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  • Pia Lopez /

    Women gather in Madrid's Puerta del Sol square to demand an accounting for the dead of the Spanish Civil War, waged in the 1930s. They carry the tricolor flag of the Spanish Republic, which was supplanted by the Franco dictatorship.

  • Pia Lopez

Crossing Borders: Decades after guns fell silent, Spain's wounds await healing

Published: Sunday, May. 19, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3E
Last Modified: Sunday, May. 19, 2013 - 8:37 am

International travel is more than sightseeing, a planned itinerary or guide-organized interactions. It is about serendipity, experiencing the unexpected.

A four-word sign brought that home to me during a summer evening stroll through Madrid's Puerta del Sol, a square at the center of the city. "Fosas cerradas, heridas abiertas," it read – "Closed pits, open wounds."

And people were carrying the red, yellow and purple flag of the Spanish Republic, the short-lived democracy from 1931 until the attempted coup d'état by Gen. Francisco Franco in 1936 that sparked a brutal three-year civil war and ended with a 36-year Franco dictatorship.

What was this about? After Franco's death in 1975, Spain made what looked like a seamless, painless transition to democracy. Franco was buried and forgotten, it seemed. Spain moved on without skipping a beat. Yet here were signs that the past was not past.

My curiosity piqued, I learned that 200 people gather every Thursday evening to demand that the government locate, identify and rebury more than 100,000 people who disappeared during the civil war and Franco dictatorship. Led by grandchildren of the missing, a loose coalition of civic groups, relatives and academics launched a movement in 2000.

And this is not just about families wanting to find their loved ones and give them a proper burial. The generation of grandchildren wants to know what happened.

Why now? Franco has been dead nearly 37 years. The Spanish Civil War was more than 70 years ago. Those who lived through the war and the harshest reprisals of the Franco dictatorship are octogenarians, nonagenarians or dead. Why not just let it go?

Open wounds. Bodies of most of the dead who fought on the winning Franco side were recovered at the end of the civil war, reburied and honored. Those who died on the losing Republican side, however, were left in unmarked graves.

We Americans know something about this from our own Civil War, 1861 to 1865. Hundreds of thousands of dead were hastily buried in large pits, Drew Gilpin Faust details in "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War." After the war, the winning Union side launched a program at government expense to locate all Union soldiers and rebury them in national cemeteries. The dead on the losing Confederate side were left out.

Southerners, largely women, created volunteer memorial associations to locate and rebury the Confederate dead. The winning side's choice to leave the losing side out of the recovery of the dead, thus, was part of what mobilized the white South around the "Confederate dead," a force that Gilpin Faust writes "would shape American public life for at least a century to come."

After a civil war of brother against brother, friend against friend, neighbor against neighbor, how should a nation recover?

Difficult as the post-civil war period was in the United States, it was much worse in Spain. Franco chose brutality, executing tens of thousands and imprisoning hundreds of thousands more – exactly how many still is not known. Hundreds of thousands were forced into exile.

After the U.S. Civil War, the winning side did not engage in mass executions or imprisonment. Those who supported the Confederacy were pardoned and regained their right to vote and hold public office if they took an oath to "faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the union of the States thereunder." Only one Confederate officer was tried and executed – for mistreatment of prisoners of war at Andersonville, Ga.

Reconciliation with the South, however, came at a cost: non-enforcement of black voting rights, which took a century to change.

In Spain, Franco's death could have sparked some accounting. But across the political spectrum, all parties agreed not to reprise the past and passed a blanket amnesty. Giles Tremlett, a journalist and author of "Ghosts of Spain," writes that "silence about the past" was seen as "the price to be paid for the successful self-dissolution of Francoism."

Jonah Rubin, a doctoral student in anthropology who has been studying Spain's historical memory movement, told me that while the Spanish Civil War is distant, "the more you try to ignore the past, the more present it is." He believes a government-led reckoning is needed. Recovering the bodies is a government responsibility; so is making government archives available to the public.

The grandchildren, who were not involved in the civil war or Franco era, have taken this on. While their cause has momentum, Tremlett writes that Spain probably will not truly confront its past until "every last person who lived through those events is dead" – that is, when the great-grandchildren take over.

Spain shouldn't wait that long. Post-apartheid South Africa might provide a "third way" between amnesia and putting the old regime on trial – a truth and reconciliation commission, aimed at truth-finding and a more comprehensive record of the past than would come out of trials of individuals.

At the Puerta del Sol, I expected to see shoppers, street performers and people protesting austerity measures that were the news headlines of the day, and I did see that. But that four-word sign was a chance discovery that sparked deeper understanding of a place, the best part of travel.

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Read more articles by Pia Lopez, Associate editor

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