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“In Spain,” wrote the poet Federico García Lorca, “the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world.” García Lorca was writing in 1933; only three years later, he was assassinated by a militia supporting Gen. Francisco Franco’s fascist uprising, only a month into the Spanish Civil War.
Despite extensive detective work, excavations and even recent DNA tests of his relatives, García Lorca’s remains have never been found, and he has never been given a proper burial. In this at least, he is not alone. It is thought that at least 114,000 victims of fascist death squads remain missing or unidentified from the period of the civil war and the dictatorship that followed Franco’s victory in 1939. Most were political prisoners who supported the left-wing Popular Front government, executed under cover of darkness, then bundled into unmarked mass graves.
In recent years, the clamor to acknowledge and commemorate Spain’s many ghosts has grown louder. Last month, 50 bodies were excavated in the small town of Porreres on the Balearic island of Majorca, off the Spanish mainland — a full 80 years after their deaths. Most showed signs of having been shot in the head at close range. According to local historians, they were lined up alongside the wall of the town church before being executed. The passage of time, and the lack of records about the executions, makes both finding and identifying victims fiendishly difficult, although DNA testing will help in some cases. It is thought there are 47 such mass graves on Majorca alone.
The excavation followed campaigning by a relatives’ group, the Memory Association of Majorca, and the passing of a law by the Balearic Islands’ regional parliament in May, which also funded the digging. Civil society, in particular, has taken up the cause, thanks to an absence of government support. Last month, Amnesty International started a campaign, Justice for Christmas, calling for the government to investigate mass graves.Photo
The citizen-driven historical memory movement came into being at the turn of the millennium, and as public pressure grew, the Spanish government under the center-left prime minister at the time, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, passed a “law of historical memory” in 2007, lending government support and funding to excavation, commemoration and reburial. Many on the right accused Mr. Zapatero of politicizing tragedy and reopening old wounds, while historical memory campaigners felt the legislation had been watered down.Continue reading the main story