Refugees Welcome Gernika 2017

Having something to say when they ask what we did

  • “Something has to be done. We have to go onto the streets. The government has to know how angry society is." Maitane Azurmendi Ongi, a member of Ongi Etorri Errefuxiatuak Bizkaia (‘Bizkaia Welcomes Refugees’) is clear about that. On 29th April, the 80th anniversary of the Gernika bombardment, she would like to see thousands of people in Gernika. The meeting point is Muxika, from where there will be a silent march to Gernika in support of refugees and in memory of what happened 80 years ago, and which is still happening today in many other countries.

Marijo Deogracias
2017ko apirilaren 26a

"I can see the same look of fear in the eyes of people on the television news as my grandmother had when she used to tell me about the bombardment. History is repeating itself, and we have to do something." Maitane Uriarte Atxikallende is the grand-daughter of somebody who survived the Gernika bombardment. "You could say we're the last generation who will hear first-hand accounts of the destruction which took place on 26th April, 1937", Uriarte underlined at the act of presentation about the 80th anniversary of the Gernika bombardment. She is taking part in the Lobak project along with several other young culture creators.

Lobak project will also be taking part in the proclamation-programme which will be held in Gernika on 29th and 30th April. There is going to be an international meeting at Gernika-Lumo on the last weekend in April in opposition to war and in favour of the refugees.

The Ongi Etorri Errefuxiatuak platform is managing the project, which aims to bring together thousands and thousands of people that weekend. "So that what happened at Gernika doesn't happen again", Uriarte says. This is how she put it in her presentation: "We have a clear message: our grandparents were refugees too, and now it's our turn to help people who are fleeing from wars. We want our town, which injustice once reduced to dust, to give the warmest welcome now”.

The symbolic welcome will be given on 29th April: a giant march to show support for the refugees. To do so, people have been called to meet up at Muxika, and from there everybody will march to Gernika-Lumo in silence.

Maitane Azurmendi was who thought of holding the march. She is a member of Ongi Etorri Errefuxiatuak, as well as taking part in the Lobak project. In the summer of 2016 she took part in the No Border protest act held at Thesalonika, Greece. Along with many other people, she went there to show support for the refugees and put political pressure on governments. She told us that "the idea is people getting together in Gernika to send governments a message: we must help the refugees! In 20 years' time I don't want a whole new generation to ask what we did”.

Maitane Azurmendi (Bizkaia Ongi Etorri Errefuxiatuak):
“They are fleeing from war and we cannot close our doors to them. There's no need for us to be afraid, I don't even want to imagine what it would be like if we had to leave our homes and what we would do if nobody helped us"

Azurmendi cannot forget the desperation she saw in people's faces at the refugee camps. "They only have queues there: to get breakfast, to get lunch, to get some clothing, to wash their children, to get a blanket… They live as if time stood still, unable to do anything." Having seen that, she knew she had to do something when she went home, and that is how Ongi Etorri Gernika was set up in 2017.

"Being the 80th anniversary, we want to remind people about the young people who had to leave here too. We want the Basque Country to welcome people", she emphasised. "When it comes down to it, they're fleeing from war, and we can't close the doors in their faces. There's no need for us to be afraid, I don't even want to imagine what it would be like if we had to leave our homes and what we would do if nobody helped us."

Town project

Azurmendi told us that it had been very easy to get town groups involved and put together a wide-reaching project. In fact, several acts have been held in April to commemorate Gernika's 80th anniversary: round table discussions about peace, talks about historical memory, theatre, films and, on the day of the bombardment itself, 26th April, the sirens and a 4 minute-long act, Gernika Garretan ('Gernika in Flames'), with local theatre and a candle-lit demonstration.

