Small town, big heroes

9 Mins read

We listened to the locals exchange stories from their day, with each account painting a more detailed and emotive picture than the last. There are so many voices, too many to isolate. All we can do is listen.

We hear one of the locals describe how, “eighteen police vans surrounded the town. The situation could have perfectly been part of a Star Wars movie. Fifty policemen came out of the vans, with batons in their hands and shields bigger than their hate for democracy.”

Another described how confused children reacted to the arrival of the authorities; “Our kids began to scream from the park. We knew they were coming. We looked at one another and knew what to do. We hid the kids and locked them in a room across the city hall, hoping they wouldn’t see what was about to happen.”

All we could think was how strong the sense of unity was, there was nothing that was going to stop them from exercising their right to vote. “We waited for them, protecting the voting ballot, with our arms raised and our hearts chanting ‘we will vote’,” said one protestor, explaining the community’s brave acts of solidarity.


Aiguaviva is a small town of 770 people in north-eastern Catalonia that was brutally attacked by the Spanish Police during the Catalan Referendum on October 1, 2017.

That day, eighteen people were injured — nine needing an ambulance — and many others suffered from the pepper gasses that were sprayed, and which have been illegal to use in closed spaces since 2013.

One of the victims, Josep Maria Nadal, a professor from University of Girona who’s over seventy, told the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia: “I didn’t feel the pain while they were hitting me with their batons, dragging me for metres, or stepping over me with their military boots while chanting ‘long live Spain’. There was no physical pain. My pain was purely moral.”

During the attacks, the town stood as one and protected the voting ballots by forming a human shield, with their arms raised as a symbol of peaceful resistance and screaming “we will vote,” with both hope and fear in their eyes.

These are the stories of six of the people who fought to give the small Catalan town of Aiguaviva the right to democracy that day.

Joaquim Mateu i Bosch, Mayor of Aiguaviva

Small town, big heroes - Aiguaviva, Catalonia, October 2017

Joaquim Mateu, Mayor of Aiguaviva, holding the hidden voting ballot [Elsa Barberà]

“Aiguaviva is mourning,” reads the Mayor’s statement published three days after the protest; a week later, his rage has turned into disappointment: “Although I wasn’t expecting much from the Spanish Government, I was confident that the system was going to be democratic and was going to intervene.”

He told Artefact: “I was at home having dinner with my family when I received the call. The person on the other side of the line was hysterical and couldn’t say a word. I imagined the Spanish Police would come and confiscate our ballot boxes, but her voice of distress meant more than that. ‘We are being attacked’, she cried.

“I got there as fast as I could but when I arrived the police were already heading back to their vans. I felt rage. I looked at one of them in the eyes and said: how will you be able to look at your mother’s and daughter’s eyes after what you’ve done today? How?”

He thinks there was a simple reason why the Spanish Police chose such a small town for their attacks: “This was a clear act of terror. The attacks were supposed to end by 1:00 p.m. It was 4:00 p.m. when they came to Aiguaviva. They came to vent out. It’s a town of easy access and low population. We could have blocked the entrance with trucks or cars, but we didn’t want to make it difficult for the elders to vote. Besides, we weren’t expecting an attack,” he told us.

“The days after we felt helpless. The town was empty and there were still pieces of clothing left on the floor, symbolising the brutality of the previous day. But now we feel strong. They wanted to spread fear, but we are not scared.”

Jaume Mas

Small town, big heroes - Aiguaviva, Catalonia, October 2017

Jaume Mas looking at the new name of the town’s main square [Elsa Barberà]

“I lost consciousness of time, of fear. I could not feel, talk or hear.” Jaume remembers when he got the first news that the Spanish Police were coming.

“We all looked at each other and knew what to do. We emptied the voting ballots in a plastic bag and replaced it with empty envelopes, ran through the back door and placed the real votes on the trunk of a car,” he said.

“The police crossed us as we closed the trunk. They were so focused on the attack that they didn’t even see us.”

Small town, big heroes - Aiguaviva, Catalonia, October 2017

Aiguaviva celebrates the Referendum with paella [Joan Pau Ferre]

“The day began early, at 6.30 in the morning. We had planned a ‘Botifarrada’ (communal food party of typical Catalan products such as sausages, pà amb tomàquet [bread with tomato] and paella, that lasts a whole day) that would start at 9 a.m. It was a day of celebrations, of getting together and honouring our culture and people; of celebrating our right to have a voice in this Referendum. A day to vote.”

“I was standing right by the door when the Spanish Police began to attack,” Jaume says as he shows me the still visible marks of the batons.

“It was a sea of people, and I ended up inside the town hall with all the pushing. I tried closing the door to protect the ballot box, but they threw pepper gas directly to my eyes. I couldn’t breath. When I tried to breath again, they threw more gas inside the town hall so that we would get out. We had no force to stop them. I ran and one of the neighbours took me to their house and threw water on my eyes.”

“When I got out of my neighbour’s house, the police had gone and everyone was in silence, in awe. There were cries and disbelief. I could not see my town, my neighbours, my family this way. We were broken. I shouted: ‘Let’s have dessert!’ We weren’t even hungry. But we needed it. We cooked chestnuts, and I couldn’t even finish my first one.”

Small town, big heroes - Aiguaviva, Catalonia, October 2017

Independence flag on one of the neighbour’s window [Elsa Barberà]

“But you know what? We are Catalans. We stand together, we fall together, and we get up together. It is acts like this one that unite us and make us stronger. We have to keep going, we have to keep fighting. I am terrified of a Catalonia that is not independent.”

