Madrid, Spain – The remains of one van Spanish dictator General Francisco FrancoThe Civil War’s most ruthless accomplices, Queipo de Llano, were discreetly exhumed in the wee hours of the morning in a church in the center of Seville in early November.

Only one member of the families of the 45,000 Republicans killed on his orders was there to witness the scene, and even that was from a distance.

Paqui Maqueda had already gone to bed when she received a long-awaited phone call from a friend informing her that the excavation, carried out on government orders by the de Llano family at a time when public attention would be minimal, was finally going ahead. .

But Maqueda nevertheless felt obligated to get up and ride through Seville to stand guard outside the basilica of La Macarena.

By doing this, “a long overdue debt that person [de Llano] with my family was finally settled,” she told Al Jazeera.

‘Democratic memory law’

The exhumation of the Llano and subsequent burning in a private family ceremony is the first significant consequence of sweeping new revisions to Spain’s laws, dubbed the “Democratic Remembrance Laws,” which are intended to end decades of of conflict over Franco’s legacy.

Previous Spanish legislation with the same goal has been only patchily effective.

One of the goals of the new laws is to prevent the cemeteries of figures like de Llano from becoming rallying points for Spain’s far right, who traditionally pay tribute to Franco’s regime on November 20, the anniversary of the dictator’s death in 1975.

But as Maqueda told Al Jazeera, the removal of de Llano’s remains also resolves some unfinished business with the dictatorship’s oppression of her family.

“I had to do it,” said Maqueda, who shouted “honor and glory to Franco’s victims” during the excavation on one side of the church square.

“First, for political reasons, because I am the representative of a ‘memorialist’ association – one of many organizations in Spain fighting for the recognition of the rights of victims of the dictatorship – and it felt important for one of us to to be there. Second, I had a personal debt with that man and his relatives that needed to be settled,” she said.

“I didn’t know when or how, but I knew there would come a time when that debt would be paid off. And his dig was that moment.

Family suffering

Maqueda’s family suffered greatly under the Llano and Franco’s dictatorship.

Her great-grandfather and one of her great-uncles were killed by De Llano’s troops in the 1930s. In the decades following the Spanish Civil War, another great-uncle spent most of his life in a concentration camp for alleged political crimes, eventually dying in poverty.

On de Llano’s direct order, a family property was seized after the summary execution of her great-grandfather. It was never returned.

Her family’s repression did not end there. Similar to hundreds of Spanish “Red” (communist) families, when Maqueda’s mother had a baby in 1936, her newborn child was taken from the hospital and never seen again.

Even more of Maqueda’s relatives, socially branded as “grandchildren of Reds” and suffering economic repression as a result, were forced to migrate hundreds of miles from Seville to find work.

The excavation of De Llano is just one consequence of the far-reaching new legislation.

Of the 65 new measures, organizations seeking to defend Franco’s regime have been banned, while victims of the dictatorship who have been convicted as criminals for their political and religious beliefs or sexual orientation have now been cleared of any legal crime.

One of the most prominent beneficiaries of this measure will be the famous Spanish poet Miguel Hernández, whose death sentence for supporting the Republic was commuted to life imprisonment, and who died in Alicante prison in 1942 of typhoid and tuberculosis.

But perhaps most importantly, the state will now be responsible for searching, exhuming and identifying the officially estimated 110,000 victims of the dictatorship left in unmarked mass graves across Spain.

“This law represents a major advancement from when I started,” Juan Luis Castro, a Seville-based archaeologist and researcher of unmarked Civil War graves over the last 20 years, told Al Jazeera.

“At the time, it was all about getting a call from a victim’s next of kin and doing the job unpaid. Plus, you had to have a rock-solid court case to start digging, because you always ran into the same problem: if you were digging up an unmarked grave from the years of the dictatorship, you were investigating a crime scene.”

“But thanks to the new laws and financial support from the state, much larger mass graves can be opened. It is a big step forward.”

Exhumation of victims of the Spanish dictatorship
Archaeologist Juan Luis Castro working on an excavation of an anti-fascist partisan in Andalusia in 2010 [Courtesy of Jacinto Vidarte]

However, despite the government’s new legislation, the excavation process still encounters significant obstacles.

