Following in Norman Bethune's footsteps

Colin Old at the SUR offices in Malaga on Wednesday.
Colin Old at the SUR offices in Malaga on Wednesday. / Ñito Salas
  • Colin Old, a Canadian retiree, has been compiling a map devoted to the man who brought a dark chapter of Spanish history to wider attention

"It was nice knowing that I was standing where he would have stood." The excitement and enthusiasm in Colin Old's voice is notable as he recalls last week when he, alongside up to 500 people at some stages, took part in a hike to commemorate La Desbandá - the Malaga-Almeria road massacre at the hands of Nationalist troops which took place on 8 February 1937.

The 'he' in question is Norman Bethune, a Canadian medic who saved countless lives during the Spanish Civil War with his "revolutionary" methods, including bringing blood to the frontline and performing transfusions in the field.

For Colin, being able to follow in Bethune's footsteps was "the icing on the cake", having devoted much of his time since retiring in 2010 to preserving and promoting his compatriot's legacy.

"I'm doing it out of personal interest," he says, "I get no financial backing from anyone else. I used to work for Parks Canada at the birthplace of Norman Bethune in Gravenhurst, Ontario. I just found his story fascinating. There's no family connection, nothing. This is one of my hobbies now."


Though Norman Bethune's legacy is a bone of contention in his native Canada because of his "radical leftist views" at that time, things couldn't be more different on the other side of the globe in China where he is a "national hero". "He is maybe the most famous Canadian ever because he is still taught in Chinese schools to millions of children."

However, Colin believes that Bethune's service with the Communist Eighth Route Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War may never have happened if it wasn't for his "Spanish experience". "Norman was always someone who was at the right place at the right time. In fact, he was always in the place where the ball was heading."

Spain preceded China, he says. "Norman first came to Motril in the 1930s but then returned years later given his sensitivity to political causes. He saw the Spanish Civil War as 'the' fight against fascism at that time and wanted to make a contribution."

It was in Spain that he started to implement his "revolutionary" medical techniques, such as was the case with transfusions, but also in treating tuberculosis.

"He suffered from tuberculosis himself and he invented something called the pneumothorax in which you inserted a needle into the lung which would make it collapse and allow it to recover. It was a major advance."

Bethune also invented a number of medical tools which are still being used in the field today: "He adapted a shoemaker's tool used for cutting leather to cut the ribs. He was pretty well ahead."

A Bethune map

As well as taking part in various round table and other commemorative events during the last few weeks, Colin has been compiling a map of monuments and other spots of interest concerning Norman Bethune which, though not yet complete, he is already sharing with people to spread awareness: "It was nice to go to places where I was almost certain that Norman had been as well as places that commemorate him. There's an Avenida near the [Malaga] university named after him, Almayate has a Red Cross training centre and there's a statue in Caleta de Vélez... And in Almeria until 3 March there is a brilliant photo exhibition called 'Norman Bethune. El crimen de la carretera Málaga-Almería'."

This exhibition contains the only photos, 26 in total, of La Desbandá in existence. These photos, credited to Bethune's colleague Hazen Size (though "it's possible Bethune's finger was on the button", concedes Colin) have ensured that our understanding of what happened is much greater than it might have been.

However, few of the spots where the photos were taken exist anymore. "Too much has changed; they would be almost unrecognisable but the old winding road still exists."

Still in living memory

While the events of 82 years ago are still in living memory for a lot of people, Colin believes that a "fear" of opening up old wounds is still preventing a lot of people from sharing their experiences. Because of this, and despite it being one of the darkest chapters in Spanish history in which between three and five thousand people died, La Desbandá "is hardly known at all outside Spain", especially when compared to the atrocities at Guernica.

However, things are improving on that front, with events such as those last week. "I didn't do all of the hike," he says. "I'm quite fit but I did half a stage then caught up with them later and did another one. One woman was limping halfway through, but she did the whole 240 kilometres in ten days. It's certainly less political and more inclusive now."

Colin, a geographer by training, has just returned to Canada after two weeks in the south of Spain to continue working on his map. "It's great that more and more people are getting involved and a lot is being done to ensure that Norman's legacy and La Desbandá are not forgotten."