Tpile of wheel by pile of trowel, brushstroke by brushstroke, a skull rises from a pillow of ocher earth. His empty eye sockets gaze up at the October sky and his jaw is gaping, as if he’s still screaming, searching for air, or remembering what happened on the other side of that ravaged graveyard wall. bullets a year after the end of the Spanish Civil War.
Between March 16 and May 3, 1940, 26 Republican soldiers, workers, communists and trade unionists were summarily tried and shot dead in the central Spanish city of Guadalajara.
Their bodies were thrown into a four-meter deep pit in the corner of the local cemetery reserved for suicides, unbaptized, unconfessed and hopelessly wicked. The area was cordoned off during the Franco dictatorship, leaving the men’s relatives to pay homage to them by throwing bouquets of flowers on the wall.
Today, however, the bodies of Mass Grave No. 4 at Guadalajara Municipal Cemetery are being reared for decent reburial – and are emerging in a country still bitterly divided over how to deal with the toxic legacy of civil war and four decades. dictatorship that followed.
This week, Congress will debate the Socialist Government’s “Democratic Memory” Bill, which is based on landmark 2007 legislation, and which aims to “settle the debt of the Spanish democracy to its past”.
Its 65 articles include a census and a national DNA bank to help locate and identify the remains of tens of thousands who still lie in anonymous graves, a ban on groups that glorify the Franco regime, and a “redefinition” of the Valley. of the Fallen, the imposing mausoleum outside Madrid where the dictator remained for 44 years until his exhumation in 2019.
The government says the bill will help “encourage a shared discussion based on the defense of peace, pluralism and the expansion of human rights and constitutional freedoms.” Some, however, are not in the mood to speak. Or listen.
The Spanish conservative Popular Party (PP) – descendant of a political alliance founded by former Franco ministers – has long opposed attempts to probe the past, arguing that it respects the pact of oblivion which allowed the return of Spain to democracy.
PP Mariano Rajoy, who was Prime Minister from 2011 to 2018, boasted of having reduced Spain’s historical memory budget to zero after his administration inherited the 2007 law. Last Sunday, Pablo Casado, who succeeded Rajoy at the head of the PP, showed up in an arena in Valencia and promised to repeal the new legislation, saying it was only used to “unearth grudges”.
Fernando Martínez, a historian who was appointed Secretary of State for Democratic Memory last year, has little time for such complaints. Speaking to Observer as a team of forensic experts prepare to enter the Valley of the Dead to begin searching for the bodies of 77 of the thousands whose remains were buried there alongside Franco without their families’ consent, Martínez says the proposed new law is both timely and overdue.
“There’s a fundamental point here, is that this stuff says a lot about a democracy,” he says.
“And, of course, this country has to live up to its western European neighbors who have already resolved these issues. All of this – recovering the bodies and redefining the valley – strengthens democracy. You could say that everything is a bit late, but it has to be done.
The Valley of the Dead, with its 150-meter cross, has long acted as a symbol for those who deplore the end of Francoism and its creed of national Catholicism.
It is precisely because of this, says Martínez, that the site must be transformed into a place of solemn memory where visitors can come to discover all that the mausoleum was supposed to celebrate and symbolize.
“It is the best antidote to the totalitarian epidemics that are happening right now. It’s like visiting a Nazi death camp – when you leave, you do so with the firm determination that these things should never happen again.
Francisco Etxeberria, a leading forensic anthropologist who has examined Cervantes remains and has been called in to establish how Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda achieved their ends, is the man leading the recovery of the 77 bodies.
It is not for nothing that he describes the operation as a “truly exceptional challenge”, and which could last until the end of next year. Spain’s largest mass grave is replete with the remains of some 33,800 people from both the Nationalist and Republican sides, whose bones were unearthed in cemeteries across Spain and interred in the monument in a mock attempt at reconciliation.
Although 21,000 sets of remains were taken there with the knowledge and permission of the families – and those on the nationalist side were labeled with first and last names – the rest arrived in boxes showing only the number of bodies. they contained and what city they came from.
As if that weren’t enough, water seeped into the floors and walls of the mausoleum’s crypts for decades, destroying many boxes and entangling the bones.
“There are thousands of boxes in each chapel, and they are stacked from floor to ceiling, like shoe boxes,” says Etxeberria. “You have to drill through the walls – which are brick, concrete and cement – to open a hole. All you can see are the boxes. Nothing else.”
While exhumations – the culmination of a torturous legal battle – are family matters, the forensic anthropologist believes they could have broader meaning and impact. “I always think things like this help broaden the conversation about human rights,” he says. “Young people are already sensitized to the values of human rights; we never had that kind of human rights training and education when I was young. It shows that if things happen, there are things that can be done on behalf of those who have suffered. “
But for many families, the relief of finally seeing work begin in the valley is tempered by the time it has taken. Manuel Lapeña, whose father and uncle were killed by Franco’s forces at the start of the civil war, died last month at the age of 97. His family is sad and angry that he did not live to see the bodies recovered from the valley and buried in their hometown of Villarroya de la Sierra.
“I’ll believe everything when I see it with my own eyes,” says Purificación, Manuel’s daughter. “We’re really fed up with it, but the point is, we’re now talking about people who are really old – like my dad was. They were the last who really knew the people [who were reburied in the valley] and they disappear, one by one.
This sense of frustration is shared by Emilio Silva, president of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH), a human rights group that has spent two decades exhuming mass graves and advocating for justice for them. victims of Franco.
For Silva and many of his colleagues at the ARMH – which funds and coordinates excavations in Guadalajara – the bill does not go far enough on justice and reparations. “They draw up a census of the victims but there is no list of the executioners,” he said. “And nowhere in the pages of the bill is there any mention of the Catholic Church, which was one of the greatest instruments of repression. The law slips over things; it is designed not to disturb anyone. It is a problem. A good law of memory should upset the executioners, ”he adds.
While Silva is speaking, a man walks into the cemetery and stops to chat with an ARMH worker and to check the burial records the excavation team is using.
His name is Jesús Ropero, and until the previous night he knew little about his great uncle except what his mother could remember from his childhood.
Felipe Sanz Rueda, a “very idealistic and leftist” coalman, was taken from his prison cell and shot by the cemetery wall on April 26, 1940. He was 27 years old. His grandnephew, a retired photographer, 65, stumbled across his name in an ARMH tweet the night before and came down to find out more.
“My mother used to bring him food when he was in prison,” says Ropero. “One day she took her food as usual, but when she arrived they told her he was no longer there. That’s all they said. But everyone knew that if they said someone wasn’t there, then they were here in the graveyard.
He stands a few meters from the pit which has now abandoned two other skulls. By the end of next week, the exhumation team hopes to have recovered the remains of the 26 men whose bodies were thrown in the grave more than eight decades ago.
The idea of forgetting what happened, says Ropero, is impossible. “It’s a story that needs to be told like any other, and we need to know as much as possible,” he says. “People sometimes say it’s about reopening old wounds, but I think it’s just the opposite. People feel better when they know the story and reunite with their loved ones. I think it heals the wounds.