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Buried with their executioners: Spanish Civil War victims to finally be exhumed

José Antonio Marco Viedma (left) with his sister Carmen and friends.
José Antonio Marco Viedma (left) with his sister Carmen and friends. Copyright Family archive.
Copyright Family archive.
By Laura Llach
Published on Updated
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Spain will try to exhume the bodies of 128 victims of late dictator Francisco Franco’s army buried without identification at the Valley of Cuelgamuros mausoleum.

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When a crowd gathered in front of José Antonio Marco Viedma's house, they chanted "Long live Christ the King!"

It was early September 1936, and in the town of Calatayud in north-east Spain, fervent Republican and Freemason Marco Viedma had already been arrested several times. 

He knew his life was in danger when he was illegally arrested by police loyal to the fanatic Falangist movement. 

"They took him and murdered him. They shot him while he was leaning on the wall of the Calatayud cemetery," Silvia Navarro, Marco Viedma's great-niece, tells Euronews.

His body was buried in a mass grave, and years later moved without the family's permission to one of the side chapels inside the gigantic mausoleum of the late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. 

The mausoleum complex near Madrid, in the Valley of Cuelgamuros -- formerly known as the Valley of the Fallen -- became a enduring symbol of decades of dictatorship, and a divisive shrine to the country's bitter Civil War. 

"Authorities at the time exhumed the mass graves of the Franco army’s victims. Several families asked them not to take their relatives away and they didn’t listen," says Navarro.

Her family did not know the remains of Marco Viedma had been moved until 2008, when the exhumation of the victims who died at the mass grave in the Calatayud cemetery was going to take place.

Family archive
Portrait of José Antonio Marco Viedma.Family archive

"My mother said to me: 'Let's see if you can find your great-uncle, it seems they are looking for him. We had a lot of hope but he wasn't there", says Navarro.

After 15 years of legal battle asking for a dignified burial, the family has managed to have hope again.

Forensic work has begun to try to exhume the bodies of 128 victims of Francisco Franco’s army buried anonymously in wooden boxes underground in the Valley of Cuelgamuros.

A forensic laboratory has been set up inside the mausoleum, with X-ray equipment, microscopes, measuring tools, tables and special lighting so that the experts can work. They are looking for the remains of victims whose families have asked for the bodies to be identified and returned. 

The mission of the archaeologists and geneticists will be to find the wooden boxes where the victims are buried and identify them if the inscription numbers cannot be distinguished.

The exhumations will be the first for victims under Spain’s historical memory laws, passed last October, which are aimed at making reparations to Franco’s victims.

Years of 'psychological torture'

"The murder of my great-uncle inflicted great suffering on my family. After that, they went bankrupt, as he was the one who took care of the family business. They were also punished by their own neighbours and had to move to Madrid to start from scratch," says Navarro.

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For a long time her family felt haunted by the past, so when she received a message on her mobile phone early Monday morning and read that the exhumation work would begin, Navarro felt she could breathe easy.

"We have been waiting for years and it has been agonising. During this time, while waiting for exhumations to take place, many victim’s relatives have died without being able to bury them," she says.

She feels it’s been a "psychological torture". One of the relatives of another Franco victim used to tell her: "I wake up every day thinking that maybe today is the last one I have to keep waiting. And it’s the same year after year".

AP/Copyright 2019 The AP. All rights reserved.
FILE. former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, centre, attends the second anniversary of the death of Primo de Rivera, founder of right-wing movement La Falange.AP/Copyright 2019 The AP. All rights reserved.

Franco’s initial plan was to keep the Valley of Cuelgamuros for his army as the monument was erected to commemorate their victory.

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However, its construction took longer than expected and, when it was finished, many of the relatives of the so-called "fallen for God and Spain", the Nationalists, did not want to move the remains of their relatives who had already been buried.

It was then that the Ministry of Governance asked several town councils for bodies to be transferred. Local authorities denied the petition to send Nationalist coffins, but said they would send remains from Republican mass graves instead. 

After moving the victims, the process for families to be able to bury their loved ones has been tiring. Navarro defines it as one with many "advances and setbacks".

It was halted on several occasions, first by pro-Franco groups and then by the mayor of the town where the Valle de Cuelgamuros is located, the conservative Carlota López Esteban.

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Last March, the Supreme Court gave the green light to the exhumation work by rejecting the appeal filed by the Franco Foundation to impede the process.

Euronews
Valle de Cuelgamuros map.Euronews

The exhumation process

The valley of Cuelgamuros is the largest mass grave in Spain, containing the remains of 33,833 victims of both sides of the Civil War.

Until Francisco Franco’s exhumation in 2019 and José Antonio Primo de Rivera's, the founder of the fascist Falangist party, last April, victims remained next to their executioners.

Most of them are in the crypts adjacent to the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre and the Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrament.

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As the forensic anthropologists working on the project have described it to Spanish media, the recovery of the remains will be “a really exceptional challenge”.

AFP PHOTO /SPANISH MINISTRY OF THE PRESIDENCY
FILE: Laboratory set up at the basilica of the Valley of Cuelgamuros, for exhumations. June 2023AFP PHOTO /SPANISH MINISTRY OF THE PRESIDENCY

The exhumation process will take several weeks if not months. It won’t be finished before the general elections, on 23 July, and this is something that worries the victims' families.

"We are aware that the process is difficult and we are concerned that it won’t be finished on time. If there is a change of government we fear that they will halt the exhumation works", says Navarro.

She believes one of the reasons in the past for it to take many years to start was a lack of political will.

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"This should be a state issue, regardless of who is in power," she adds.

Navarro says she grew up in Germany and finds the whole treatment of victims of the civil war unbelievable. She says in the northern European country this would be "absolutely inconceivable".

"The fact that our relatives have been buried for so long in a place that we never decided for ourselves, next to the very person who instigated their murders, is something very painful. When I tell my German friends about it they can’t believe it," she says.

"I'm not saying that these exhumations will bring justice, because there won't be any, but they will bring a minimum of reparation to the victims," she adds.

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