The long, vain search for father killed in Spain’s civil war
She was just a little girl when her father was executed during Spain's civil war. Now 82, after decades of vain search for his remains, Mercedes Abril has yet to put him to rest.
In desperation, the mother-of-three has decided to register her DNA “just in case” she dies before finding her dad — one of thousands of descendants of those who disappeared during the 1936-9 civil war and the subsequent rule of dictator Francisco Franco, who died four decades ago.
“I am the daughter of Rafael Abril Avo,” she says, her face full of emotion, sitting in the stylish lounge of her flat in Valladolid, some 200 kilometres (124 miles) away from Madrid.
“I was three when they arrested him. He was holding me in his arms.”
On the table, a binder full of documents she has found over the decades on the man who was station master in the northeastern village of Clares de Ribota, and was executed aged 29 just months after the civil war pitting Republicans against Nationalists began in 1936.
“Besitos a Mercedita” — “lots of love to the little Mercedes” — he wrote on the last card he sent from Calatayud near his village, where he was being held with others in an improvised detention centre by Nationalists loyal to General Franco.
“They would shoot them at the entrance to the cemetery and throw them in a mass grave.”
– Buried next to Franco? –
Abril is just one of countless people in Spain who lost loved ones during this dark chapter of the country’s history that has yet to be fully addressed.
More than 100,000 people are thought to have been killed by Nationalists during the civil war and 50,000 in the following decade, while Franco’s side claims 55,000 victims at the hands of the Republicans during the conflict, according to historian Julian Casanova.
But after Franco died on November 20, 1975, Spain’s political parties agreed to put all this behind them in an amnesty aimed at ensuring a smooth transition to democracy.
Since then, the remains of just 6,300 victims of Franco’s forces have been found between 2000 and 2012 — mainly in mass graves — and many in Spain still remain in the dark as to where their loved ones are buried.
Abril says that her family’s suffering did not stop when her father was killed.
Her mother gave birth to a baby the day after his execution, but the tiny little boy died just ten days later.
In 1937, a year after her father died, a regional court fined him 1,500 pesetas “due to his opposition to the triumph of the national movement.”
And then in 1938, a village priest accused him of having been a “leading Communist extremist” who spoke badly of the all-important Church and had not even baptised his daughter.
“Lies,” Abril wrote in rage next to the priest’s report, which she found years later.
Her mother, meanwhile, left for Valladolid city nearly 300 kilometres away to earn money sewing uniforms for Nationalist soldiers.
To top it all, Abril was told years later that her father’s remains had been secretly transferred to a mammoth mausoleum that Franco had built near Madrid in a bid to create his own reconciliation between Nationalists and Republicans.
Franco is now buried there. “It is not very nice to know that dad is buried, anonymously, near him,” Abril says.
She has since written to heritage authorities in a bid to find out once and for all whether he is indeed buried there, and received a confusing response.
“We don’t have any information on this man but that does not necessarily mean that his remains aren’t here, as on April 8, 1959, 81 (dead) unknown people arrived from Calatayud,” they said.
– ‘War crimes’ –
“Before my mother died when she was 101, in 2011, I had promised her that I would continue (the search). She told me: ‘it’s going to be difficult’.”
But Abril can count on the support of her husband, three daughters and an association that fights against forgetting Spain’s past.
In the space of 12 years, its members have managed to find the remains of 15 people in mass graves in the Aragon region where Abril grew up.
“Some in the (ruling) Popular Party had the gall to tell us that we were only remembering our dead to claim money, others that we should leave the dead be,” says Abril.
“But even if they established an amnesty in 1977, these are imprescriptible war crimes.”