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Catalonia: Caught in Conflict

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The jail sentence of nine Catalonian independence supporters once again stirred tensions between Madrid and Barcelona . While the missing dialogue saves friendships, it also splits the society.

It was the night of the 15th of October. The Catalonian independence supporters were angry and they showed it.They moved garbage containers closer together the blue, green, yellow, and the brown one. On top, they put cardboard boxes and whatever else they could find to burn. The flames soon lit up La Rambla, the famous street in the centre of Barcelona.

The day before, the Spanish supreme court had sentenced nine Catalonian politicians and activists to jail for organising and supporting the illegal referendum for independence in October 2017. The sentence meant that they would spend between nine to thirteen years behind bars, for sedition, misuse of public funds and disobedience. Many locals were not pleased with this decision.

I watched the riots in Catalonia on my laptop in Madrid—where I moved to half a year ago from Vienna. For newcomers like me, the historic conflict is difficult to understand. Steven Forti, an Italian historian who lives in Barcelona explained to me that the crisis became latent over the years because neither Madrid, nor Barcelona wanted to recognise that there is more than just one opinion in their jurisdiction. “It serves both governments to focus on only one part of the society,'' he says. “But by doing so, they irresponsibly ignore it’s diversity.

Itziar lives in Girona. The 51-year old with shoulder-length brown hair, works in a cosmetic store in the main shopping street of the old town. “Game of Thrones” was shot here, in front of the cathedral that was built in the late middle ages. Tourists gather between the beige stone houses and climb the stairs in the old alleys that make Girona appear like some enchanted labyrinth. Itziar is alone in the store. “They destroy the economy with their political dispute,” she says talking about the Catalan independence supporters in the government and the civil society.

Girona is the epicentre of Catalonian nationalism. Yellow flags with four red stripes are on almost every house, on lanterns and even on statues. In souvenir shops, tourists can buy the yellow ribbon pins—a symbol of support for the jailed pro-independence politicians, for 2,50 euros. “Llibertat presos politics” or freedom for political prisoners is written across the black railings on a juliette balcony. From the looks of it, these protests will also be in the background of many tourists’ photographs. Nobody can ignore it.

Itziar is from the Basque region in the north of Spain. For 50 years, the terrorist organisation Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) killed more than 800 people inside and outside the region, in the name of independence. By the end of the 1980s, a car bomb exploded near Itziar’s house in Bilbao and she decided to leave. But what is happening in Girona now makes her remember what she saw back then and worried that in Catalonia as well, violence will take over. “Separatism is never good,” she says.

Itziar knows who the independence supporters are and that there will be no unanimity. So she said she made deals with people like “As long as we don’t talk about politics, we stay friends.” When her neighbours speak Catalan among each other, she usually doesn't mind because she knows, if she listens, they will repeat it for her in Spanish. But with the referendum and the incarceration of politicians two years ago, and the escape of the former mayor of Girona and regional President Carles Puigdemont, things got tense.

On October 15th, Itziar watched from her balcony how people walked down the alley, shouting and clapping. I can tell that she is angry. She sends me videos, tweets and pictures and says the news will scare people and consequently they will not come to Girona anymore. She worries that without tourists, the economy will break down and unemployment will rise. “Only after the Basque region achieved an arrangement with the national government, everything got better” she says. Especially when the rest of Spain was suffering from the crisis that started in 2008, the north was fine. Itziar concludes that self-determination should be the goal, not separatism.

I think this conflict can be overcome,” says Forti. But in order to do that, politicians have to act responsibly. It is their job, not the one of judges, to solve the problem. Politicians have to make a dialogue possible. Forti names different steps to a possible solution. “First, they should give back the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia of 2006 that labelled it as a 'nation.' It was approved by the people in a referendum but later limited by the national Constitutional Court amongst great protest.” He adds that the government in Barcelona also needs to accept that independence is not possible right now since the territory is Spanish and the national government will never agree to a referendum, the outcome of which could change that. He explains that, on the other hand, Madrid should acknowledge the possibility of a referendum for auto-determination. “First and foremost, both governments have to recognise the diversity of opinion in the country’s society. If there is a rift now, it will affect generations,” says Forti.

This fear is shared by 50-year-old José. I met him one afternoon in Terrassa, which is an hour away by train from Barcelona. He was sitting on a bench in the middle of the avenue next to his briefcase, smoking a cigarette nonchalantly. He is from the north of Spain and he loves his country. But in Catalonia, he says, they call him a fascist for it. His wife is an independence supporter and the conflict has now become a personal matter for him. After the verdict was announced on Monday, he wrote me an email saying that he does not want to further preoccupy himself with the topic. He has stopped reading the news and he seems tired and sad. “In the last two years, I have seen how a peaceful, tolerant and unified society was disrupted in a premeditated and artificial way, bringing insecurity and the rupture of families and friendships.

I see the pictures of people fighting each other about the flags they carry. And I see people hurling objects at the police while they try to hit demonstrators with cars. For two weeks now, there have been protests and the threat for this conflict to actually turn violent became real. Schools and universities were closed, and on Friday the 18th of October, people from all over Catalonia marched to Barcelona and held demonstrations all over the city to show their discontent. The Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has refused to talk to the Catalonian regional President Quim Torra and at this moment, the divide in Catalonia seems irreconcilable. For the people in the middle, this is very trying. As José says, “I only want to continue living my life here, just like every decent citizen who respects the law.


Some of the names in the story have been changed. Cover photo credits: Maren Häußermann. Also read: Catalonia And Scotland: Two very different struggles for independence