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The Junta de Andalucía's Historic Memorial Map registers 7,471 bodies in mass graves in Malaga province alone
07.01.11 - 17:54 -
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The Junta de Andalucía has completed the project it began seven years ago to draw up a map of mass graves which contain the bodies of those killed during the Spanish Civil War.
The map, which was presented in the regional capital a little over a week ago, illustrates 614 mass graves in 359 Andalusian municipalities. Of the 47,000 bodies that were discovered, only around half have been identified due to there being no relatives available for DNA tracing or because calcium oxide had been put on the bodies.
In Malaga province alone there are 76 communal graves in 52 towns, containing the remains of 7,471 people who were killed by General Franco’s forces.
The largest of these mass graves was discovered in Malaga city’s San Rafael cemetery. 2,840 bodies were exhumed in early 2010, although more than 4,500 are registered as having been buried there.
At the presentation of Andalucía’s Historic Memorial Map, the Deputy Head of the Junta’s Interior and Justice Department, José Antonio Gómez Periñán, described the project’s completion as “another step in recovering the memory and dignity of the victims.”
Malaga’s San Rafael cemetery is the only one in Spain where exhumations have been carried out without the intervention of a judge. The University of Malaga began to take DNA samples in September 2009 from 300 relatives of people shot in Malaga's old cemetery in order to identify the remains found during the excavations.
Michael Portillo
However, the exhumation process has not been without controversy. One of those who vocalised opposition to the “digging up of the dead” from the beginning is Michael Portillo, a high-profile former British Cabinet Minister-turned-broadcaster.
“As someone on the sidelines, I must be careful not to be glib about this situation, but it is something I feel passionate about,” he says.
But Portillo, who made a programme for the BBC about the issue when the DNA samples were first being taken, is not completely “on the sidelines.”
His father, Luis, fled the horrors of Spain’s Civil War, which ended in 1939, and became an exile in Britain. Today, his former Defence Secretary son believes that Spain's attempts to resolve parts of its history by excavating mass graves has been unhelpful for many.
In his BBC programme which was aired in November 2009, Portillo described the “lines of skeletons” he saw at a mass grave in Malaga which were uncovered “face-down and a rusted wire restraint hangs loosely around the wrist bones.” His father could have easily been one of them, he said.
Luis Portillo’s life had bee torn apart by the war. He supported the democratically elected government in 1936 and fought against the military rebels who caused an uprising, leading to Franco ruling Spain until 1975. He fought at the front line but refused to carry a weapon in fear of killing one of his brothers, who were fighting for Franco. As the Government stumbled into defeat in 1939, Luis crossed the Pyrenees into exile and headed on to the UK.
Despite having the effects of the Civil War in his DNA, as he puts it, Michael Portillo believes excavating old graves could, for many people, “prolong the agony and postpone the time when they can move on.”
“Many Spaniards I have met and trust, including some members of my Spanish family, fear that revisiting the past will undo the healing process of the past 30 years,” he says. “When Franco died, Spain adopted a policy to forget the horrors which divided families, neighbours and the country. There were no trials for war crimes and the policy seems to have worked as since the mid-1970s it has been a successful, forward-thinking country.”
He adds: “In the vast majority of cases it is almost impossible to identify people as there are no records. Victims were put on to lorries to be taken to their deaths in the countryside.” Investigations show that most were probably shot at the edge of the graves and then fell straight in, face down. “So, in my opinion, exhumation could only ever have been appropriate in a minority of cases. When it first came to light, I felt that the process could lead to further bitterness and divisions, especially as many in Spain were suggesting the exhumations were being used as a political weapon,” he says.
“In the early days of democracy, the amnesia allowed the country to move on. Today, in Spain’s mature, robust democracy, the past shouldn’t be forgotten, but the time for recriminations, punishment and mass exhumations is over. We must remember them all in a dignified manner with quiet public memorials,” he says.
However, the Junta de Andalucía’s Deputy Head of the Interior and Justice Department, José Antonio Gómez Periñán, insists the exhumations and the Andalusian Historic Memorial Map “should have been done a long time ago” so that those who can be identified are returned to their families for proper burials.
It is expected that in the province of Malaga further exhumations of mass graves will soon take place in Torrox and Álora.