Spain Slowly Exhumes Victims of Franco’s Repression

During and after the Spanish Civil War, an estimated 114,000 people were killed by Franco’s supporters and many of those victims were buried in mass graves.

Headstones are gathered together in the municipal cemetery in Paterna, Spain, after being moved to make way for exhumation work. The headstones show executed men peering from portraits. The exhumation work in Paterna is among many sites in Spain where mass graves are being dug up in order to identify victims of Gen. Francisco Franco’s repression. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

PATERNA, Spain (CN) — Day by day and bone by bone, crimes and mass killings committed by the Franco dictatorship against its left-wing enemies after the Spanish Civil War are slowly coming to the light inside the walled municipal cemetery of a small city outside Valencia.

“This cemetery looks like a normal cemetery, but it isn’t,” said Santi Vallés, a 53-year-old journalism professor in search of a great uncle’s remains, as he stood outside the cemetery on a hot summer day. “This cemetery is really a large mass grave.” He calls it a “true map of horror.”

It’s here where an estimated 2,238 victims of General Francisco Franco’s repression were dumped in pits – or “fosas comunes,” as Vallés said, speaking in Spanish.

Inside the cemetery, it did seem normal. There were gravestones, flowers, mementos, statuary. The occasional person walked by. It was quiet. A bird hooted. But something stood out: A work site, hidden from view behind black screening, had been erected amidst the gravestones. This was where the difficult work of exhuming human remains was taking place. Under the shade of a tree next to the work site, a forensic specialist was bent over a wooden sieve looking for bones amid excavated dirt.

“After the war, it didn’t look like this,” Vallés said. “It was all just mounds of sand.”

The work to exhume and identify victims of Franco’s repression in Paterna is part of a larger national reckoning in Spain with its past under the Franco dictatorship, which ended with the nationalist-catholic leader’s death in 1975.

There are those like Vallés who are searching for the remains of family members in mass graves; others who were taken away from their communist families as babies are trying to find their true families; there are those trying to rename streets still bearing the names of Franco and his allies; others are trying to reclaim property taken away from their families because they were among Franco’s enemies – the republicans, the anarchists, the communists and socialists inspired by the Russian revolution who sought to build a Spanish democratic republic.

Even today, 45 years after Franco’s death and the return of democracy in Spain, this reckoning is deeply colored by politics: Those on the left, the victims of Franco’s fascist regime, are pushing to open the archives into past crimes and seeking justice and reparations. But those on the right say it’s time to move on and not dwell on the horrors committed by both sides during the Spanish Civil War. A slogan used by the right is “olvido y perdón” – I forget and forgive.

Reckoning with the past is hindered by a 1977 amnesty law passed by the Spanish parliament in the wake of Franco’s death. The law was designed to ease the transition from Franco’s dictatorship to a constitutional monarchy. Under the law, crimes and atrocities committed by Franco’s forces during the Spanish Civil War and later during the dictatorship were forgiven. Atrocities committed by republican forces – such as killing thousands of clergy members and executing en masse political prisoners – were also forgiven.

Santi Vallés, left, and Miguel Esteve stand outside the municipal cemetery in Paterna, Spain, where their family members were buried in mass graves containing victims of Gen. Francisco Franco’s repression. In this 2019 photo, Vallés and Esteve are wearing their association’s T-shirts with the words, “Truth, Justice, Reparations” written on the back. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

The law also freed political prisoners and allowed exiles to return. However, in 2014 a United Nations special rapporteur on human rights, Pablo De Grieff, argued the amnesty law should be withdrawn and that crimes by Franco’s regime should be tried.

In 2008, a prominent former Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon, opened an investigation into Franco-era crimes. But his probe was shut down by state prosecutors who said he lacked jurisdiction to investigate crimes committed 70 years before and argued that the 1977 amnesty law prevented prosecutions.

Then in 2010, an Argentinian judge, Maria Servini de Cubria, opened a case into Franco-era crimes, invoking the legal principle of universal jurisdiction. The case is ongoing with a former 85-year-old Spanish interior minister, Rodolfo Martín Villa, testifying earlier this month in a video conference with Servini over his role in the killings of 12 people during the transition to democracy in the late 1970s. Meanwhile in Spain, associations of victims’ families, including one that Vallés is part of, are fighting legal cases to open investigations into Franco-era crimes.

During and after the Civil War, an estimated 114,000 people were killed by Franco’s supporters and many of those victims, including the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, were buried in mass graves like those in Paterna. Lorca’s family is still trying to find the famed poet’s remains and this year announced they believe they know where his body lies.

In 2007, a Socialist-led government passed legislation – the Historical Memory Law – that for the first time made the Spanish state confront Franco’s dark legacy. The law provided, among other things such as the removal of Francoist symbols from public spaces, funds to locate and exhume victims of repression.

Initially, the law spurred work to exhume victims in mass graves in Paterna and at several other sites in Spain. Prior to this, volunteers labored to open up mass graves. However, funds for exhumation were suppressed by the conservative Popular Party after it came to power in 2011.

Spain is once again led by a Socialist government and this month new legislation was submitted to deal with the Franco legacy. If passed, the law could lead to more funding for identifying victims and to annulling verdicts issued by Francoist courts.