This year they have also put on a new version of the play Gernika Garretan once again. With Onintza Enbeita's help, they have updated the script and included the refugees' drama in it. "80 years ago 4,000 children left Santurtzi on the Habana, fleeing from war. 80 years later, thousands and thousands of children dressed in life-vests are fleeing from war on small boats. Back then they knew where they were going; now they don't even know if they'll arrive anywhere", Azurmendi told us. Which is why the play also mentions people, children who have to flee.

Gernika 2037

Writing about the play “Francoren bilobari gutuna” ('A letter to Franco's grandchild') in Bertsolari magazine, Igor Elortza – an improvisational poet and one of the scriptwriters – said that "the wounds which come from stories which haven't been told are the ones which have to be healed." The organizers of Ongi Etorri Gernika 2017 all share that concern.

For instance Uriarte, a member of the Lobak group, says that her grandmother always lived in fear after the war. "She only told us things when we asked her, and always with great care. Franco's regime was over, but she still had that fear inside her. In fact, this successor to the consequences of the bombardment says that they really felt a gap of years at their home. "The town's history was paralysed out of fear. While our grandmother was alive she always told us to be careful, that was what was always inside her: she had grown up with that fear and always felt it, even after everything had finished."

Likewise, in Gernika's Hannot Mintengia's 2016 documentary Markak Bernardo Atxaga says that "remembering and memory require a lot of effort; some form of support for that is necessary, some signs are needed in order to remember, because the most normal thing is not to remember, is to forget".

Last year the siren which was rang during the bombardment was restored and started up at the Astra factory in Gernika. Syrians Yahia Koddo and Ruba Hassan started it up. (Argazki Press / Jaizki Fontaneda)

And in order not to forget, the Lobak project has taken their forebears' testimony. As Mintegia says, "because memory must be understood as something which obliges you to act now".

And that is what the Lobak project is. It began as a creative model for culture and art in 2012. The grandchildren of people who survived the bombardment put it together, "so that each of us can make a contribution using each testimony and piece of heritage they left us".

Many of the people who took part in the Markak documentary gave their testimony and expressed their feelings. The Gernika 2037, memoria eta espazio publikoa ('Gernika 2037, memory  and public space') project came after that, and was presented on 20th April at Astra. A project which tries to recovered Gernika's historical-social heritage.

"Many tourists ask if there is any trace of what happened in the town; but, in fact, Gernika was completely destroyed after the bombardment and it had to be rebuilt", Uriarte told us. "In fact, we don't know anything about Gernika, about the Gernika after the bombardment. During the filming of Markak they found a column which had bullet holes from the civil war. We didn't know about it and, whether we like it or not, it is part of our historical heritage.

Maitane Uriarte (Lobak project):
“The town's history is paralysed by fear. Our grandmother always told us to be careful, even though it was all over"

Because of that "our aim is to identify the places where the bombardment left its mark; starting up a plan to recover our heritage, from the civil war, from before it and after it". As Uriarte explains, it is a long-term project "a challenge for the bombardment's centenary.

Muxika-Gernika, a silent march

On Saturday and Sunday there will be calls for "keeping the memory of what happened in Gernika alive" and for "stopping everything which is currently obliging millions of people to flee from current-day Gernikas". Bizkaia Ongi Etorri Errefuxiatuak has organised the Gernika committee along with Arrano Kultur Elkartea, Gernika Garretan, Sare-Gernika, Lobak, Gernika Zine-kluba, Gite-Ipes, Nkap and Gernika Gogoratuz. On Saturday there will be a march in favour of the refugees; people will bicycle and walk from different places in the Basque Country and all reach Gernika at the same time and in silence.

On Sunday there will be workshops about the subject, and experience-tables "for people to find out about the collaborative projects which are happening in different places", Azurmendi told us, "and encouraging them to collaborate. At the end of the day, our objective is for people to get involved, reinforcing the collaborative network as much as possible."


This article was translated by 11itzulpen; you can see the original in Basque here.


