PUBLICAT A LOS ANGELES TIMES / FROM LOS ANGELES TIMES
December 8, 2004
Exhuming Buried Memories
• Spain starts to come to terms with the brutality of Gen. Franco's regime, recovering the remains of its victims from anonymous mass graves.
By Tracy Wilkinson, Times Staff Writer
VILLAMAYOR DE LOS MONTES, Spain — 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."
As happens at most of the association's exhumations, villagers from Villamayor initially reacted with trepidation as the digging began. But slowly, many started visiting the mass gravesite regularly as the scientists dug with trowels, brushed away dirt and carefully exposed the yellowed bones. Some of the villagers were simply curious. Others came because they knew, or suspected, that relatives were buried there.
Backed by Spain's conservative and powerful Roman Catholic Church, Generalissimo Franco in the early 1930s led Fascist forces to overthrow Spain's elected leftist Republican government. A civil war followed, ending in Franco's victory and a harsh, puritanical dictatorship that lasted until Franco's death.
Republican forces also committed atrocities and killed Fascists and priests. But historians say the Fascists were responsible for a far greater number of crimes, routinely kidnapping and executing town officials, intellectuals, Republicans and citizens with leftist sympathies.
Although pro-Franco victims of the violence were given proper burials, and monuments were erected in their honor, the losing side was left in ignominy.
"My mother never told us anything," said Maxima Perez, the woman waiting to find the remains of her father, a Republican deputy mayor who was taken away by the Fascists in 1936. "Out of fear, we simply never talked about it. My father was among the forgotten ones."
For more than 50 years, Perez said, her family has lived with an unspoken burden. She eventually escaped by moving far away, to Barcelona. Although Perez said her mother maintained silence, her son said he quizzed his grandmother regularly and was able to piece together some details.
The families say they are not seeking revenge, but rather justice and recognition.
"It's been such a taboo, and people still say, 'Leave it; don't talk about it,' " said Garcia Hernando, 63, the man looking for the grandfather he never knew. "But I want to give my grandfather just a bit of dignity."
In the aftermath of the war, some villages were divided. The sons of the assassins lived alongside the sons of the assassinated. Families of Republicans often lost their jobs and property as punishment for their sympathies. As time went on, though, descendants of one side began marrying descendants of the other.
Garcia Hernando, an energetic, barrel-chested man, said his family for generations was labeled leftist. Immediately after the war, his father, persecuted, landed in jail; his mother was protected by a sympathetic priest. Later, in his childhood, he played soccer with the children of his grandfather's executioners; yet no one spoke of what had happened.
The excavation at Villamayor, in a clearing a few feet off the main road into town, began late in the summer, and the bones are being transported to a laboratory in Madrid. Identification will start early next year, Fuentes said. The investigators interviewed family members — especially those who approached the gravesite — and compiled detailed portraits of the victims to help with identification.
Montserrat Soto, 43, arrived at the pit with a video camera to tape the exhumation. She acknowledged that opening the graves was like opening a Pandora's box for the Spanish psyche, but said it was an inevitable and necessary airing of the past if the country was to mature into a major force in today's Europe.
"My grandmother always said, 'Somewhere between Burgos and Leon, your grandfather is buried by the road,' " Soto said, her camera whirring. "It was a void, a tremendous emptiness that had to be filled. It's like someone disappearing without a trace."
The desire to recover these memories seems to hew along generational lines. The sons and daughters of those killed, who grew up fearing the middle-of-the-night knock on the door, did not dare explore the past. But their children want to know.
Diego Pena, the man who brought his baby to the gravesite, believes his grandfather, Pedro Pena, is buried here.
Diego Pena's politics could not be more different from those of his ancestor; until recently he was the mayor of a nearby town as a representative of the right-wing Popular Party, founded by former Franco associates.
Yet he says he believes justice can be served only by discovering and identifying the dead. His father, Pedro Pena's son, wants nothing to do with it.
"For him, it's like opening an old, long-cauterized wound," Diego Pena, 34, said, jiggling his infant. "But I can look at this more coldly. I didn't grow up with it. To me, it's about justice."
Diego says his father was so traumatized that the name Pedro Pena disappeared in the generation that followed. The name of Diego's new son? Pedro.
The bodies now are nothing more than dried skeletons: rib cages and spinal columns, skulls, femurs. The fourth body in the row has a piece of shoe, the ninth one a blackened strip of clothing. Another apparently had arthritis, the forensic specialists conclude, and another had a broken shoulder. All were male, most likely ranging in age from the 20s to one in his early 80s.
Because of the time that has passed, the exhumation is more like an archeological dig than the recovery of recently buried bodies, like what was found in Bosnia or Kosovo, said Andrea Alonso, 24, one of several volunteers on the team.
Carlos Aguero, another member of the Assn. for the Recovery of Historical Memory who helped supervise the Villamayor exhumations, said the task has become urgent because the civil war generation is dying.
"Each day that goes by we lose a part of our memory, a part of our history," he said. "If we don't recover this now, we will lose it forever."