Madrid, Spain – In the tiny village of Tajajuerce in northeast Spain, 83-year-old Silvino Gil recently received some excellent news. The remains of his father, Pedro, one of the tens of thousands of victims of the whims of this country’s brutal former dictator, could soon be coming home for burial.
In the 1950s, and almost invariably without relatives’ permission or knowledge, Spain’s then-ruler General Francisco Franco ordered a nationwide disinterment campaign – removing the bodies of more than 30,000 victims of the Civil War from their places of rest. Some, like Pedro, had been killed in battle. Others had been executed by the general’s death squads.
Their bodies were taken for reburial in the Valley of the Fallen, a vast basilica close to Madrid, built ostensibly to commemorate all Civil War victims, but which, after Franco was buried there himself, became a place of hard-right homage to the dictator.
However, following Franco’s own long-awaited exhumation in October and after years of legal battles, there has been a breakthrough for victims’ families – they have learned from the Spanish authorities that in December preparations for their relatives’ exhumation from the Valley will, finally, get under way.
“After so many obstacles, now a clear path is opening up, one from which there’s no turning back,” Rosa Gil, Silvino’s daughter, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s what we have wanted for so long. In our hearts, we’re still mourning Grandpa, we want him to come home, to rest in peace. It’s time for this story to end and for a wound to close.”
The original verdict from the court case giving the green light for the exhumation of Rosa’s grandfather dates from 2016. But she had no doubt that Franco’s removal from the Valley of the Fallen was “always going to happen first”.
“His presence there was a political hot potato. Nobody’s told me that, but I feel it would have been embarrassing for the Spanish state for somebody executed or killed in the war, like my grandfather, to have been exhumed and for Franco to stay there.”
In our hearts, we're still mourning Grandpa, we want him to come home, to rest in peace. It's time for this story to end and for a wound to close
Eduardo Ranz is the lawyer handling the case for the Gils and for seven other victims’ families.
“Something’s started, not ended, here, and it’s started with the most visible question, which is the exhumation of Franco;” he told Al Jazeera. “But there’s a long way to go yet. For one thing, we still need a clear, country-wide policy on the exhumation of Civil War mass graves.”
As many as 100,000 unidentified victims of Franco’s death squads still lie in these mass graves.
And time is running out. “Telling the grandchildren of a victim, when they are mostly aged about 60, they might have to wait for another year for developments is not so important. But to tell a victim’s child, when they’re 90 or 95, that they have to wait that long – that’s a big problem.”
The government ministry responsible for the Valley did not respond to a request for comment for this report by the time of publication.
The imminent exhumation of Pedro Gil and 30 other Civil War victims from the Valley is not, as has been reported, totally unprecedented.
In 1980, the remains of 133 victims from the Navarre region were removed. But the operation was semi-clandestine, with no written records permitted, families banned from talking to the media, and, according to Ranz: “Spain’s failed military coup d’etat [of 1981] surely impeded such exhumations from happening again. But it shows how normal an exhumation of this kind should be.”
For years, Rosa says, “the subject of my grandfather was taboo in my family, because we knew how much it hurt my dad.
“But when he turned 70, something changed. He began to recover his own father’s memory, doing things like putting up a photo of him for the first time.”
The family visited the battlefront in Aragon where Pedro was mortally wounded in 1937. “There were soles of soldiers’ shoes, still lying there in the trenches,” Gil told Al Jazeera. They travelled to the hospital in the city of Zaragoza, where he spent the last half-hour of his life. But, as it has been since the 1950s, Pedro’s tomb in the Zaragoza cemetery was empty.
“My father asked me – who was General Franco to do that to my son?” Rosa recalls. “And I answered, ‘a dictator, dad’.”
More than half a century later, the Valley victims’ exhumation will soon set the record straight, and Pedro will find his grave waiting in Tajajuerce; a father and grandfather finally coming home to rest.