- Associated Press - Friday, April 7, 2017

PAMPLONA, Spain (AP) - The anxiety always started at 8 on the dot. Day after day, for 20 years, the morning radio news bulletin woke us with the latest atrocity. One day, a shootout, another, a kidnapping and, next, maybe a massive car bomb explosion. Later, the death toll and names of victims would emerge, followed by the usual round of political explanations.

ETA, the armed Basque separatist group, made the most of that first morning hour. It was the time when most people left the house for work or to bring their children to school. The group’s militants went about their business in the hours before dawn, prompting macabre headlines for the rest of the day.

The radio was my constant companion while covering the final two decades of the near half-century Basque conflict for The Associated Press. Before mobile phone alerts and the social media networks, it was the main source of information on the ground.


Editor’s note: Associated Press photographer Alvaro Barrientos has documented the conflict involving the armed group ETA in Spain for more than two decades. As the group hands over its arms, he revisits some of the places he photographed at the height of the violence to see how they’ve changed.


The photographer always has to be as close as possible to the scene to get the shot that best portrays what has happened. And he or she must do it fast.

By day, I was on permanent alert because the slightest sound out of the ordinary mean something had happened, especially if it was followed by sirens. The camera was always by my side so I was ready to react immediately.

The memories flood back now as I revisit places like Urdax, Getxo, Calahorra and San Sebastian. From Legutiano, I still retain the image of the Civil Guard barracks, looking as if it had been pushed back in space by the force of a car bomb blast. An officer died while trying to shut the compound’s gate.

It’s difficult to forget the furtive glances and aggressions - verbal and physical - that came my way while I pointed the camera in one direction or another. When the phone threats began, I started checking underneath the car for bombs and looking all around before entering my house, just in case I was being followed.

Although journalists are considered witnesses, frequently we are also members of the community affected by the conflict. In the Basque region, cities and towns are small, and everyone knows each other. Among photojournalists, it was common to wish each other good luck before covering bouts of street violence.

Looking back, you find yourself asking how society put up with the violence for so long. ETA announced five years ago that it was giving up its armed campaign, but the memories live on. This weekend, ETA is set to hand over its arms for good.

Our society has matured. Now one can breathe easily on the street, although the uneasiness has not disappeared altogether. This week, I could feel like a tourist taking photos when I visited the beautiful northern coastal city of San Sebastian.

Until, that is, someone shouted at me: “Careful what you do with that photo or I’ll smash your face.” For a moment, I looked at him in the eye, remembering all those years of violence. And then, I continued with my work, because fortunately those are the attitudes we are managing to overcome.

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