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Home News The painstaking search for Spain’s Franco-era missing

The painstaking search for Spain’s Franco-era missing

Published on 20/12/2010

Calzada de Oropesa -- With painstaking care and armed with brushes and chisels, volunteers at a site in central Spain are unearthing bones buried for more than 70 years in the hope of identifying some of the victims from the Civil War.

But it is agonisingly slow work — and hopelessly underfunded according to the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, which helps Spaniards locate the graves of loved ones who went missing during the 1936-39 war and subsequent dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

Among them was the father of Paula Gonzalez Polo, who is now 78 and was just four when her father was shot with six neighbors.

"I am pleased, although I hardly remember him," she said as she approached the grave where his remains were found at Calzada de Oropesa, dressed in black and aided by her two granddaughters.

"Finally we can bury them."

Over the past 10 years, the association has opened some 150 mass graves and exhumed around 1,500 corpses in its quest for truth, which is emerging just as slowly, 35 years after the death of Franco on November 20, 1975.

Spain, Calazada de Oropesa : Paula Polo Gonzalez (2nd R), speaks with archeologist Rene Pacheco (C) as they exhume the remains of Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939) victims including her grand father

But that is out of 105,000 to 130,000 people the association estimates were killed and buried in mass graves during the war, which pitted Franco’s right-wing forces against an elected left-wing government.

While Franco’s regime honoured its own dead, it left its opponents buried in hundreds of unmarked graves across the country.

Spain’s Socialist government in 2007 passed the "Law of Historical Memory" which, among other provisions, seeks to restore the honour of Franco’s victims — and help identify their graves.

But Macias said that of the EUR 19.4 million (USD 26.6 million) already spent by the government for the implementation of the law, only 5.9 million went on exhumations.

"This work is progressing very slowly, with little funds," he said.

Macias also deplores the frequent absence of judges at the opening of the graves, as was envisaged under the law, something he blamed on confusion over whether local or national judges are competent for this work.

The judicial confusion was highlighted in the case of Spain’s crusading judge Baltasar Garzon, who opened an investigation into the Franco-era disappearances in 2008.

But he was suspended from his post and is due to go on trial for abuse of power for opening the probe despite a parliament-approved amnesty to all involved in such crimes in 1977.

Despite the obstacles, Macias trusts that the work will continue.

He said many young people are involved in the exhumations, "which will not end with the death of their parents but, on the contrary, will be passed on. We can’t act as if nothing had happened."

‘Finally we can bury them’

At the site in Calzada de Oropesa, volunteers are exhuming the remains of  the seven villagers who were shot in November 1936 by Franco’s forces, four months after the start of the Civil War.

Some 13 kilometres (eight miles) away in their home village of Las Ventas de San Julian, 84-year-old Heliberto Gutierrez also remembers the incident, in which his father was also shot.

"My father was told: ‘go away, they’ll kill you’," said Gutierrez. But he was executed, in what Gutierrez believes was a settling of scores against the seven men for having "stolen a cow or two" which they had given to the republican militia.

A color still of the Spanish civil war

Six years ago, the granddaughters of Paula Gonzalez Polo, Patricia and Ana Maria Jimenez, decided to go in search of their great-grandfather.

The grave was located thanks to the testimony of Lucio, a villager aged 93 who for years had lived just 200 meters (yards) away.

Using a metal detector, the volunteers from the association found some bullets under the earth.

"The bullets were all together, some were those that had killed the men," said Rene Pacheco, the archaeologist who runs the site, showing the crushed bullets that were pulled from the ground.

He said it will probably be difficult to identify bodies after decades under the clay.
"The families know this and they will probably bury them all together in the cemetery of San Julian," said the archaeologist.

At a small laboratory some 400 kilometres (300 miles) farther north, in the town of Ponferrada, medics try to identify some of the remains exhumed from mass graves.
Doctor Helen Vergara is one of those.

"First of all we carry out a basic test, we measure the bones to find out the size of the victim for example," she said. "Then we look for characteristics, to know if the person had illnesses for example or to determine their age.

"Finally, we look for the cause of death, if there are fractures, bullet marks."

The association sometimes calls on better equipped laboratories for genetic analysis. But sometimes the remains are just in too bad a condition to be identified.

Gabriel Rubio / AFP / Expatica