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Spain's civil war comes back to life
Old divisions resurface across the country as descendants dig up mass graves
Giles Tremlett in Poyales del Hoyo
Saturday March 8, 2003
Mariano Lopez was down on his knees in the muddy hole opened up by the mechanical digger on a road outside the village of Poyales del Hoyo, picking up small fragments of bone and tooth. "Look, this must be one of Valeriana's teeth. They smashed her skull. We could not find all the bits," he said.
Also missing from the grave that 26-year-old Valeriana shared with two other women, Mariano maintained, were the remains of the three-month-old foetus in her womb. "We looked for the skeleton of an unborn child, but we could not find it," he said. "It was said that they ripped her belly open with a knife."
Valeriana Granada's corpse had been left here in a field of wild asparagus on a wet December night in 1936. For more than 65 years she lay in this makeshift grave alongside Virtudes de la Puente, 53, and Pilar Espinosa, 43.
All had been hauled from their beds in Poyales that night by a rightwing execution squad working for the rebel forces of the soon-to-be dictator, General Francisco Franco.
Late last year Mariano fulfilled a desire planted in his head by his mother - who had told him terrible stories as a boy of the murders of the three women - by arranging for them to be disinterred. It was only afterwards, when he asked for permission to rebury them in the cemetery in Poyales, that he realised the deep, dark passions he had unleashed. When he met the deputy mayor, Aurelio Jarillo, a former member of Franco's civil guard, Mariano says he was told to look elsewhere, as there was no more room in the graveyard.
"They treated the request with absolute scorn. It was the old right in action again," says Mariano, himself a former member of an anti-Franco revolutionary group.
Suddenly, the old hurts and hatreds of 65 years ago resurfaced, and a new battle was being fought in the village of Poyales. In a place this small, with a mainly elderly population of 700 where victims' families and their killers have lived cheek-by-jowl for decades, ancient loathings are easily stoked back into life. And the pattern is being repeated in villages across the country. During and after the 1936-39 civil war, tens of thousands of people like Valeriana were taken by rightwing gangs for night-time "strolls", or paseos, that ended with a bullet in the back of the head. Now those graves are finally being found and the corpses disinterred as "historical memory" groups, like the one organised by Mr Lopez, are set up across the country. But digging up the past raises difficult, painful questions almost everywhere. Neither 40 years of Franco, nor 25 years of democracy, have fully healed the old wounds, or dispelled the old fears. "Even now many old people are too scared to talk about it," says Mr Lopez.
One of the biggest, and most painful, questions that the discovery of the mass graves has raised is what should be done with the victims' remains. Should the dead be given a full Christian reburial, with all the honour and dignity they were brutally denied?
It took a powerful campaign in the local press to push the authorities in Poyales to change their minds and allow a full reburial for Valeriana, Virtudes and Pilar.
In a moving ceremony, accompanied by poetry and tears, three tiny brown plastic caskets were buried side by side in the village's small, walled cemetery.
As the church bells rang, the coffins had been paraded around the village's narrow streets. The village authorities, mainly members of the country's ruling conservative People's party, showed their disapproval by staying away.
At the new graveside, Obdulia Camacho, 80, recalled how she was put on the same open truck that took her mother, Pilar Espinosa, and the other women to their deaths. Then 14, Obdulia was convinced that she, too, was about to die.
"I still don't know why they let me get off," she said. "They just stopped the truck. My mother gave me a hug, and that was the last I saw of her. It was raining and I started walking back."
In the village square after the reburial, Ezekiel Lorente, the grandson of Virtudes, and a leftwing village councillor, pushed his chest out and held his head high as a local rightwinger walked past. "He knows what I am thinking. This is our moment," he said.
That is not how the village's mayor, Damiana Gonzalez Vadillo, sees it. Her uncle, Angel Vadillo, led the gang of local men that killed the three women. She eventually granted permission for the burial to go ahead, but speaking in her spartan office above the square a few weeks later, the 77-year-old was obviously not happy.
She had been shocked, she said, that the church bells had been rung for "non-believers". "That is just hypocritical," she said. "Even the dead women would not have wanted that."
