Digging the Spanish earth

Post date: 11/07/2016

By José Velázquez


Over 75 years ago an attempted military coup to overthrow the democratically elected government in Spain led to a civil war. Lasting three years (1936-1939), the war resulted in the death of an estimated 500,000 people. The victory of the Francoist regime in 1939 saw a post-war period marked by reprisals and state violence against the defeated, thousands of Spaniards were imprisoned, killed, disappeared, and forced into hiding and exile. The length of the dictatorship (1939-1975) meant that these acts of violence were often shrouded in a combination of shame, silence and secrecy.


After Franco’s death in 1975 anxiety to fast-track Spain on the road to democracy and European modernity meant that the crimes committed during the dictatorship were swept under the carpet in the name of moving forward. An amnesty clouded by amnesia came to mark the period of transition to democracy and it thwarted any attempts by families of the victims to seek reparations or locate the bodies of the thousands of ‘disappeared’ during the war and in its long aftermath.


In November 2007 a Law for the Recovery of the Historical Memory was submitted to the country's Congress for ratification this made it possible to begin the process of locating and exhuming the common graves of over 200,000 people, most thought to be Republican’s unlawfully executed in the decade immediately following the end of the war. The exhumation of this buried legacy, at a moment in time when the search for truth and reconciliation continues to raise ghosts in Spain, remains the focus of committed archaeologists, anthropologists and forensics scientists from associations for the Recovery of Historical Memory.


Archaeologist Juan Luis Castro (pictured below at the International Brigade memorial on London's South Bank) is a significant figure of the so called movimiento memorialista in Seville. He has been key in documenting the testimonies and memories of relatives and survivors in order to locate, access, and identify unmarked mass graves scattered throughout the region. The best example of his work is the exhumation in Guillena (Seville) of the “17 Roses”, 17 innocent women, one of them seven months pregnant, who were tortured and executed by the fascist troops in November 1937 for being relatives of republicans. 


Yet, assisting any families suffering difficulties in their search for lost relatives is becoming increasingly difficult owing to red tape, continuing changes in legislation and the lack of a common and internationally recognized policy for locating, accessing and exhuming the burial sites. 


Castro has now identified over 100 neglected sites in Andalusía that would require immediate action not to be lost forever. Some of the mass graves can be found underneath gutters, rubbish tips, dumps and new housing developments; one of the sites can be found in a remote enclave in the military base of Rota (Cádiz), inaccessible since the 1950s, when Franco strengthened relations with the United States. No action has yet been taken by the regional government to protect these sites. 


This article is a plea for the Spanish government to stop violating the UN’s Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Violations of International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, and to help the victims of the Spanish Civil War seek judicial truth, justice and reparation.


Contact Juan Luis Castro: [].


José Velázquez is a London based documentarian and IBMT member.



Posted 11 July 2016

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