The work to find and identify bodies in the mass graves is painfully slow.

When Vallés took Courthouse News for a tour through the cemetery in Paterna, it was the summer of 2019. More than a year later, the remains of his great-uncle, Franciso Núñez Miquel, have still not been identified. During the tour, Vallés was joined by Miguel Esteve, another man looking for the remains of his grandfather, José Esteve Gimeno. Esteve’s grandfather’s remains have still not been identified either.

In Paterna, the majority of those victims in the mass graves were killed after the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939 with the defeat of pro-democratic republican forces. The executed included fighters but also many people who’d never fought but who were seen as enemies of the Franco ideology. Among those shot, for example, was Vicent Miguel Carceller, a well-known editor of a satirical newspaper in Valencia called La Traca whose publications offended Franco.

Miguel Esteve points to a collection of headstones previously placed over a mass grave where he believes his grandfather was buried, known as fosa 113, during a visit to the cemetery in Paterna, Spain, in 2019. Bodies were excavated from fosa 113 in 2017 but Esteve is still waiting to get confirmation about his grandfather’s remains. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

“The Francoist regime created a machine of repression to persecute all those republicans who were loyal to the regime of democratic freedom,” Vallés said. “In my great-uncle’s case, he was a councilor in a town hall representing the Radical Socialist Party. They wanted to annihilate any possibility of a future generation seeking a democratic regeneration.”

Unlike the horrors of Nazism in Germany and fascism in Italy, he said the repression and crimes committed by the Franco regime have been hidden from view and gone unpunished.

“If you go to Auschwitz or Mauthausen, you see that they were concentration camps; you can see the crematoriums and you can see how people were treated,” he said.

Different from Germany and Italy, Spain remained in the grip of its fascist dictatorship after World War II and crimes committed by the regime were paved over. Hopes that Franco would be removed by the Allies faded and by 1953 the United States and Franco signed a military pact. Upon his death, U.S. President Richard Nixon called Franco a “loyal friend and ally.”

Even in the Paterna cemetery, it takes careful observation to discern that underfoot in the tidy and charming cemetery lie the bones of Franco’s victims in disorder under tons of earth.

At the end of the war, Alicante, a port city south of Valencia, turned into a dead end for thousands of republicans seeking to embark for France and other destinations. After getting trapped, thousands were interned at the Albatera concentration camp, transferred to prisons in Valencia, where torture was common, and ended up shot in Paterna.

“It was the families that kept the memory of what happened here alive,” he said.

Vallés said he remembered seeing his aunt cry when he was 14. He asked her why she was crying. She responded: “You are too young to know about it.” She was mourning the brutal death of his great-uncle.

Years later, while doing research for his university thesis at the Salamanca historical archives, he started to look into the mass graves in Paterna. Amazed by what he discovered, he helped found an association of families demanding the exhumation and identification of bodies in mass graves in the Paterna cemetery.

Esteve, a 53-year-old air conditioning specialist, remembered how his grandmother regularly laid flowers on the spot where she believed her husband was buried.

“But we won’t know for sure who is buried here until the exhumations and corresponding identifications are done,” Vallés said. “That’s the problem.”

Despite being buried in mass graves, most families knew where their executed family members were interred. Over the years, they erected headstones for dead relatives.

Gravestone after gravestone shows the faces of men, many of them young, peering out from black-and-white photos. Again and again, the year of death was recorded as 1939 – the year Franco won the war. On some, it reads: “Shot dead.” Etched under many names is a promise: “You aren’t forgotten.”

“Aren’t you surprised how many of those here were buried in the same year? So young and from so many places other than Paterna?” Vallés remarked. He said those found in the mass grave where his great-uncle was buried were between the ages of 25 and 63 years old.

A little farther on, Esteve pointed to another gravestone.

Members of an association of relatives seeking to get family members’ bodies identified in fosa 113 stand with their arms linked outside the Congress of Deputies, Spain’s parliament in Madrid, in January 2018, during a trip to the capital to follow up on work to identify their relatives. (Photo by Federico Fuertes Banacloig/Courtesy of Santi Vallés).

“Look at this one,” Esteve said. The headstone said the man was a member of the Socialist Party who was killed on Nov. 2, 1939, at the age of 34.

They then reached a section of the cemetery known as fosa 113: It’s here where the two men believe the bodies of their relatives were buried. In May and June of 2017, specialists exhumed remains from fosa 113 but as yet only eight out of 50 bodies in the grave have been identified, Vallés said.

“You can’t imagine how much we’ve cried at this spot,” Vallés said with emotion. “Above all, we feel anger that our relatives, neither his grandmother nor my grandmother, could give a dignified burial to their loved ones. There is no fundamental right more important than being able to bury a loved one.”

He denounced the Spanish state for not doing more to right the wrongs of the past and insisting Spain needs to forget and forgive crimes committed by Franco’s regime.

“How can you ask families to forgive? I’m not going to forgive,” he said. “The state has to do justice. We don’t feel hatred; we’re not asking for revenge. We just want justice. I think justice comes from the state. We do not want to reopen wounds but I do not want to close this chapter either so future generations are aware of what happened.”


Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union. 

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