People stood, shoulder to shoulder with hands in the air and the bars that had opened attracted people who simply wanted to come together. Many of the national chains of supermarkets and shops were deserted as people boycotted them in a stance of togetherness.
And now three days on we are playing an uneasy waiting game. Whilst the European Union may not be able to order Spain to allow its regions to vote on the independence issue it could (and should, in my opinion) speak out against a nation that unleashes its Civil Guard on innocent and unarmed people in such a vicious way.
I’m struggling to make sense of this situation and Paul Mason does this much better than me in this article for The Guardian:
I can’t cover the entire political history in this short article. I can’t comment on whether the ‘yes’ or the ‘no’ camps have the answer; but I feel strongly that I should speak out and condemn the violence. There is a saying: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” I remained neutral and I didn’t speak out against situations in my past but I now mentor many survivors of domestic abuse and I tell them to stand tall and to speak out.
I stand up against the violence in Catalunya on 1st October.
My wish as I fly out from Barcelona airport is that the politicians talk constructively and quickly for the sake of this wonderful country and its amazing people. I am not qualified to voice an opinion on whether there should be an independent Catalunya; after all I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that the majority in my country voted for Brexit, but I am qualified to condemn the violence that was meted out to people who were standing or sitting with their hands in the air and posing no threat to riot police armed with shields and guns.
I hope that common sense and calm prevail. I hope that neither side are too stubborn to negotiate. I hope that the Catalan people manage to retain their dignity and their control and do not retaliate and resort to violence. I hope that when I do return to my friends and the country that I have grown to love, you are all unchanged by these events.
For now, adios Spain, adeu Catalunya and good luck to all of my friends that I leave behind.
Paz a todos, pau per a tothom.
For an excellent insight into the history of Spain, its regions and its people, the author and reporter Giles Tremlett has many of the explanations in his book Ghosts of Spain – Click here to order it from Amazon
In this piece from The Guardian newspaper Giles Tremlett adds his own opinion and further down in the article you can see how far things deteriorated with the Civil Guard beating the Catalan firefighters. https://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2017/oct/01/catalan-independence-referendum-spain-catalonia-vote-live
Below are some more of the most haunting images and video clips from the Catalan referendum that had an entire region stunned on Sunday 1st October, together with the Catalan anthem – both the original and the modern rock version (the Catalans LOVE their rock music)
And in this next link – attacking peaceful protestors – sickening!