In Spain, re­newed ef­forts to ap­pease vic­tims of dic­ta­tor­ship

Malta Independent - - FEATURE -

Reme­dios Fer­rer scru­ti­nizes a pit where foren­sic ar­chae­ol­o­gists are brush­ing away dusty soil and white traces of quick­lime, un­earthing four frac­tured skulls amid a mass of bones and de­cay­ing clothes.

Her an­ar­chist grand­fa­ther, Mar­i­ano Brines, was sum­mar­ily ex­e­cuted by a fir­ing squad in Pa­terna months af­ter Gen. Francisco Franco pro­claimed his vic­tory in the 1936-39 Span­ish Civil War. Ac­cord­ing to the fam­ily’s ac­count, Brines was buried along with 99 other sym­pa­thiz­ers of the fallen re­pub­li­can regime just as the dic­ta­tor­ship ce­mented its au­thor­i­tar­ian grip.

Eight decades on, a new cen­ter-left gov­ern­ment’s move to ex­hume Franco from a con­tro­ver­sial shrine also raised at­ten­tion over an un­re­solved is­sue linked to his regime — the hun­dreds of anony­mous mass graves that tes­tify to the dic­ta­tor­ship’s bru­tal­ity.

Such ef­forts, legally ac­tive at least for the past decade, have been er­ratic, in­ter­mit­tent and led by vic­tims’ de­scen­dants forced to seek in­de­pen­dent, non-state fund­ing, which has raised crit­i­cism from United Na­tions bod­ies and hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tions.

But for de­scen­dants of vic­tims like Fer­rer, whose par­ents led her to French ex­ile as a 2-year-old and died be­fore dis­cov­er­ing Brines’ burial site, even the changes sought by Spain’s new So­cial­ist gov­ern­ment are com­ing too late.

“It makes me sad and an­gry, be­cause it was heart-break­ing for my mom, and be­fore her for my grand­mother, to know that grandpa was buried here like an an­i­mal,” said Fer­rer, now 66. “They should be the ones stand­ing here.”

Pa­terna is a town in the out­skirts of coastal Va­len­cia that has pros­pered in the shadow of an in­fa­mous ex­e­cu­tion wall still stand­ing near the ceme­tery, holes of bul­lets still vis­i­ble among flower bou­quets and me­mo­ri­als that lo­cals place to re­mem­ber the atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted at the site.

Mil­i­tary and civil guard fir­ing squads shot dead at least 2,238 prison­ers here ac­cord­ing to his­to­ri­ans’ re­search and the ceme­tery’s records. The re­mains are be­lieved to have been thrown into 70 dif­fer­ent mass graves and cov­ered in the quick­lime to seal off the site.

On Tues­day, grave­yard num­ber 112 — where two batches of 50 prison­ers were in­humed months af­ter the war ended in April 1939 — was the lat­est to be opened in Pa­terna. Af­ter days of care­ful dig­ging un­der­neath a layer of or­di­nary, cas­ket-buri­als, piles of skele­tons emerged.

Alex Calpe, one of the in­de­pen­dent ar­chae­ol­o­gists work­ing at the site on be­half of rel­a­tives those killed, says the ex­perts’ work must be “thor­ough” be­cause its goal is “to de­liver clo­sure to the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies.”

Coun­try­wide, the task ahead re­mains daunt­ing. Mass graves are be­lieved to hold at least 114,000 vic­tims of the Span­ish Civil War — in which half a mil­lion peo­ple are be­lieved to have died on all sides — and the four decades of Fran­co­ism that fol­lowed.

Ex­huma­tion ef­forts be­gan in earnest in 2007 with a new His­toric Mem­ory Law that con­demned atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted dur­ing Franco’s regime, which lasted un­til 1975. But the law fell short, leav­ing it up to lo­cal and re­gional gov­ern­ments to fund ex­huma­tions and DNA tests — which were of­ten paid for by rel­a­tives through crowd-fund­ing. The pre­vi­ous con­ser­va­tive ad­min­is­tra­tion de­clined to al­lo­cate any bud­get.

“This is not a mat­ter of pol­i­tics, whether left or right-wing this is some­thing that should be done,” said Car­men Gomez, who leads the as­so­ci­a­tion of 42 rel­a­tives who pushed for the open­ing of grave­yard num­ber 112, ul­ti­mately paid for by a grant last year from the provin­cial gov­ern­ment of Va­len­cia.

On Tues­day, armed with the ev­i­dence of re­mains show­ing cracked bones sug­gest­ing tor­ture or vi­o­lent deaths, Gomez and Calpe’s team of ar­chae­ol­o­gists showed up in Pa­terna’s lo­cal court­house to re­quest au­thor­i­ties to open a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The group ex­plained that judges tend to dis­miss the cases be­cause crimes over 20 years old fall un­der a 1977 amnesty law that was key in en­sur­ing the coun­try’s peace­ful tran­si­tion to democ­racy, by pro­tect­ing of­fi­cials and mem­bers of Franco’s se­cu­rity forces from fu­ture pros­e­cu­tion.

Gomez says the amnesty law should be changed, or scrapped al­to­gether, be­cause it de­prives their de­ceased rel­a­tives from jus­tice. But the gov­ern­ment has not shown any signs of want­ing to re­visit Franco-era ju­di­cial de­ci­sions in its ef­forts to amend the 2007 His­toric Mem­ory Law.

“I’m not look­ing for pun­ish­ment for any­body, but we don’t want our rel­a­tives to re­main crim­i­nals in the eyes of his­tory,” Gomez said.

For Fer­rer, the ex­iled rel­a­tive, the un­earthing of the grave where Brines is thought to be un­leashed a tidal wave of hope and sad­ness. But she said it was a nec­es­sary step.

“This coun­try can’t re­main with such shame and dark­ness cov­ered by lay­ers of soil,” she said. “This coun­try de­serves real sun­light.”

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