This is the story of a country divided at a very deep and fundamental level, as observed by Orwell, Hemingway and many others during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), when the divide was laid out in all its brutal clarity. The open conflict may have lasted only 3 years, but the divide began long before and continues to this day. In Spain it is colloquially known as “reds” and “blues”, in reference to the red of the communist and anarchist flags, and the blue of Franco’s troops. The true meaning of these terms is much wider, and can be better understood in terms of the great unwashed versus the status quo of aristocracy and church. But there is no doubt the horrors of the fraticidal war marked a milestone in the uneasy cohabitation between the two Spains, and left behind countless ghosts that now return to haunt those who thought them forgotten.
Following the death of the dictator in 1975, Spain began its perilous democratic transition, in which the immediate coronation of Juan Carlos of Bourbon as King of Spain (as per Franco’s wishes) and the limited revisions of the Historic Memory Act, granting amnesty for the crimes of the regime, played an important role in allowing the peaceful consolidation of our current democracy. But it did little or nothing to address the profound underlying issues of a country still torn, with one issue standing above all: the thousands of people “disappeared” at the end of the war and who remain missing. Not soldiers, mind you, but the very fabric of the Spain that believed in the Republic and what it stood for: political leaders, unionists, mayors, artists, poets, university students… the families of those who had died defending the Republic, their friends… Of all, universal poet Federico García Lorca is perhaps the best-known “disappeared” of the Civil War, taken from his home in Granada by armed fascist thugs, shot like a dog and buried in a location still unknown, for being a poet and a homosexual.
During the war, the Republican militias also committed their share of atrocities, assasinating priests, rich industrialists and aristocrats, but all were given proper burial and their families later compensated by the regime. The post-war repression, however, was completely one-sided, and countless families have lived for sixty years knowing where their husbands, fathers and grandfathers are buried without daring to even speak about it, much less hope for proper burial.
The thousands of remaining disappeared of the red –aka the “losing”– side is a festering and politically-charged wound that has been partially addressed with a new law in 2000 allowing exhumation of known sites. So far, 4000 full sets of human remains have found and given proper burial, many of them have been identified by personal objects and DNA testing of relatives. The literal emergence of so many skeletons with bullet holes in the back of their skulls eventually led to some thorny legal questions regarding the nature of these crimes and whether or not they constitute crimes against humanity. This is no minor distinction: crimes against humanity do not prescribe, and cannot be trumped by national amnesty laws.