'Bury me in the flag': Elderly Catalans speak out

Elderly people remember the dark shadow of Franco as Spain and Catalonia grapple with tensions over secession vote.

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    Teresa Bou says 'for the first time in a century, we're capable of uniting' [Creede Newton/Al Jazeera]
    Teresa Bou says 'for the first time in a century, we're capable of uniting' [Creede Newton/Al Jazeera]

    El Bruc, Catalonia, Spain Three generations of Catalans gathered outside on an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon in El Bruc, a town of 2,000, to celebrate the matriarch of the family, 81-year-old Teresa Bou.

    Paella, one of Spain's most famous dishes, was on the stove. Though it comes from Valencia, the Catalan-speaking region to the south of Catalonia, it has become a must-try dish for tourists visiting Barcelona.

    Cava, a sparkling wine produced in Catalonia, was served. The nearly 20 members of Bou's family sat in the October sun, speaking Catalan.

    So many cultural staples of Catalonia were appropriate: Bou is very Catalan.

    Since the political crisis over Catalonia's independence began, she has been known to say "Bury me in the Catalan flag!"

    Bou, in a moment of heated debate over independence, vowed she would never again step foot "in Spain".

    The events of October have weighed heavily on the matriarch. Bou has felt very patriotic and sentimental for the cause of Catalonia's independence. "Maybe not very rational, but very sentimental," the octogenarian said.

    Bou views the push for independence as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: "For the first time in a century, we're capable of uniting. We have the hope of constructing a new country - more just, freer and more equal."

    Franco's shadow

    For Bou, and many Catalans regardless of their age, a discussion about independence isn't complete without mentioning the brutality of Spain's civil war, which began in 1936, and the Franco period, which lasted from 1939 to 1975.

    The Spanish Civil War had been raging for more than three months when Bou was born in October 1936.

    Though the war ended in 1939, she lived through its consequences. Bou described her memories of people accused of war crimes being summarily executed in 1945.

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    The memory still unsettles her: "It left a large mark on me," Bou said, almost shaking. "They shot them like they were sheep."

    The Franco government was responsible for a wide gamut of human rights abuses and was known for its efforts to homogenise Spain. Catholicism was the only state-sanctioned religion. Minority languages and culture, such as Catalan, were made illegal.

    Bou recounted that, although she spoke Catalan at home, it was as if it didn't exist anywhere else. "Catalan nearly disappeared," Bou said.

    While attending an all-girls Catholic school at the age of 16, Bou met a teacher who was pro-Catalan, but "did not indoctrinate the students … he opened my eyes that there was a country I didn't find in the text books."

    'I didn't vote'

    Franco died in 1975, but not before naming former King Juan Carlos as his successor. The world assumed Spanish autocracy would continue - Franco groomed Juan Carlos to rule Spain with the same authoritarian streak.

    Juan Carlos instead stewarded a democratic transition. Political parties were made legal, and a constitution was written and approved in 1978. The first democratic government was formed in 1982.

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    Bou said she had some hope for the future after the death of Franco. But like many Catalans, aspects of the democratic transition displeased her.

    The country was to remain a monarchy, which Bou thought was bad for the people, and the People's Party, Spain's foremost conservative party, was founded by former ministers from Franco's government.

    The transitional government passed an amnesty law that protected crimes committed during the Civil War and Franco's reign.

    "I quickly realised they were the same dogs with different collars," Bou said of post-Franco Spanish politicians. "Nothing changed … so in the [first free] elections in 1977, I didn't vote."

    Though there is no official count of the people killed or disappeared during the Franco government, Human Rights Watch (HRW) placed the number at more than 100,000 between 1936 and 1951.

    The crimes weren't legally acknowledged until the Law of Historical Memory was passed in 2007. "Spanish courts have routinely failed to investigate allegations of horrendous crimes of the past," HRW said in 2010.

    The Spanish Ministry of Justice has taken some steps towards recognising victims, such as compiling a map showing the mass graves that nearly cover the country, but the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, which has ruled since 2011, has been criticised for neglecting enforcement of the law.

    The path of Gandhi

    The Spanish High Court ruled the October 1 referendum on independence illegal and ordered police to stop the vote.

    Images of the national police and Civil Guard, a military contingent tasked with law enforcement, assaulting voters, some of whom were elderly, shocked the world.

    HRW said that "excessive force" was used to stop the vote.

    Two elderly women discussed the violence at a popular restaurant in Barcelona's trendy Gracia neighbourhood.

    Soft-spoken Paula Soler Font, a woman in her late 60s, said she saw violence first-hand on the day of the referendum. "The police didn't discriminate between young or old," she said.

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    Since then, Madrid and Catalonia have been engaged in a political barter. Puigdemont declared and then suspended independence on October 10. Prime Minister Rajoy issued an ultimatum to Puigdemont to clarify his stance on independence by Monday, October 16.

    On October 16, Puigdemont offered two months of dialogue. In response, Madrid granted a three-day extension while threatening to enact Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which would strip Catalonia of its independence.

    "It will happen soon. [Catalan President Carles] Puigdemont will declare independence," Soler said.

    Regarding the back and forth between Puigdemont and Rajoy, Soler said Puigdemont "is allowing the situation to de-escalate, while gaining international support."

    If the Spanish government does enact Article 155 and national police are again sent to Catalonia, Soler said Catalan people would "take the path of Gandhi. It's the only choice we have."

    Soler's companion, 71-year-old Marta Fabregat, agreed. Catalans "have neither arms nor a desire for violence. Nonviolence is the way to independence."

    Back in El Bruc, Bou echoed the nonviolent sentiments of Fabregat and Soler. She added that it wouldn't be easy.

    Whether or not independence is declared, there will be "tough years ahead", Bou concluded.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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