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In Spain, digging up the past is painful business

A law likely to be passed by Spain's lower house this week could make finding the remains of victims of Franco easier, and eventually lead to their names being legally cleared, has sparked a firestorm of debate.
Juliana Sanchez
Juliana Sanchez stands by a mass grave in Malaga, southern Spain, on Oct. 16, where she thinks the remains of her father she lost 70 years ago may be, shot by a Nationalist firing squad loyal to Gen. Francisco Franco during Spain's civil war.Paul White / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Juliana Sanchez passes a trembling hand in the air above the cracked and crumbling skeletons in the dry earth at her feet, her eyes moist and her voice quavering.

One of these sets of bones — perhaps this one with tattered leather shoes still attached to its feet, or that skull with bullet damage — is the father she lost 70 years ago, shot by a firing squad loyal to Gen. Francisco Franco in Spain’s cataclysmic 1936-1939 Civil War.

“This one could be him,” says Sanchez, gesturing toward a partially unearthed skeleton, its legs pulled up in a near-fetal crouch. “Or this one, or this. The truth is, they are all my father. That is how I feel.”

For Sanchez and tens of thousands like her, a law likely to be passed by Spain’s lower house on Wednesday could make finding the remains of victims of Franco easier, and eventually lead to their names being legally cleared. But the “Law of Historical Memory” has sparked a firestorm of debate, with the conservative opposition saying the country agreed to leave the ghosts of its past buried — in every sense — when it undertook a shaky transition to democracy following Franco’s death in 1975, and that the bill could tear Spanish society apart.

Passage looks all but certain
For Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero — whose own grandfather was executed by Franco’s forces during the war — the law is a centerpiece of his first term, and with the help of several smaller parties in parliament, its passage looks all but certain. It must then pass the Senate — considered a formality — and be published in the government gazette to become law.

It will mandate that local governments fund efforts to unearth mass graves, and pushes them to make their wartime archives more transparent in order to make searching easier. It will also for the first time formally condemn Franco’s coup and the nearly 40-year dictatorship that followed, and order the removal of all fascist symbols from the country.

The law will declare the verdicts of wartime summary trials “illegitimate,” clearing the way for individuals to seek to have the cases thrown out.

While atrocities were committed on all sides during a war that took an estimated 500,000 lives — and the Law of Historical Memory makes reference to all of those killed — it is mostly Franco’s victims who still lie in unmarked graves, some holding thousands of bodies. The number of bodies in mass graves nationwide is believed to be in the tens of thousands.

Families on Franco’s victorious Nationalist side who lost relatives in the war received preferential treatment, a stipend and proper burial of their loved ones.

The conflict, in which the Germans backed conservative Franco and the Soviets backed the leftist Republicans, came to be seen as a dress rehearsal for World War II. So traumatic was the war that even now Spaniards are loath to debate it. Even though the country has been a democracy for three decades, only in recent years have independent groups been looking for unmarked graves such as the one Julia Sanchez came to see.

Conservative former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, Zapatero’s immediate predecessor, says it is not for the government to “dig up tombs,” and accuses Zapatero’s party of being “obsessed with revenge.”

Angel Acebes, No. 2 in Aznar’s Popular Party, says “Zapatero wants to divide Spaniards and turn them against each other.” He says the prime minister “wants to remember the worst of our history, the Civil War, and forget the best, which was the transition (to democracy) and the agreements Spaniards made to live in harmony.”

'You can't change history'
The Roman Catholic church, which largely backed Franco during the war, has also weighed in.

Francisco Perez, the archbishop of Pamplona, said the bill was unnecessary because “you can’t change history,” and urged victims “to look for ways to forget.”

On Sunday, the Vatican is to beatify some 500 priests killed by Republican forces. Church officials say the timing, two days before the Spanish vote, is coincidental.

Francisco Espinosa Jimenez, the president of the victims’ group that has led the effort to recover more than 4,200 bodies buried in the mass grave in Malaga, is outraged, asking: “How is it that we in Malaga are opening old wounds by doing what we’re doing, while the Church is not opening old wounds by doing what it is doing?”

His group aims to remove all the remains at the Malaga grave, placing each in a properly marked box. Identifying the bodies will be difficult, so for now the goal is simply to separate them and give them a proper burial, probably in a monument the group is hoping to build at the site. If funding comes through and technology improves, DNA tests could be done later, though there are no plans for them.

Another grave complex, in Valencia, is thought to hold more than 26,000 bodies.

“We don’t want to open old wounds and we don’t want a new confrontation in this country,” said Espinosa Jimenez. “But it is necessary to find out the truth about what happened during the Civil War, something we still haven’t done in this country. I don’t know anybody who is doing this for revenge. All we want is a dignified burial for our fathers and our grandfathers.”

Sanchez grows visibly angry when people say it’s time to put the Civil War in the past. She says forgetting what happened to her father is not an option.

Half-a-century of searching
She spent more than half a century searching for her father’s body, finding a record of him through Espinosa Jimenez’s organization in 2003. Since archaeologists began excavating the Malaga grave a year ago, the 77-year-old has driven there every week in her battered Peugeot from her home in Madrid — a 700-mile roundtrip.

Based on his date of execution, Sanchez knows approximately where in the series of common graves her father would have been buried.

She says she feels as though she has found him, even though he may never be identified.

“I come because I have missed my father since I was a girl, and I will never forget him,” said Sanchez. “I have been looking for him for so long, the kilometers are nothing now that I have found him.”

Vicente Sanchez was a minor Socialist Party official in the town of Rute when the war began. He fled to the mountains, eventually making it on foot to Malaga, where he set up shop as a barber. After the city fell to Nationalist forces in February 1937, he was spotted and denounced by two right-wing men from his home town.

He was arrested and sentenced to death in a summary trial. Three days later he was stood against the cemetery wall and shot.

For years, all that remained for Sanchez was a letter her father wrote from behind bars just days before his execution, in which he urged his brother to look after his wife and children.

Of his wife, he wrote: “I will never forget her affection, which I carry locked up in my heart ... She is so good and so blessed that the last breaths that leave my soul will be for her.”