Enric Valldeperas

Small town, big heroes - Aiguaviva, Catalonia, October 2017

Enric Valldeperas with his friend and neighbour, Jaume Mas [Elsa Barberà]

“I was having some paella when the cook told me he still hadn’t voted. So we cleaned up and I went to queue with him. It was right then when everything started. I ended up on the first row. I didn’t feel anything, I lost consciousness,” Valldeperas told Artefact.

“Re-watching the videos of the attacks, I realise I was hit over and over again. We protected the ballot box as much as we could, but we weren’t going to fight back. It was when they used the gasses that everything ended.”

“When I got back home, my nine-year-old daughter was crying of impotence. She couldn’t understand what had happened. She couldn’t wrap her head around how the police, who is supposed to protect us, were the ones attacking us.”

“I showed her a video of what had happened, cutting the pieces I appeared so that she wouldn’t feel as impacted. I tried to explain the situation to her and, after that, she understood and could sleep again.”

“The children who were locked in the room during the police brutality have received basic therapy at school. They were taught that violence is never the answer in any situation in life. They had a drawing session to express their feelings and burned them after, symbolising the bad thoughts being burned away.”

Carles Jové*

Small town, big heroes - Aiguaviva, Catalonia, October 2017

Carles Jové on the floor after being thrown from the town hall by policemen [Joan Pau Ferre]

When we speak to him, his blue t-shirt reads ‘TRUTH’. It is hard for him to talk, but after the declarations stating that the aggression videos were fake, he decided to speak out against police brutality on October 1st.

Small town, big heroes - Aiguaviva, Catalonia, October 2017

Police used tear gas at one point [Joan Pau Ferre]

“When they started throwing gasses, I ran inside the town hall and tried closing the door. They had sprayed inside, trying to get us out. We couldn’t breath, our eyes were burning,” he told us.

“I was filming everything with my phone, when I caught something the police didn’t want the public to see: four policemen dressed without their uniform pretending to be from our town, ‘fighting’ for the ballot box. They were filming it to later pretend we used resistance. But when they sighted me filming them while doing so, they came for me.”

Small town, big heroes - Aiguaviva, Catalonia, October 2017

Four policemen dressed as civilians enter the town hall. [Joan Pau Ferre]

“I ran upstairs but they got my phone and threw it on the floor. I picked it up and kept filming. They ran after me and hit me while trying to hide. I locked the door of the room and hid my phone. Three other people were hiding there.”

“It was like a horror movie. We sat down with our hands up waiting for them to break in. We were hearing screams downstairs so we were expecting the worst. They broke in screaming ‘give us that phone or we’ll do it our way’. I said I didn’t have it.”

“They raised me from my neck and pushed me against the wall, pulling and pressing on my neck. They were taking pictures of me with their phones. I don’t remember what happened next, but the other witnesses say my legs didn’t touch the floor for the next minutes. Between two of them they threw me out the doors to the main square. I must have flown five or six metres.”

Joan Pau Ferre

Small town, big heroes - Aiguaviva, Catalonia, October 2017

Joan Pau Ferrer in his hiding spot. [Elsa Barberà]

“I was hiding between the trees on the roof when they came in. I’m a photographer so I had my camera with me to document the festivity earlier that day, so I have pictures of the attacks. When one of the police men saw me taking pictures, he came up to get me, but I managed to hide.”

“I wasn’t scared of being attacked, but I didn’t wanted them to erase the evidence of the attacks. They came up looking for me twice more. The third time there were six of them, so I threw my camera to the cemetery and ran away to a safer spot. They tried breaking and taking all the phones that were filming them.”

Miriam Otalora* 

Small town, big heroes - Aiguaviva, Catalonia, October 2017

The town awaits the Spanish Police with their arms raised and chanting “we will vote.” [Joan Pau Ferre]

“I was selected as a volunteer for the electoral table. We were busy the whole day. There were times when the voting system stopped working as the Spanish Government kept trying to cut it.”

“Everyone was proud to vote, to give their voice. We had been given instructions in case the police came to take the ballot boxes. We would have to ask these three questions: ‘Can we see your identification? Who are you following orders from? Could you show us your court order?’”

“But when they came, they didn’t say a word. We tried asking the first question and they laughed. It was then when they started to attack. I was inside the town hall when they began to throw gas. Me and 4 other people hid in a small room where we keep all our cleaning products, and called the Mayor.”

“We were hearing screams, cries for help, ambulances. We were terrified. Not being able to see what is going on is even worse for one’s mind. One of the people in the room got a panic attack.”

“We tried peeking out but police were blocking the door, without them knowing we were inside. I can’t imagine what the kids had gone through, listening the screams and not being able to understand the situation.”

“Deep in my heart, I really hope some police men are nice. I refuse to lose hope in humanity, but after that day, it has been a challenge. After all, we just wanted to vote. That’s the essence of the democracy we’re supposed to be living in.”

Small town, big heroes - Aiguaviva, Catalonia, October 2017

Change on the name of the town’s main square. From ‘Constitutional Square’ to ‘1st of October Square’ [Elsa Barberà]

The main square of the town remained the same the morning after. There were still pieces of clothing on the floor, broken dishes and a walking stick.

There was only one difference: the name of the square had changed. What used to say “Constitutional Square” was now crossed and changed to “October 1st Square.”

Despite the difficulties, Aiguaviva voted. The results were 96.8 per cent in favour of Independence. In Catalonia there was a participation of 43.03%, of which 89,4 per cent (over two million people) voted in favour of Independence, according to La Vanguardia.



* Because of the fear of retaliation from the Spanish Police, this person’s name has been altered.

Featured image by Elsa Barberà.

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Having played, lived and learned in over 45 countries, I aim to be the words of those whose voice goes unheard.
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