The exile of simple people


In Questions from a Worker Who Reads Bertolt Brecht wrote about the exclusion of simple people. Those words fit the situation of the thousands and thousands of Basques who were exiled between 1936 and 1939. In fact, while the exile of top-level politicians and intellectuals has become history and is easy to find out about, the fate of other citizens has been ignored. The homages to women who were forcibly removed from their towns have been seen with astonishment, as if it were something unknown. It was about time! Time to recover something about those refugees, who are the ugly ducklings of historical memory; because we owe them the truth, and because the tragedies which are happening in Europe today are a direct echo of that.

The exiles as a consequence of the 1936 war, as well as being the greatest ever to happen in the Spanish state, affected all classes and groups. And not just as part of the well-known retreat (crossing the frontier from Girona in February, 1939), also at the start of the war. As we know, when the Spanish military rebels held their coup people started to flee immediately, although in smaller groups. As Franco's troops advanced, the number of exiles increased.

The first mass flight was from Irun. Along with the militia troops, thousands of citizens crossed the Bidasoa, children and adults, seeking refuge in the northern Basque Country. Believing it would be for just a few days, for many it was to last the whole war, and for others there was no way back.

Although the front stabilised, there were still internal exiles. Hundreds of women and children were expelled from their towns in the rearguard because they were under suspicion. That was the precedent for the second mass exile which took place some months later when Bizkaia was attacked. Hundreds of people took to the roads out of Zarautz, Zumaia, Getaria, Azkoitia… But the worst was still to happen: the bombardments which the Fascists carried out with complete impunity made it clear that nobody was safe. It was total war. So they started to organise the mass exile of children from the ports of Bizkaia. We know what the consequences were: More than 20,000 children left their homes and were welcomed in homes in Great Britain, France and Belgium until the end of the war, and until the 1960's in the Soviet Union.

Those children's exile showed what was going to happen when the whole of the Northern Front fell into Franco's hands… Soldiers, political leaders and other citizens set sail from the ports on the Bay of Biscay and landed at Nantes, Saint Nazair, La Pallice and Pauillace. Many of them settled in the French colonies; others were taken in by families there; and many went to Catalonia for temporary refuge.

Women and children expelled from Zumaia in 1937 (Photo: 'Baleike')

In January, 1939, Franco's forces set Catalonia as their objective. It was then that exile became permanent for the Basques who had left in 1936-37. The biggest flight began when Franco's forces reached Barcelona. Retirada was the word used to describe it for history, and the number of exiles was extraordinary. The right-wing French magazine L’Illustration described it in this way: "The exile which has begun from Spain to France is unimaginable in size. A whole people is on the move: rich people, poor people, shopkeepers, farmers, beggars, shipbuilders, loads carried on animals, on carts, in cars, all mixed up with devices for war. Witnesses and historians agree that there may have been around 500,000 of them. In the same way there are no doubts when it comes to denouncing the attitude of the French government to those refugees: those in charge kept the frontier closed until the last moment, and when they agreed to accept the refugees into France, they gave them a very peculiar "welcome".

As they crossed the frontier, the militia members were searched and disarmed, and then taken to the nearest concentration camp in Argeles, Saint Cyprien or Le Barcares, where they were surrounded by barbed wire and soldiers. Those who were not militia members, on the other hand, were sent inland to be housed. In any case, the French authorities did all they could to send people back to Franco's Spain as soon as possible. Many people agreed to go back. In addition to that, those who stayed in France had to go through the French state's Fascist deviation during the Second World War, firstly under Daladier and Reynaud, and then under Petain's Vichy regime.

After the war, there were differences between Spain and the winners, democratic Europe. Exile was going to be for ever, and not just for top-level politicians, also for the simple citizens Bertolt Brecht reminds us of.

Josu Chueca


This article was translated by 11itzulpen; you can see the original in Basque here.

Kanal hauetan artxibatua: English  |  Errefuxiatu krisi globala  |  Gernika  |  Gernika 1937

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