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.
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.