Spain starts excavating victims from Valle de los Caídos

by Lorraine Williamson
Valle de los Caídos monument

In Spain, preparations have begun for the exhumation of the remains of 77 people in the crypts of Valle de los Caídos. The bodies were buried here during the Franco dictatorship without permission from the relatives. 

In doing so, the Spanish government is fulfilling an old promise that goes back even further than the request of the relatives of the victims. These relatives fought for years to gain court approval for the exhumation of the mass grave in Valle de los Caídos. The grave contains at least 33,833 bodies. 

Long-term uncertainty 

Last week, 97-year-old Manuel Lapeña passed away. For more than ten years he fought to get approval for the exhumation of his father and his uncle. In 2016, the judge ruled in his favour, but since then the excavations were still pending. The 88-year-old Mercedes Abril regrets that Lapeña was not allowed to experience it more. Abril herself also fought for years for her father’s exhumation and is relieved that the preparations have finally started.

Wise through trial and error, she continues to fear that the work will sooner or later be discontinued. She was three years old when her father Rafael was executed in 1936. Her mother gave birth to her brother a day later, who only lived for ten days. For Abril, not only her father, but also her brother was murdered. In her now fragile health, she hopes that the excavations will go well and that her father’s remains will be identified soon. “I want to take him to Vallodolid to bury him with my mother, who passed away 11 years ago,” Abril said. 

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Next step in repurposing monument 

In October 2019, after a long legal battle between the government and the relatives of dictator Franco, his remains were finally exhumed to be transferred to the Mingorrubio cemetery in El Pardo. That marked the first step towards the demolition of the national monument in San Lorenzo El Escorial. Franco’s exhumation was a great relief to many of the relatives of the murdered republicans. It was a painful insult to them that their loved ones were buried “next to their executioner.” Until now, the wish to exhume their mortal remains in order to be able to rebury them themselves had not yet been granted. 

Complicated operation 

The exhumation of the 77 bodies is a lengthy and complicated operation. The crypts must first be accessed. After that, the remains of the people whose relatives have requested their exhumation must be searched for. Finally, genetic research must show whether it indeed concerns the persons concerned. 

The Spanish government has made a budget of €665,000 available. This is for the redevelopment of Valle de los Caídos and the exhumation of the victims. According to the government, it is “the most complex process that Spain has carried out”. Secretary of State Fernando Martínez of Democratic Remembrance, stated it is a major technical challenge to find the physical remains 60 years later. According to him, being able to open the crypts does not automatically mean that the bodies are found. “But all means and the best experts will be used to return the bereaved to their loved ones,” said Martínez. 

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