Spain's lost children of the civil war slowly return

Picasso's painting ''Guernica,'' symbol of the horror of the Spanish civil war, returned to Spain in 1981 after a 42-year exile. But some of the children caught up in the nightmare are still waiting to come back.

In the spring of 1937, the town of Guernica was bombed and hundreds of civilians killed in one of the most notorious episodes of the civil war. In the ensuing months, republican municipalities in northern Spain decided to evacuate the children to escape the approaching war. Thousands between the ages of 2 and 15 were sent to European countries sympathetic to their cause.

The little-publicized plight of the ninos (children) who were sent to the Soviet Union is one of the emotional pockets that remain nearly half a century after the civil war. It resurfaced in May when Spain's first Socialist government sent its foreign minister, Fernando Moran Lopez, to Moscow.

Some 1,200 refugees now live in the Spanish community of Moscow, and 300 of them reportedly want to return to Spain. Spanish officials say that about 10 ninos who have held sensitive posts are finding it very difficult to emigrate.

Official sources reckon that 5,000 Spanish refugees ended up in the Soviet Union - nearly 4,000 children and 1,000 adults. Most of the latter were instructors, pilots, and high republican officials. Some died fighting for the Soviet Union in World War II and others melted into Soviet society. But 1,500 ninos returned to Spain in 1957 in an ostentatious ''pardon'' by General Franco.

The Spanish government pledged jobs and housing for them, but many were disappointed. Approximately 10 percent emigrated to the Soviet Union a second time.

Franco's Spain had no relations with the Soviet Union, and no further returns were possible until the coming of democracy and the legalization of the Communist Party in 1977. Between 1977 and 1981 nearly 200 ninos straggled back.

Although some of the bewildered children who found themselves aboard ships headed for Leningrad were from Basque nationalist homes, the majority came from ''revolutionary'' families that deliberately sent them to the Soviet Union.

Amaya Ciutat Armingol was two when her family's house in Bilbao was bombed and destroyed. Her father, an officer in the republican army, was away fighting on the northern front, and her mother was in prison. She and her sister, Marisol , were packed up by their grandmother, and weeks later, the three found themselves in a Leningrad center dubbed ''Casa de Ninos.''

''My first memory must be the delicious smell of banana,'' Amaya says with a smile. ''Despite their own restrictions, the Soviets went to great trouble to provide the Spanish children with clothes and the food they were used to.'' During World War II, the ninos received much-coveted milk rations.

Amaya and her sister were more fortunate than most. After three years their parents joined them, and the children left the Casa de Ninos. But those who grew up in the centers were not unhappy.

Juan Rodriguez Ania, then an 11-year-old orphan from Oviedo, remembers his stay in a Leningrad luxury hotel with dozens of other ninos who literally tore the place apart playing war games in the corridors while an orchestra played ''La Cucaracha'' over and over for them in the dining hall.

Special schools were set up and books printed to provide the children with an education in Spanish. Teachers were brought from Spain. Juan remembers vacations in resorts like Odessa for pupils with the highest marks. Their treatment was so preferential that Dolores Ibarruri, the Spanish Communist Party's legendary figure, politely rebuked the Soviets for turning these workers' kids into namby-pamby gentlemen.

The ninos received educational opportunities they would not have had back home. What started off as exceptional treatment for ''children of fighters'' grew into a social project whose leitmotif was: ''Be useful.''

Amaya was trained as a microbiologist. She returned to Spain in 1977 when the Communist Party was legalized. Her Soviet degrees didn't count in Spain, and her two children had been brought up in the Soviet school system. Only now, six years later, does she have a job. Despite her involvement in politics, Amaya says rather wistfully: ''I'm satisfied, because at last I'm where I'm supposed to be, but I'm still fighting to be useful.''

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