Spain closes one of the most important mass graves in Western Europe

by Lorraine Williamson
mass graves

SEVILLA – After more than three years of excavations, the Pico Reja mass grave was closed in February 2023. Identifying the victims was complex and no DNA matches have been found at this time. 

More than three years ago, in January 2020, in the corner of the San Fernando cemetery in Seville, the excavation work of the Pico Reja mass grave began. A joint project of the municipality of Seville, the regional government of Andalucia and the Ministry of Justice of Spain. The excavations were part of a wider effort in Spain to identify and honour the victims of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco regime. 

More casualties than originally thought 

No one could imagine 2020. Initially, researchers from La Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi – the scientific association from the Basque Country that was closely involved in the excavations – thought they would find 850 victims of the Spanish Civil War in the grave, but in the end, there were 1,786: more than double. During further excavations, the forensic investigators came across the remains of another 10,000 persons – these victims were most likely ‘buried’ in Pico Reja before or after the civil war. 

More than one and a half million bones analysed 

Juan Manuel Guijo – team leader of the forensic investigators – emphasises the complexity of the work and the challenges the team faced: “we didn’t know if we could handle it”. Guijo’s team analysed more than one and a half million bones over three years. Including bones of tortured men and women: broken joints, hands tied behind the back and bullet holes in the back of the head. ‘Horse-inducing’. 

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No DNA match has been established at this time 

The forensic experts have sent at least 1,037 DNA samples to the authoritative laboratory of the University of Granada for further examination. At this time, the skeletal remains have not yet been identified. However, the laboratory still offers hope to relatives of disappeared persons, such as Carmen and Paquita, who are looking for their father Rafael, and Ángel, whose father Enrique disappeared in 1936 after contact with the Phalangists. “I am happy and sad at the same time. This has been very important, but I don’t think I will be alive if they manage to match the DNA,” said an emotional Ángel. 

The symbolic closing ceremony of Pico Reja 

At the end of February, Seville closed Pico Reja in the San Fernando cemetery – which, given its size and historical significance, is one of the most important mass graves in Western Europe. In addition to mayor Antonio Muñoz, a delegation from the regional and national government was present at the closing ceremony: all involved in financing the excavation work. In addition to the authorities, those present consisted of relatives of victims of the Franco regime. 

From now on, the victims can be commemorated in the largest ossuary in Spain and in a columbarium in which the remains, which are still kept in 1,200 coffins, will be interred. The closing ceremony of the Pico Reja mass grave is dedicated to the relatives of the victims who lay in that grave for decades and marks the end of the excavations. 

The importance of the Ley de Memoria Democrática 

Mayor Antonio Muñoz indicated during the ceremony that the municipal council will continue its efforts to implement the Ley de Memoria Democrática – an important Spanish law that aims, among other things, through excavations and DNA research, to help the victims of the Spanish Civil War and the recognize and honour subsequent dictatorship. Muñoz stressed that we must ensure that such human rights violations and crimes against humanity never happen again. The mayor wants to press ahead immediately and start this year with the excavation of another mass grave (Monumento). Also here are the victims of the Franco regime, in the same cemetery of San Fernando. 

Related post: Bodies of 9,000 Republicans identified in Spanish mass graves 

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