How I Changed My Violent Ways
As told by Jose Antonio Nebrera
WHAT makes a man turn to violence? I learned a lot about violence by being exposed to it as a child. My father was a member of the Spanish civil guard, a regiment that meted out strict discipline. His own father had whipped him often, and my father followed the family tradition. He regularly used his thick belt to give me a thrashing. Making matters worse, he would repeatedly call me stupid, while he doted on my younger sister. My mother, who feared the wrath of my father, did little to alleviate my frustration at this unfair treatment or to give me the affection I needed.
While I was at school with other children, I would create my own world of make-believe, where my life seemed much happier. And to onlookers, I probably appeared to be a cheerful, optimistic child. But it was all superficial. I just covered up my feelings of fear and anger. Reality returned at the end of each day as I slowly walked home, dreading yet more insults—or another beating.
At the age of 13, I escaped from this loveless environment by enrolling in a Jesuit boarding school. For a time, I considered becoming a priest. But life in the school did little to give my life meaning. We had to rise at five o’clock in the morning for a cold shower. Then our entire day was spent in a rigid program of study, prayers, and church services, with only brief rest periods.
Although we students had to read the stories of the “saints,” the Bible was not a part of our studies. The only available Bible was kept in a glass case, and we had to get special permission to read it.
During my third year at the boarding school, sessions of self-flagellation—“spiritual exercises”—became a part of the stern routine. I tried gulping down large amounts of food to make myself sick so that I could escape this ordeal. But this proved unsuccessful. After nearly three years, I could stand no more. I fled the Jesuit school and made my way home. I was 16 years old.
In Search of Adventure
Back at home, I took up boxing and wrestling. Success at these violent sports made me feel that I was somebody, but my physical prowess encouraged me to use brute force to get my way, just as my father had.
When I was 19, however, something happened to bring some tenderness into my life. I met Encarnita, who nine months later became my wife. She saw only my courteous, kind, and happy exterior. She had no idea of the hurt that was simmering inside me. This inner bitterness soon manifested itself when I was called up for military service not long after our first child was born.
Partly to avoid a military-style haircut and partly to seek a life of adventure, I impulsively volunteered for the Spanish Foreign Legion. I had visions of finding freedom in the Moroccan desert and participating in daring special operations. Besides, this seemed to offer a way to escape from my family responsibilities. In the end, though, it just brought out the worst in me.
I soon got into trouble with a huge, brutish sergeant who took delight in mistreating new recruits. I hated injustice, and I was not averse to fighting for what I thought was right. During the roll call one morning, I made a joke that the sergeant misinterpreted. When he raised his arm to strike me, I quickly twisted it and wrestled him to the floor. I kept his hand pinned to the ground, fearing that if I let him go he would use his pistol to shoot me.
That incident led to three months in a punishment platoon. I found myself living in a small bare room with about 30 men. During the entire time, I could not even change my clothes. Our platoon had a sadistic sergeant who took delight in whipping the men. But on one occasion when I threatened to kill him if he touched me, he reduced my punishment from 30 lashes to 3. I had learned to become as tough as my tormentors.
During my training in the foreign legion, I rashly volunteered for even more “adventure.” Once more, I knew nothing about where this step would lead me. I received commando-style training, which included handling all sorts of weapons and explosives. For completion of the course, I was sent to Langley, Virginia, in the United States, where I trained with CIA operatives.
Before long, I was a member of an undercover commando group. During the 1960’s, I participated in dozens of secret missions. I helped carry out operations against drug traffickers and arms smugglers in Central and South America. When we encountered these people, we were instructed to “liquidate” them. I am ashamed to say that I personally took part in such operations. We never took prisoners, apart from those who could be interrogated for information.
I was later assigned to spy on Spanish military leaders for the purpose of discovering those who had misgivings about the dictatorship of General Franco. We also spied on opposers of the Franco regime who were living in France. The intention was to kidnap key dissidents and take them to Spain, presumably for the purpose of eliminating them.
My final operation required me to organize a team of mercenary soldiers to pull off a coup d’état in a small African country. We were instructed to storm the military barracks in the capital and then take over the president’s palace. As planned, we invaded the country in the middle of the night and completed our task in just four hours. Three of my companions died in the fighting, along with dozens of “enemy” soldiers. I myself participated in this killing.
This traumatic experience tormented my conscience. I could not sleep because I had constant nightmares in which I found myself slaughtering my enemies in hand-to-hand combat. In my nightmares, I saw the petrified stares of the individuals I was about to kill.
I resolved that I would never participate in another mission. So I returned all my documentation to the military and obtained a discharge. However, three months later my superiors summoned me again for further espionage. I fled to Switzerland, and several months later, my wife, Encarnita—who was completely unaware of my work as a secret agent—joined me in Basel.
Bad Habits Die Hard
During the three years I served in the military, Encarnita had started to study the Bible in Spain with Jehovah’s Witnesses. She told me that she had discovered the truth about God, and her enthusiasm was contagious. We quickly contacted the Witnesses in Switzerland and began to study the Bible together.
I was thrilled to learn about God’s purposes. Although I wanted to conform my life to Bible principles, making changes proved difficult—especially with regard to my aggressive personality. Still, I loved my newfound faith. After a few months of studying, I insisted that I was ready to share in the house-to-house ministry of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
With Jehovah’s help, I eventually learned self-control, and in time, Encarnita and I got baptized. At the age of 29, I was appointed to serve as an overseer in the congregation.
In 1975 we decided to return to Spain. But the military had not forgotten me, and I was summoned to collaborate in another special mission. To avoid problems, I soon fled to Switzerland again. Our family lived there until 1996, when we finally went back to Spain.
I now have a married son and daughter and two grandchildren, all of whom are serving Jehovah. Furthermore, over the years, I have been able to help some 16 people get to know Jehovah, including one young man who had formerly been involved in violent street protests in northern Spain. This has brought me enormous satisfaction.
I have repeatedly prayed to God to help me both reject my violent past and get relief from my recurring nightmares. In my struggle to do what is right, I have heeded the advice of Psalm 37:5: “Roll upon Jehovah your way, and rely upon him, and he himself will act.” Jehovah has kept this promise. He has helped me to overcome my violent ways. This has been a huge blessing for me and for my family.
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When I enrolled in a Jesuit boarding school at 13 years of age
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Leaving the foreign legion office after I was discharged in 1968
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With my wife, Encarnita, today