This article represents my personal views on events during the (unofficial) Catalan referendum in 2017 – written whilst waiting to check in for a flight at Barcelona airport and is a reminder that travel isn’t all sandy beaches and cocktails. It can be gritty realism and immersion in the lives of real people which puts a whole different perspective on things. Whilst originally written several years ago and now updated in 2023, I hope that it shows how making an effort to understand what you experience on a personal level can affect you beyond any spectacular Instagram location
I always do my best to learn about the history and to understand about the different cultures and customs of the places that I visit and that summer was no different. I had visited Catalunya and Spain many times over the years so it was time that I researched and investigated the history of the Spanish Civil War. As a result, the political events that I found myself in the middle of, held even more emotion for me.
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Why did I cry when I left friends behind in Colombia or why did I bawl 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 was always 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. Friends tend to be made quickly when you are backpacking and I guess the majority of us are looking for connections and meaning to our lives. I have made many good friends from all around the world but I always know that the chances of meeting again will not happen in the majority of cases.
But as another hot summer drew to a close in 2017 the leaving felt different. I felt as if I were abandoning my friends. I was leaving behind a country that’s very uncertain of her future. I had been 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 was becoming quite proficient in one of her languages. I’ve travelled through some difficult regions in the world but this was the first time when I had been a part of a disturbing situation unfurling live and as it happens. Looking back I wonder was it that dramatic compared to say, experiencing the Covid pandemic, but it was dramatic because I had an inkling that this part of Spain had far more to offer me in the future and as I have already said, many people that I cared about were on the front line and involved. (Click here to find out how that turned out)
As I left for the airport I could only hope that things would settle down and quickly, common sense and dialogue will prevail and no side would lose face. But especially now, we must all be aware of how seemingly overnight a small disagreement can erupt into a full blown argument followed by hatred and divisions. Since then, there have been unbelievable conflicts in the Ukraine, Syria and Sudan and I am moved to tears when I think of how my friends in the beautiful country of Myanmar are suffering.
But coming back to that day in 2017 and without any Latin blood in my veins I could 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 as a child and she was beaten by the teachers 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 only 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 used to receive 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 of Great Britain. 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 do understand some of the Catalan people’s call for independence from Spain and I also 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 in an attempt to pursuade the Spanish government that the majority of people wanted independence.
Under Spanish constitution the vote and therefore the result of it was illegal. In the run up to the election, because it was deemed to be illegal, no proper organised debates could take place although local newspapers and Catalan television and radio stations did their best, and everybody in every bar had an opinion one way or another. 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 not to cause anarchy.
And then the Spanish government threatened to send in the ‘storm troopers’. There were rumours that tanks would even be deployed and polling stations would be closed down.
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 were worried and they had a deep mistrust of the mainstream media which many believe are manipulated by the government. They were starting to remember the past. Modern day propaganda in the run up to that 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 which is exactly what I wanted to do in order to fully understand what on earth this was all about.
On 1st October I was sitting in the sun outside a bar and 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 her 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.
Each of the bars had pulled large screen TVs out onto the street and had been broadcasting events since the early morning so my friend’s fears were very real. Dressed in black, with riot shields, batons and guns, the national police first threatened and then began beating people indiscriminately. The elderly and the women did not escape either. If you were in the wrong place at the wrong time you could be beaten with truncheons or shot at with rubber bullets. We all watched horrified as the televisions showed two strong soldiers physically drag a woman out of a building whilst kicking her and dragging her down a flight of stairs by her hair.
My elderly friend described to me with tears in her eyes 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 because the rhetoric was so similar and the speed of which the hatred was growing was getting out of control.
Voting day in the Catalan referendum
So that Sunday on 1st October, myself and my friends felt drawn to the village centre to stand with our good friends – both Spanish and Catalan – watching and waiting for the possible arrival of the troops. We were 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. The police had already tried to gain entry to one of the town buildings late the previous night but had only found people camping there as a decoy to the real location and now a series of messengers were manning radios and motorbikes and keeping one step ahead of the National Guard as they rolled along the road networks.
It was just like a scene from a film outside the bar opposite the fire station which was where the voting papers were being collected. 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 playing and thankfully blissfully unaware but the adults nervously eyed the main 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. The villagers had already decided that should the national guard enter, that they would all sit on the ground with crossed wrists held in frong of their faces, but as we had already seen, this passive stance would not necessarily prevent a beating. Then a motorbike came into the village in a panic and as alrady planned several tractors took off down different tracks, one containing the ballot box.
Thankfully, in the end, 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 the event 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 3rd 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 with 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 chosen to open 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 were 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 flew out from Barcelona airport was 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.
Thankfully, the situation diffused although the political problem hasn’t gone away. In 2018 there was a period of unrest when roads were blocked with burning tyres and protestors in an effort to bring the political situation back into the spotlight again and I am sure that this won’t be the last time. I remember that I had to get home from visiting a friend and the trip which should have taken be forty minutes took three hours mostly detouring around the small country back roads.
Now, with residencia status, I feel even more a part of this beautiful country and a love and a respect for its people and I simply hope that common sense and dialogue prevails whatever the outcome.
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
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!