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Home News Spanish families unearth their civil war dead

Spanish families unearth their civil war dead

Published on 12/03/2012

Gerena -- The old people of the village still remember hearing the screams and gunshots through the olive trees of the cemetery one evening in 1937, at the height of Spain's civil war.

Seventeen women, relatives of people on the Republican side, were shot by the forces of Francisco Franco and tipped straight into a mass grave.

Now, 74 years on, their bodies are being exhumed so that their descendants can bury them properly.

In a dark coincidence, the exhumation began in January, on the eve of the start of the trial of Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon who is accused of breaking an amnesty by investigating just such atrocities in the Franco era.

"It’s paradoxical to say the least. It’s also incomprehensible," said Lucia Socam, 25, whose great-aunt Granada Hidalgo was among the women buried in the mass grave.

"They’re going to try Judge Garzon for precisely this, for wanting to shed light on these crimes, which were crimes of humanity, so that justice could be done for the victims."

Maria Jose Dominguez, 45, holds a photograph of her grandmother, Manuela Mendez Jimenez, a young blonde woman in a beret, from the neighbouring village of Guillena.

She was a 25-year-old mother of two working in an olive-processing factory when local pro-Franco leaders arrested her, sheared off her hair and locked her in the village prison.

Later they trucked her to Gerena with 16 other women, aged up to 70, all accused of links to members of the Republican cause fighting against the revolt launched by Franco a year earlier.

In the cemetery there they were gunned down and cast into the grave.

Villagers heard "screams and lots of shots", says Manuela’s grandson, Manolo Dominguez, 47.

Then for decades there was silence.

As Spain moved to democracy following nearly 40 years under Franco, an amnesty was agreed in 1977, two years after his death, which ruled out airing the bloody events of the war and dictatorship in the courts.

In Gerena, Manolo and his sister were the first to break the code of silence over the events of the war. They launched a search more than a decade ago for the bodies of their grandmother and those killed with her.

"We just want to give them a dignified burial," said Maria Jose.

Other families joined their search in 2005. Their efforts received a boost from a law on "historical memory" passed in 2007 by the then Socialist government, aimed at recognising the victims of the Franco era.

But public funding for the search was still not forthcoming, so volunteer archaeologists from the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, a campaign group, helped with the excavations.

"It is we, the families, who have to go with pick and shovel to search for our dead," said Socam.

The families questioned survivors from the time of the killings to locate the grave and lobbied to gain authorisation to dig for it, defying complaints from fellow villagers who accused them of opening past wounds.
"It has been a hard road," said Maria Jose.
The former Socialist government published a map last year showing the site of 2,000 suspected graves of people killed during the civil war and dictatorship.

The association says there are many more graves and that 5,000 bodies have been dug up from such sites over the past decade.

Garzon stands accused of breaching the amnesty agreement by ordering investigations between 2006 and 2008 into the disappearances of 114,000 people.

He argues they were victims of crimes against humanity, not subject to the amnesty.

"He is the only person who has dared to take on the crimes of fascism" in Spain, said Marie Jose Dominguez. "It is unjust. They should try those who deserve to be tried."

Elodie Cuzin / AFP / Expatica