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Opening Franco's Graves Volume 59 Number 5, September/October 2006
by Mike Elkin

The victims of Spain's fascist past are beginning to tell their stories.

[image] Villagers watch as remains of long-lost friends and relatives are excavated. (Courtesy Mike Elkin) [LARGER IMAGE]

Distinguished Sir: During these times when searches for the bodies of victims of our civil war are taking place, allow me to impart to you an event in which I was forced to participate.... In 1941, on July 1, my military unit was ordered to execute seven people, among them a fifteen-year-old boy, who were imprisoned in Almadén. After completing this deplorable task they ordered us to dig some graves at the entrance of a cemetery and bury the poor souls there. I am writing this so as to permit the exhuming of the bodies by the respective families....

The anonymous letter arrived from Barcelona on April 19, 2004, addressed to Emilio Valiente, the mayor of Fontanosas, a town of 242 people tucked into the olive-tree-lined hills of southwestern Castilla-La Mancha. A small grid of one- and two-story apartment buildings, the town carries a secret that has lived in whispers for decades--one of the many tales of repression and murder during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

Valiente contacted the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH in its Spanish initials) a group of about 50 archaeologists, anthropologists, and forensic doctors. Over a weekend in mid-February a team of ARMH diggers uncovered the skeletons of seven men.

From the onset of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936 to Franco's death in November 1975, it is estimated that Franco's Nationalists killed between 75,000 and 150,000 supporters of the Republic and Republican forces killed around 60,000 Nationalists.

A typical execution was called a paseo, or a stroll, where prisoners were taken to secluded areas and shot in the head. The bodies were then dumped into freshly dug graves. One estimate has the number of people still lingering in unmarked graves at 30,000, but no one is sure. Most of the Francoist dead were recovered during the dictatorship. But the victims of the regime never received the same treatment, even after Spain restored its democracy. That changed in December 2000, when Emilio Silva and Santiago Macias founded ARMH. The group aims to collect the oral and written testimonies of Franco's victims, in addition to excavating and exhuming the mass graves that litter the country. "There is no place where there are no graves," said Francisco Etxeberría, a forensic doctor who volunteers with ARMH.

Mike Elkin is Newsweek's correspondent in Spain.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America