The killing of dozens of leftwingers in Poyales was, she said, the direct result of the left's own bloodletting in the first few months of the war, when the village was in their hands.
"One lot finished and the next lot got started," she said. "They killed one another as much for village arguments and old feuds as for anything else."
"The priest was paraded through the village with a horse's bridle tied around his head. They insulted him, blasphemed him and treated him like an animal. They made him drink vinegar and then killed him with two others." The three victims, Valeriana, Virtudes and Pilar, she said, might not have been as innocent as some have claimed. "It was said that they were involved, that they pointed people out," she said.
Behind the murder and unceremonious dumping of the bodies stands the figure of the mayor's uncle, Angel Vadillo.
According to the mayor, he turned to violence only after at least eight members of his extended family were killed. She was unable to explain, however, the enthusiasm that he put into his job as the self-appointed avenger of the locality.
For every person killed by the left - and in most villages the left was not nearly as vicious as in Poyales - Angel Vadillo's men appear to have killed up to ten times as many.
In this area of Spain, most people are known by their nicknames. Angel Vadillo made up his own one day when he boasted in public: "I have killed 501 people."
The man known from then on as "501" imposed a rule of fear that still makes those who suffered tremble and weep. For years the families of "reds" were routinely persecuted and humiliated. In Poyales, at least three dozen republican supporters were rounded up and killed.
Nearby villages such as Navalcan, Cuevas del Valle and Candeleda, where the research is more complete, each report around 80 paseo victims out of populations of between 1,000 and 2,000. The killers who worked for Angel Vadillo often received money for completing their tasks. Many, in those harsh years, needed it. Some of them, now mainly frail old men, are still alive. A man now in his 80s, who sits in Candeleda's day centre for the elderly, was, according to his contemporaries in the village, one of them. Although he did not take part in the killings of the three women, villagers recall him as a gun-happy young Falangist and participant in other killings. The old man did not look much like a killer, with his crutches, rheumy eyes and anorak shoved into a plastic bag tied to his belt, when he agreed to answer some questions during a break in a bingo session at the day centre. He certainly was not about to admit to having shed innocent blood.
"I joined the Falange because my uncle told me to. I was off at the front when people were being killed here," he said, before cutting off the conversation.
Luckily for any alleged killers who are still alive, nobody is intent on bringing them to trial. Those campaigners trying to dig up graves want the truth, not delayed justice.
"I can never forget what they did. The killers were all from the village. But I can pardon them. If we don't do that, we end up being as bad as they were," says Mrs Camacho.
Such emotions are starting to be felt even at a national level, with some surprising results. Under pressure from the new wave of excavations sweeping Spain, a parliament dominated by the new right, in the form of a People's party whose "founding president" was once a Franco minister, has finally taken the historic step of formally condemning the uprising that sparked the civil war and led to nearly four decades of dictatorship. Mr Aznar's government appears to believe that, having condemned Franco and agreed a motion allowing the use of municipal funds to help unearth bodies, the problem has been dealt with.
But campaigners say the fight is by no means won. They plan to take the defence minister, Federico Trillo, to court for refusing permission to disinter 50 executed Republican soldiers from a mass grave in Cartagena, where his father was a Francoist mayor and his grandfather was one of Franco's military commanders. Back in Poyales, Mr Lorente says that younger generations had found it easier to bury the ancient enmities.
Some members of the traditional rightwing families in the village had quietly expressed their regrets about what happened to his grandmother. Talking to the old people of the village, though, the tales of horror - rape, mutilation and humiliation - roll on, many accompanied by tears and, despite the decades, rage.
Bonifacio Morcuende recalls being woken up in the middle of the night to take his mules and cart out of town to pick up a dozen bodies of local republicans who had been shot.
A non-political man, he is dubious about the merits of delving into that period. "If you stir up shit, the stink rises," he says. The mayor and her colleagues have refused to even discuss paying for any more digging. But Mr Lopez is determined. He has sworn to start fresh digs around Poyales in the spring. Yet more old wounds, in Poyales as elsewhere, are soon to be reopened.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003