The Spanish Civil War. It will always hold a special place in the hearts of those on the left of politics. Those on the far right would prefer you forgot it ever happened.
Internationally it is fast becoming another date in history: an event that happened before World War II and which for Germany was a practice run. Yet in Spain the memories are still raw nowhere more so than amongst the thousands of families who lost grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunt, nieces and nephews, assassinated by Franco’s forces and who to this day lay in massed or unmarked graves.
It was over a weekend at the end of March in 2009 that I found myself pitched in to tragedy of that conflict. In the Cádiz village of Jimena de la Frontera, my home for the past 15 years, they held a conference on the Spanish Civil War and how it affected the local community. It reached its climax on the Sunday with a visit to La Sauceda about 25 kilometres from Jimena.
I wrote at the time: “In November 1936 Lieutenant José Robles of the Instituto Armado led his troops from Ubrique to La Sauceda were they rendezvoused with other forces. La Sauceda was a small mountain top hamlet that for generations had been a refuge for bandits. Now apart from the local population it was a place of hiding for the many Republican and communist supporters that had fled the advance of Franco’s forces.
“Several hundred people were sheltering there and the Nationalist force made up of the army, Falange, Guardia Civil and Militias crept up on La Sauceda through the woods. After an aerial attack in which many men were killed or fled the troops moved in and took the inhabitants prisoners.
“The women and children were taken to the nearby cortijo of El Marrufo in lorries where they were held in the chapel. The men were taken on foot. Many of the women were raped before both they and the children were shot and dumped in a mass grave. The grave beneath one of the buildings is as of yet unexcavated but along with the men's graves nearer Puerto de Galis they are believed to be amongst the largest in the province with hundreds of victims.”
Well time has move on and at last excavations have started to recover the remains from the graves on what is a private estate. It is a daunting task. However on Saturday the first 28 of the hundreds of people who were tortured and executed by Franco’s troops at the cortijo were buried with dignity 76 years after they were shot and dumped in mass graves.
Theirs are the first bodies to be found in the seven mass graves that are known to be at the estate in the Valle de la Sauceda. In 1936 the estate was converted in to a torture camp for the hundreds of families who had sought refuge at Sauceda from the advancing Franco troops.
The Foro por la Memoria del Campo de Gibraltar and the Asociación de Familiares de Represaliados por el Franquismo de La Sauceda y El Marrufo began the work last July to archaeologically excavate the cortijo. The 28 discovered were all shot. It is clear they had their hands bound with wire and were then shot in the head: all also have different impacts on their bodies. This all goes to confirm the horrors that had occurred at El Marrufo between November 1936 and February 1937.
The 28 bodies found in the first phase of the excavation were buried in the cemetery at La Sauceda. The village is now abandoned and the cemetery was in a semi-ruined state but has now been restored for these victims so they could be buried in dignity.
Andrés del Río of the Foro por la Memoria del Campo de Gibraltar said it was important not only to recover their bodies but also to establish the Republican values and the ideas for which they died. The ceremony was attended by the director general of Memoria Democrática, Luis Naranjo Cordobés, who read a manifesto setting out the ideals for which these people were executed at the cortijo.
The studies have not concluded as the DNA of the victims has been collected so that their families can be traced. It will be difficult because between 200 and 800 people disappeared in La Sauceda and the historians have only located twenty families so far.
Back in 2009 I wrote these words about the ceremony I attended at La Sauceda. The same words ring just as true today after Saturday’s interments: “It is at these moments that the politics, the facts and the figures are stripped away. It is then you are faced with the raw emotion felt by those who suffered these deeds all these years ago. It was not statistics that perished but fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. It would take a stronger man (or woman) than me not to have been affected by their openly displayed grief and I have no shame in saying my tears mingled with theirs on this hallowed ground”.
(The above article appeared in the London Progressive Journal on December 6 2012 and in other publications).