I am with you in my thoughts on the important DIADA day on September 11, and I wish to share thanks with you and tell you an amazing story about how Catalonia has inspired Latvia.
It is very symbolic that the capital of Catalonia, Barcelona, was the place where the independent Latvian flag returned to the Olympic Games in 1992. Our country was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, our independence was lost, and our national anthem and flag were banned. We became a secondary nation that had to be subordinated to our “older” brothers, and we had to use flags that were not our own and symbolised repression and oppression. The Soviet empire did everything possible to ensure that the world knew as little about Latvia as possible, trying to erase our country from the map of the world. It wanted to do the same with our language and culture. The Soviet empire almost managed to do that. The world had forgotten about us, and many people falsely thought that Latvia was a part of Russia and that Rīga was a city in Russia. The Latvian language, identity, history and culture are fundamentally different than those of Russians, and Rīga has forever been Latvia’s capital city. The union with Russia was forced upon us with fraud and power, and the Latvian people were never asked whether they wanted to be part thereof.
That is why we all had tears in our eyes when, after 50 years of occupation, the flag of independent Latvia returned to the Olympic Games. It was carried in Barcelona by our outstanding athlete Raimonds Bergmanis, who today is one of Latvia’s most respected politicians and is serving as our minister of defence. We are delighted that this miraculous return of Latvia’s flag to the world happened specifically in the Catalan capital city of Barcelona.
And yet it is sadly symbolic that we have learned that Catalonians in Europe are a nation that is facing as complicated a destiny as was the case for Latvia during the Soviet occupation. Catalonia is very hard to find on the world map, Catalonians have no right to fully take decisions about their future, and their right to represent their country with their own flag has been taken away from them. The name and recognition of Catalonia have been removed from the map for many decades. Many Europeans are unaware of the fact that Catalonians represent a nation of nearly 10 million people, with their unique language, identity and history that stretches back for thousands of years. They don’t know that Barcelona is the ancient capital of Catalonia. It is endlessly sad to note that in the European Union, as was the case in the USSR, there are nations that are not allowed to fully enjoy the fundamental rights of a democracy — self-determination of nations.
The phenomenal Catalonian Way that was held in 2013 shook me up very much. Watching nearly two million people standing hand in hand to tell the world about their dream of freedom, I understood that that was something very, very special. I clearly remembered our own Baltic Way in 1989, when we, too, joined hands — two million people in a 500-km chain in support of independence. The destiny of our nations proved to be very similar. Way back in 1989, I was a young man, and an independent country with a flag that flies alongside those of other free nations was a sacred dream for me. I saw people in whose eyes there were the same dreams, hopes and ambitions. I asked whether Europeans who had gone down the same difficult path of independence could afford to ignore us. Could we look in a different direction when another nation demands the same rights that we have won?
Pretty words, though, are just pretty words, and so I decided to confirm my words with deeds to demonstrate my solidarity. I was similar to many Europeans in that I had heard a lot about Spain and very little about Catalonia, and I knew that that was wrong. On April 4, 2016, I began to demonstrate my respect for the Catalonians by walking the whole 480 km distance of the Catalonian Way. I started not far from the southwestern border town of Alcanar. I symbolically visited Valencia, which was along the Catalonian Way. Each day I hiked some 30 kilometres, and 17 days later I finished the route in the border town of el Perthus, precisely in the same place and on the same bridge where the Catalonian Way began in 2013.
One of my most important goals was to learn the Catalan story despite all those who sought to erase it from the European and global map. I wished to confirm my respect for those who stood along the Catalonian Way in 2013. I put together the route so as to visit nearly every phase of the Catalonian Way. I wanted to meet participants and organisers in the demonstration so that I could shake their hands and honour them as modern European heroes who continue to believe in democracy and the dream of an independent country. I also carried the flag of my country from one border to another to send a message to my people and to the Catalonian nation and to remember our symbolic return to the Olympic Games as a free and independent nation.
I began my hike early in the morning on April 4, a simple traveller with a backpack. The co-ordinator of the Catalonian Way in Alcanar, Francesc Queralt, accompanied me to the start of the road. Rain had been forecast, but surprisingly, it stopped and the sun began to shine. We took pictures of ourselves with our Catalonian and Latvian flags, both of which I planned to carry through the entire nation. I didn’t know what to expect, but I did know that Francesc and I were at the start of something very, very important. I knew that the road would be long and hard, but I would not stop. It was the beginning of a hike that I had to finish.
The tale of what happened along the way is very long and most moving. It is the most fantastic and touching story, and I never dared to dream about it. There were more than 85 towns and villages along the way, and I met new friends in almost all of them. People literally joined hands to help me to hike each kilometre along the way. Although I an adult, I had to weep when people came to greet me with Catalonian flags and Latvian flags that they had prepared specifically for me.
I particularly want to thank the hundreds of people who helped and supported me and told me the special story of Catalonia. I’m currently putting together my memories and impressions, but I particularly want to thank Jordi and Paul, two eight-year-old brothers from Reus. They and their father greeted me on the border. I had not admitted that I am not an athlete or an experienced traveller. My feet were really hurting, but I pretended that everything was fine. Jordi and Paul had prepared a special bamboo walking stick for me, and they presented it to me at one of the most critical moments along the way. I’m sure that they did not know that the walking stick allowed me to keep on my feet, and I used it all the way until the end of the route.
I also want to issue special thanks to the human tower clubs of Tarragona and Mataro. Being present at the training sessions was a matter of real honour for me, and I was most impressed and surprised by what I saw. That is a very special tradition that is the best illustration of the nature and human spirit of the Catalonian people. I particularly want to thank little Judite from the Mataro Capgrossos de Mataro club, who carried the Latvian flag to the summit of the tower. Barcelona was the first city in which the Latvian flag returned to the Olympics, and Mataro is the first city in Catalonia where the flag was so honoured.
I experienced such things all along the route. I’m still writing a memoir about the trip, but there have been organisations in Latvia that have invited me to tell the story. I’ve talked about the trip and showed pictures from it to nearly ten different groups. These are non-commercial events at which I present the story of Catalonia to Latvians. My sincere supporters entrusted me with that story, and I am sharing it at libraries, reading groups, religious congregations or meeting places for residents of towns and districts. As was the case with me during the trip, many audience members have tears in their eyes as they listen to this uncommon sincerity, responsiveness and faith in the sacred dream of independence.
At the end of the first day of the hike, many people were waiting at the bridge that spans the Ebro River in Amposta. They asked whether I spoke Catalan. I admitted that I knew only a few words, but I promised to learn a few new ones every day. I did. Still, there were words that I knew already. It is symbolic that I learned the first ones at the 2015 DIADA demonstration – Visca Catalunya! On the first day of my hike, I learned the third one – Lliure!
Today, on September 11, 2016, I confirm from the bottom of my heart my faith in the Catalonian nation’s “A Punt.” My dear Catalonian friends, I am tremendously grateful for the miracle that you presented to me. You are returning faith to a Europe that can believe in and defend the ideals of freedom. I am sure that the day is coming when a representative of Catalonia will march into the Olympic stadium with the flag of his free and independent nation.
If you are interested to know more about Otto Ozols:
Catalan: Ara.cat – http://www.ara.cat/politica/Caminar-coneixer_0_1561044040.html
El Punt avui – http://www.elpuntavui.cat/politica/article/17-politica/960887-otto-ozols-acaba-el-seu-repte-al-pertus.html
Spanish: La Vanguardia – http://www.lavanguardia.com/local/terres-de-l-ebre/20160405/40892464526/periodista-recorre-via-catalana-catalunya.html