Civil War wounds are far from healed

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Thursday, October 29, 2009

For more than 70 years, the foothills of Spain's Sierra Nevada mountains have contained the country's darkest memories. Francisco Galadi intimately knows: Fascists executed his grandfather during the nation's Civil War, dumping his body in one of many mass graves that cover this serene landscape overlooking the city of Granada.

For years, Galadi has sought to give his grandfather, a bullfighter and anarchist, a proper burial. But he is believed to be in the same grave as Spain's most acclaimed 20th century poet, Federico García Lorca, whose family has long opposed opening the grave.

On Wednesday, however, under pressure from human rights activists and with the acquiescence of García Lorca's family, Spanish authorities began exhuming six mass graves in Alfacar.

The opening of García Lorca's grave is the latest and most high profile effort by Spain to come to terms with its ugly past. As many as 114,000 Spaniards were killed or disappeared during the conflict that lasted from 1936 to 1939 and pitted the rightist forces of Gen. Francisco Franco against an elected leftist government. The war ended with Franco's becoming a dictator and ruling Spain for four decades. When he died in 1975, Spain never attempted to reconcile its society, unlike other violence-torn nations such as South Africa and Rwanda.

Over time, though, pressure grew as family members of those who disappeared pushed for more attention. In 2000, small groups of "historical memory associations" started to excavate mass graves across the nation, using their own funds. Seven years later, the government passed a historical memory law, to recognize victims on both sides of the Civil War, condemn Franco's repression and provide state assistance to exhume the mass graves.

Yet Spain is deeply divided over confronting its own history. Many on the right oppose the exhumations, charging that it is a political ploy by Spain's ruling Socialist Workers' Party. Reopening old wounds, they say, will spawn new hatred. Those on the left say influential rightists, who built wealth and power under Franco's regime, want to keep the truth buried. Reconciling with the past would help heal festering wounds, they say, and bring dignity to those who died.

"To leave them in the mass graves means leaving the victims of Franco lying unidentified, like dogs," declared Francisco Gonzalez Arroyo, a local historian, whose views echo many on the left who say the process will bring healing.

Others bluntly disagree. "With this law, and the opening of graves, what they want is to divide society and hide Spain's reality," declared Sebastian Peres, the local head of the People's Party, Spain's main opposition right-wing political entity. "People know exactly what happened. To open a grave does not mean you will know more."

So far, about 190 gravesites containing roughly 5,500 victims have been uncovered, said Emilio Silva, the head of the national Association for the Recovery of Historic Memory. The task is daunting: Spain has the second-highest number of disappeared persons after Cambodia, according to Amnesty International.

"We suffered a sort-of apartheid," said Silva, whose grandfather was executed by Franco's forces during the Civil War. "Many people didn't know at all that in Spain these crimes had occurred. Right now, we're learning about the real Spain."

One difficulty in getting this far has been García Lorca's grave. The 38-year-old poet was executed in August 1936 along with Galadi, another bullfighter and a teacher, historians have determined. Today, a chain-link fence surrounds a dense patch of olive and cypress trees in Alfacar where the four men are believed to be buried, although others believe they are buried a few miles away.

Silva wants García Lorca's remains to be given a state burial as "a symbol of recognition for all the people who suffered under Franco." García Lorca's descendants had wanted his remains to be left in peace to avoid a media spectacle around an exhumation. In an interview in Madrid, his niece Laura García Lorca said the family didn't want preferential treatment for him, condemning other victims to oblivion. But in the end, she said, "we did not want to be an obstacle" for the other victims' descendants.

"I think the fact of physically touching someone's bones is not going to make a difference in reconciliation with two Spains," said García Lorca. "I don't necessarily think it will be a healing experience."

Galadi understands that sentiment; members of his own family disagree about whether his grandfather's grave should be exhumed. His 86-year-old mother's memories and fears of the repressive era are still strong, and, he said, "She told me not to get involved because 'They will come after us.' "

They won't, he said. Nor would he go after them. Galadi said he knew the families of those who killed his grandfather. "We don't want revenge. What we want is to get the remains of my grandfather and give them dignity," he said. "After 70 years, for us this is sufficient justice."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company