The largest case of unidentified Spanish Civil War casualties in the country concerns the 30,000 unidentified combatants, mostly Republicans, who – thanks to one of the former dictator’s most macabre death wishes – were interred in the mausoleum where Franco was originally buried.

Franco’s remains were removed from the mausoleum and reburied in 2019, but three years later, families still unable to exhume their relatives buried there at the whim of a dictator.

“The process is not moving forward because the mausoleum is in the municipality of San Lorenzo del Escorial,” which is run by the right-wing Partido Popular party, whose leader Alberto Nuñez Feijoo has promised to repeal the Democratic Remembrance Bill if he takes power , and “is currently refusing to issue the necessary permits,” Eduardo Ranz, the lawyer representing several families in the case, told Al Jazeera.

“That is even though, unlike the other excavations in Spain, which are proceeding through government administrative channels, we have a legal ruling that upholds the rights of the families who want their relatives’ remains removed for burial .”

Ranz has taken the mayor of San Lorenzo del Escorial to court over the ongoing blockade for perverting the course of justice.

But a date for the case has yet to be set.

No time to waste

“I don’t understand why we keep getting these setbacks,” Ranz said. “Fact is the son of one of the two Lapeña brothers [Manuel and Ramiro, whose remains are still inside the mausoleum] has now passed away and their grandchildren are now 65 or 70. We just don’t have the time.”

“We are happy that this new law has come into effect,” Rosa Gil, whose grandfather is buried in the mausoleum of Cuelgamuros, formerly known as the Valley of the Fallen, told Al Jazeera.

“But some legal loopholes mean the excavation isn’t moving forward, and it’s an exhausting, disappointing situation.”

Gil said her main concern was for her father Silvino, now 95, wheelchair-bound and requiring 24-hour oxygen, but still determined to see his father exhumed and buried in the plot where he awaits him in the birthplace graveyard of the family in Aragon.

“I thought everything would go much faster after Franco was dug up, but it doesn’t. When the pandemic broke out, we didn’t want to make too much of a fuss about it at the time, we knew the country’s priorities were elsewhere. But now that everything has returned to normal, our problems have not gone away,” she said.

“[The new law] is frustrating because it doesn’t cover our situation and there are people who want to stop it [the exhumation] at any cost. It’s normal for my dad to want to bury his dad where he wants, and why can’t those people see that or appreciate the damage they’re doing after so many years,’ Gil added.

“When you hear Feijoo say that ‘as soon as I come to power I will suspend the ‘Democratic memory law’, how on earth can he say that? Or how about [former right-wing Spanish President Mariano] Rajoy, who said he wouldn’t fund the bill with a single dollar?

“What do they think we are doing this for? For fun or to excite someone? I can’t understand how they don’t put themselves, at least a little, in someone else’s shoes.”

While Ranz believed it was critical to educate the current generation of college-aged students in Spain about the Franco years to ensure the past does not repeat itself, he was also adamant that carrying out the excavations an important avenue is to resolve Spain’s continued inability to come to life. with his former dictatorship.

“There is an open wound, which has been bleeding and bleeding for 80 years and is not yet dry. But until the families can find and bury their relatives as they wish, it will be impossible to heal those injuries in a dignified manner,” he said.

“As a lawyer, I am always in favor of reform, but there is one fact we cannot ignore: Franco died peacefully in his bed. In other words, he was not removed from power, he was not convicted and while the step was taken in this country from dictatorship to democracy, only 30 years later there was a law of historical memory,” Ranz added.

“That means we don’t have time. We can’t sit back and wait. We have to move forward with claims and investigations.”

Properties never returned

Meanwhile, Castro argued that the lack of facilities for investigating political crimes during the dictatorship is one area the new laws notably failed to cover.

Then there is the ongoing legal uncertainty over properties seized by the regime from their political rivals and never returned.

Maqueda said another problem was the removal of the fascist symbols.

“In my city alone, Seville, we must remove the many fascist symbols that are still visible to the public,” she said, citing a commemorative tile – next to the Giralda tower – linked to the 1936 fascist uprising as one of them.

But on a personal level, she said the events of early November and the excavation of the Llano have resolved some long-standing personal pain.

“When it was all over, a friend of mine who lives close by showed up and she gave me a hug and we took a selfie together,” she said.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to smile like that picture: with a sense of serenity, of triumph and that something long-awaited has finally been achieved.”

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