Exhuming Franco's Enemies Stirs Emotions

Roundup: Talking About History

Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times, 12/08/05

By noon, a small crowd gathers at the roadside. They peer down into the wide, shallow pit where Angel Fuentes leads a team of young scientists crouched on their hands and knees, carefully unearthing the bones and secrets of Spain's wartime past.

Maxima Perez, 71, clutching a black handbag, is waiting for the body of her father, Pablo, to be exhumed."Que pena, que pena," she says over and over, holding a hand to the side of her face as if to contain her pain. Fernando Garcia Hernando expects to find the remains of his grandfather, a man he never knew. Diego Pena cradles his infant son and also wonders about an unknown grandfather; he asks many questions.

The dead here have been buried for more than half a century.

They are among tens of thousands of Spaniards executed by Fascist forces loyal to Gen. Francisco Franco in the country's 1936-39 civil war. They were tossed into unmarked mass graves and ignored for decades, first out of fear and shame and later, after Franco's death in 1975 and the advent of democracy, out of a politically expedient desire to move beyond the past.

"We have lived a collective historical and political amnesia," said Fuentes, the archeologist."An imposed amnesia."

Now some families of the leftist victims have decided to end the silence, recover their dead, give them proper burials and restore dignity to their memories. They're being led by the grandchildren of the victims, who have the distance and freedom to explore areas their parents were terrified to touch.

The families' efforts are part of a wider willingness in Spain, finally, to examine the Franco regime and confront the brutalities of the period -- in museum exhibits, bestselling books, a flurry of movies and street rallies.

For the first time, the Spanish government is on board.

Since the last years of the 20th century, nations such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Guatemala have used the exhumation of mass graves to pursue justice and as a catalyst for exploring the ways war tore apart their societies. But Spain, despite its position as a modern Western European country, has taken a long time to reach this point of historic self-analysis.

It wasn't until 2000 that sufficient time had passed for any action. But even as the Spanish parliament condemned Franco's fascism, the right-wing government continued to finance the Franco Foundation, run by the late dictator's daughter.

The election this year of a Socialist government raised hope for real movement in the quest for historical truth: Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is the grandson of a man who also was shot to death by Franco loyalists.

This fall, the government created a commission, presided over by First Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, and provided about $1.3 million for exhumations and reparations to victims of Franco's regime.

"Possibly, the ghosts are beginning to disappear," said Emilio Silva, who founded the Assn. for the Recovery of Historical Memory. His organization has exhumed 41 mass graves, with a total of more than 300 bodies, all over the country with the help of only volunteers and private donations. Activists estimate there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, more hidden communal graves from Spain's civil war.

Silva, a journalist, became involved when he embarked on a search for the clandestine grave of his grandfather, who was shot to death by Fascists with 12 other men in October 1936. Silva was able to disinter the remains of his grandfather and rebury them in a proper cemetery last year; in the meantime, he came into contact with hundreds of other families yearning to find their loved ones.

After a few weeks of digging at Villamayor de los Montes, 110 miles north of Madrid, 44 bodies were recovered. They were found lined up neatly, side by side, head first, feet first, head first. Fuentes, the lead archeologist, said investigators also found ammunition casings.

"This is about being able to close a painful part of [the families'] lives," said Fuentes, who teaches at Madrid's Autonomous University."We try to say who died and how they died."

[Editor's Note: The original piece is much longer. Please see the Los Angeles Times' website for more.]

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