Spain begins to confront its past

A campaign to dig up the mass graves of thousands murdered during the civil war has begun

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Vicente Moriera was 11 when his mother was shot in the back of the head and dumped into a hole in the ground.

It was an August evening in 1936, at the start of the Spanish civil war. That summer also marked the start of the young Vicente's 17-year exile to the Soviet Union - and the beginning of his lifelong quest for justice and remembrance.

Last spring, six decades after his mother's death, Mr. Moriera's painful odyssey reached a turning point. He watched as volunteer archeologists dug up one of thousands of mass graves throughout Spain, mostly the remains of opponents killed by General Francisco Franco's forces during the civil war and the nearly four decades of dictatorship that ensued.

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"How can I describe it? It was liberation," Mr. Moriera says, holding back tears. "I had been waiting my whole life for this."

Like thousands of others throughout the country, he has begun to break the silence that has surrounded the brutalities committed during the Franco years, demanding that mass graves be located and the stories of the victims be told.

Now one of the groups leading the effort - which is seeking the establishment of an independent truth commission - wants an apology from the Roman Catholic Church, which backed Franco.

"The church played an atrocious role in the persecution of dissidents, but it plays a fundamental role in the lives of many who remember the war," says Emilio Silva, a cofounder of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory. "In order for fear to dissipate, we need a political as well as a religious commitment to tell the other side of the story."

The association plans to send a formal letter this month to the Vatican Embassy in Spain, and to bishops and archbishops throughout the country.

The civil war was preceded by the proclamation of a Republic in Spain, which, among other things, curtailed the church's power and secularized education. In the Soviet-backed Republic, monasteries, convents, and churches were raided and profaned, priests and lay workers murdered, and nuns raped. In 2001 Pope John Paul II beatified 233 Catholics as martyrs murdered by Republicans in the war.

Spain's silence surrounding the civil war and the Franco era was part of the blueprint for the transition to democracy after the dictator's death in 1975. The fathers of the new government believed that forgetting was essential to moving on, and in 1977 granted amnesty to all collaborators in the war.

The silence since Franco's death has left Spain with an uneven historical memory.

While Franco's troops were celebrated for dying for country and altar, more than 30,000 Republicans officially "disappeared" and remain missing. The colossal Valley of the Fallen outside of Madrid is a stark example of the discrepancy. It is promoted as a memorial to some 350,000 people who died during the war, but, built by the dictator's prisoners of war in the early 1940s, the memorial is an obvious shrine to Franco and his followers.

Many Spaniards say there are few public forums to discuss the war or the dictatorship. While textbooks illustrate post-1936 Spain, it is the exception, rather than the rule, to formally study those chapters.

The country's center-right government, which has historical ties to the Franco regime, has been criticized for being slow to support efforts to unearth the secrets of the past and foster objective discussion of it.

"The government wasn't paying attention to the requests in the beginning, until [the issue] started receiving attention abroad," says José Luis Rodríguez Jiménez, a history professor at the University Juan Carlos III in Madrid. "Now they've said they will help with the exhumations, it remains to be seen what will actually be done."

Thousands of documents are still believed to be in files restricted to the public. This fall the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory asked the United Nations to request that Spain open its archives so that surviving relatives could find out what happened to family members and where their bodies are buried. The group also wants the government to help defray costs, including DNA testing and dignified reburials.

Mr. Silva says that since his association's effort began last spring, it has received more than 3,000 requests for exhumations and has disinterred 59 bodies. Most of the work is done by volunteers, but local town halls and universities are beginning to donate resources, says Silva, whose grandfather disappeared during the civil war. Although the association was formed in the name of Republican victims, the group maintains it will help relatives of nationalists who disappeared if help is requested.

At various times in the past two decades, the issue of the church's role has been raised, but no admission has been made. A diocesan spokesman in Leon recently said, "And why don't they ask communism to say it is sorry? It has caused much damage throughout the world."

Moriera believes that the wounds of the past can only be healed through a joint effort by the victims, the government, and the church.

As a child of Republican sympathizers, Moriera was among 3,000 Spanish children sent to the Soviet Union during the war. Thousands of others fled or were exiled to other parts of the world.

For the children of the war's "losers," life has not been easy, Moriera says. "They didn't just kill our parents, they killed all of us," he says. "I have felt marginalized my whole life." A retired sculptor, he sits in front of a work he has created for a town hall in northern Spain, where his mother was buried last year. A plaque with the words Nunca Mas (Never Again) etched above two hands, reaching up from the earth, it is one of the first memorials to honor Republicans. "It is both the beginning of a new era," he says, "and the end of my story."

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