Initial forensic work began on Monday to try to exhume the bodies of 128 victims of the Spanish Civil War, who are among tens of thousands of people buried anonymously in wooden boxes underground in a mausoleum.
The vast hillside mausoleum was built after the Civil War by dictator Franco’s regime — in part by the forced labour of 20,000 political prisoners. The huge complex was known as the Valley of the Fallen and was always a draw for those nostalgic for the Franco era. It has only recently been re-baptised with its pre-war name, Cuelgamuros.
The team of some 15 forensic experts, archeologists, scientific police and odontologists will work on extracting samples of the remains, and try to match them with DNA of surviving relatives. A special laboratory has been set up within the mausoleum.
More than 30,000 victims of the dictator Franco’s regime are buried without identification in the mausoleum. The 128 the experts are looking for are the ones whose families have so far asked for their bodies to be identified and returned. The experts do have some indications of where the boxes are that they are looking for.
The exhumations, if successful, will be the first for victims under Spain’s historical memory laws that are aimed at making reparations to Franco’s victims and changing the way the dictatorship is viewed in Spain.
‘Finally, and perhaps too long overdue, Spanish democracy is providing an answer to these victims,’ government spokeswoman Isabel Rodríguez said on Spanish National Television TVE.
The grandiose mausoleum — with a towering cross that is visible from kilometres away — was Franco’s burial place and has always been a revered shrine for his extreme right-wing followers. It was built with forced prison labour to commemorate the fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War.
In 2019, the socialist (PSOE) government ordered the removal of Franco’s remains under an amended historical memory law that banned exaltation of the dictator at the site.
In April of this year, the body of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of Spain’s fascist Falange movement, was exhumed from the site and transferred to a Madrid cemetery. ALSO READ: Spanish police clash with far-right as fascist party founder re-buried.
The exhumation work is expected to take weeks, if not months. It will almost certainly not be finished before the 23 July elections which could see the right-wing People’s Party (PP), ousting the socialist-led leftist coalition government. The PP has long opposed the historical memory law and has said it will scrap it if elected.
Many of the Franco victims were initially buried in mass graves, which were dug up at Franco’s request. The bodies were moved to the mausoleum to fill the site with victims from both sides.
Last year, Spain approved a new law on historical memory that nullified legal decisions made during the dictatorship. It makes the central government responsible for the recovery of the still-missing bodies of tens of thousands of people forcibly disappeared by the regime. ALSO READ: Senate approves law that bans support for Franco and seeks to bring ‘justice’ to victims.
There are an estimated 100,000 victims buried in unmarked graves or roadside ditches across the country.
Franco and other rebel officers led an uprising in 1936 that brought down Spain’s democratically elected government. The ensuing civil war ended in 1939 with hundreds of thousands dead and the country left in ruins.
After Franco won the war, he ruled the country with an iron fist until his death in 1975. He was then himself laid to rest in the Valley of the Fallen, in a tomb by the altar until 2019, when his remains were flown to a nearby cemetery by helicopter. ALSO READ: Franco removed, but ‘Francoism still very present’ argue many.