Spain begins exhuming civil war victims from Franco basilica

The vast hillside mausoleum was built after the civil war by Franco’s regime — in part by the forced labour of 20,000 political prisoners (Oscar DEL POZO CAÑAS)

Experts on Monday began exhuming Spanish civil war victims from a huge basilica near Madrid, where the body of former dictator Francisco Franco once lay.

The move comes as Spain gears up for an early general election on July 23 in which Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez faces an uphill battle.

The team will seek to exhume the remains of 128 victims of the 1936-39 civil war from the complex at the Valley of Cuelgamuros, formerly known as the Valley of the Fallen, the democratic memory ministry said.

The aim is to “recover those bodies and deliver them to their families to give them a dignified burial,” the ministry said in a statement sent to AFP.

“This is not about politics, it is simply a matter of pure humanity.”

A laboratory has been set up in the basilica carved into a mountainside to allow the archeologists, forensic experts and scientific police to do their work.

The remains of some 33,000 people from both sides of the civil war are buried anonymously at the complex, which is topped by a 150-metre (500-foot) stone cross.

Many of the remains were moved to the site 50 kilometres (30 miles) northwest of Madrid from cemeteries and mass graves across the country without their families being informed.

While the site is ostensibly dedicated to the memory of all those killed on both sides of the war, only two graves at the basilica were ever marked: those of Franco and of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of Spain’s fascist Falange party.

The government relocated Franco’s remains to a civilian cemetery in 2019, and did the same with those of Primo de Rivera in April.

– ‘Long overdue’ –

Many relatives of those buried there have long campaigned to be able to lay their loved ones to rest near their families under their own names.

“Finally, and perhaps too long overdue, Spanish democracy is providing an answer to these victims,’ government spokeswoman Isabel Rodriguez told public television.

Honouring those who died or suffered violence or repression during the civil war and the Franco dictatorship that followed has been a top priority for Sanchez, who came to power in 2018.

A so-called democratic memory law which came into effect in October 2022 aims to turn the Valley of Cuelgamuros into a place of memory for the dark years of the dictatorship.

It also promotes the search for victims who are buried in mass graves across Spain and annuls the criminal convictions of opponents of the Franco regime.

But the law has been politically divisive, with right-wing parties saying it needlessly dredges up the past.

– Long Franco dictatorship –

Opposition leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo, head of the right-wing Popular Party (PP), has vowed to repeal the law if he comes to power in next month’s election.

Surveys suggest the PP will win the snap polls but will need the support of far-right party Vox to govern.

A prominent NGO that represents victims of the Franco regime, the Association for the Reparation of Historic Memory, welcomed the  exhumations.

But it deplored that families concerned “learned of the exhumation from the press and are not there.”

“The Franco family was able to carry the dictator’s body from the Valley of the Fallen on their shoulders,” it added in a tweet.

Franco ruled Spain with an iron fist since the end of the civil war intil his death in 1975, one of Europe’s longest dictatorships.

His regime was notorious for imprisoning, torturing and killing people who spoke out against his rule.

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