October 24, 2009

Horrors of Civil War Emerge from Spanish Soil

Emilio Silva, a Madrid journalist, knew that his grandfather had been murdered in his country town at the outbreak of the 1936-39 Spanish civil war. But he had never heard anyone in his family mention where the grave might be. The subject was taboo.

Thirteen other villagers had also been executed by the same fascist  thugs on the side of the so-called nationalist forces which had risen up against the democratic government of the Second Republic. No one in town had talked about their missing bodies either. 

It was a silence of fear: the killers and their families lived on as respected citizens in the town, Priaranza del Bierzo in the northwest province of León, throughout the 40-year dictatorship of the victorious nationalist leader, Gen. Francisco Franco, who died in 1975. At last, in October, 2,000, dirty secrets began to surface when a backhoe on road construction uncovered bones believed to be of some of the victims. Emilio set out for Priaranza to learn about the fate of his grandfather.

He discovered that some oldtimers in Priaranza had lost their fears and were ready to talk. Their stories were terrifying. Emilio’s own father, who had been ten at the time, had never been told what happened to grandfather, but practically everyone else in the town had known of those murders on October 16, 1936. Some children had been witnesses, and one intended victim – the 14th , who had escaped his captors –  managed to tell several people what had happened before he was hunted down elsewhere and killed .

Grandfather, also named Emilio, was a 44-year-old grocery supplier and the father of six children. He had been member of a moderate leftwing party that had opened the first secular school in the town and supported the elected government. He and the other 13 were forced into a van by fascist gunmen, assassinated and, with the exception of the one who fled, dumped into a communal grave 30 kilometers from town. Emilio even located one of the the men who’d been hired to bury them.

Sixty-five years later, in 2001, Emilio and a team of volunteers excavated the remaining bones and identified all of them, including Emilio senior. Grandfather could at last receive a decent burial with headstone.

First bones uncovered by
backhoe in Priorenza del Bierzo

Emilio’s story of the discoveries brought him in contact with other members of a young generation of Spaniards asking about relatives missing during the war years. To help them locate and identify hidden graves, he co-founded The Association for the Recuperation of Historical Memory (ARMH in Spanish), which includes archeologists and forensic experts fo locate and identify remains, and collects oral and written testimonies from surviving witnesses. Thus far, ARMH has conducted 40 excavations and found 520 skeletons. It has also published a book of its discoveries.

In this decade, more exhumations have been carried out by other organized searchers. They range from individual graves to mass burials as in Malaga, where roughly 4,000 bodies are thought to have been dumped in the San Rafael cemetery in 1937. In the past two years some 2,300 of them have already been recovered.

During the three-year war, both sides committed atrocities. Recent town-by-town studies conclude that 90,000 people were assassinated by nationalists  and 55,000 by radical Republicans. The Franco regime exhumed remains of only its own supporters; they were all given proper funerals and burials, and Spain was decorated with plaques, street names and monuments that glorified them. A spot in Paracuellos, outside Madrid, where 2, 500 nationalist supporters were assassinated is practically a shrine where people still lay flowers on marked graves.

Emilio Sylva has declared that 98 per cent of the bodies exhumed by his association were victims of the  fascist party Falange Española, which had its own militia at the service of the Franco rebels. 

Why so little interest in “the other” victims until now? Blame a pact of silence made by the architects of post-Franco Spain. To gain cooperation from the old guard still holding power, democratic forces agreed to ignore rather than investigate abuses of the Franco regime. No one wanted to recreate the deadly divisions that had led to civil war in 1936. The new, free Spain was founded with all eyes looking only forward.

Today, most of the principle figures of the old regime are dead and beyond reprisals.  Nevertheless, Spanish conservatives are bristling over the Socialist government’s Historical Memory Law of 2006, inspired by the appearance of so many mass graves.  “What need is there to open old wounds that had already been healed?” asked Mariano Rajoy, leader of the the major opposition party, the PP, which was founded by Francoists. Rajoy, as well as Spanish Catholic bishops, have vigorously opposed the timid law, which does little more than provide moral support for the new generation of grave hunters.

Just ten days ago some town officials  of the PP stayed away from a ceremony in Calatayud, Aragon, honoring  a councilman assassinated in 1936 for being a socialist, and whose remains were discovered by UNRH. At the ceremony, UMRH’s vice president Santiago Macías lamented the fact that “those who consider themselves ‘democrats` are incapable of recognizing the merits of those other democrats that preceded them and who were killed for being  so.”

Map of secret graves discovered across Spain

Meanwhile, decent burial honors continue for long-forgotten dead.

On August 8, 2010, the bones of 28 civilian men - between 17 and 55 years old - were at last buried in the cemetery at Alcaudete de la Jara in Toledo Province after 71 years hidden in the ground.

Again, it was the indignation and persistence of grandchildren that made the discovery of the victims possible. Late last year Maribel Montes organized other residents in a search for the graves for her grandfather and others who were killed with him.

The story was well known among villagers, but also taboo. On the afternoon of April 25, 1939, with the Civil War just ended, a band of locals dragged the 28 males from their homes, drove them in trucks to a spot outside town, shot them all and let the bodies fall one by one into a ditch which was then covered up. They acted on the orders of the principle authority in town, a Civil Guard named Bernardo Gómez Arroyo. The bodies were on Gomez Arroyo's private property.

The Historical Memory Law requires permission of the landowner for any exhumations. In this case, it was Gómez Arroyo's son, José. When Maribel and five companions told him what they wanted to do, he drove them to the property, gave them the key to the gate, and cried in their arms.

In December, the government gave the group some funds for the exhumations. DNA tests would have been too costly and time-consuming, and there were few remaining relatives of the victims, so the group agreed to place the bones together in a box with names on the gravestone. The local priest officiated at the funeral mass and 200 people gathered in the cemetery to hear tributes to the dead.


Anonymous said...

All the wars are crazy and we must learn to leave it as the very last choice, after long periods of diplomacy efforts. The politicians have to avoid short term solutions and forget using the hate inside the people to get power.

Your article calls the attention on a war between people from the same town. It is the same war, the same damages. I think is good to know these details in order to remember that even if we think different and we do not find the key to walk forward, a solution like leaving the violence out never solves the differences.

Spain needs to pass this conflict over (understanding how the conflict was) to start co-operating between the right and the left orientations and build up a complete country.


Pablo Quesada said...

Do you think that a military coup which gave Franco in 1936 should not be answered with forcefulness and strength and that this must be proposed "dialogue"? Look at the situation at that time was not for too much dialogue and every war is different because it leads to various causes. Faced with an invasion like that could only be the resounding response.
Moreover, the collaboration between the left and right is because the right to accept the responsibility that corresponds to and carried out all steps for the return of honor to the Republican soldiers, according to the Law of Memory Historical, which in my opinion and other leftist political organizations are not political party PSOE, which is far less labor or socialist, is incomplete. The treacherous right of our country should apologize for what was an attack on the country's security and the ensuing catastrophe, no half measures.
Viva la Republica!