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Q&A: The Man Who Unearthed 200 Mass Graves in Spain

Miren Gutiérrez interviews Spanish forensic expert FRANCISCO ETXEBERRIA

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain, May 12 2010 (IPS) - Francisco Etxeberria’s work causes blisters and earns him animosity as well as admiration. He and his team of forensic experts, anthropologists, archaeologists and others have unearthed 200 mass graves, exhuming the remains of 4,800 people in Spain since 2000.

 Francisco Etxeberria: The case against Garzón is "a setback" in the freedoms won in Spain.  Credit: Íñigo Royo/IPS

Francisco Etxeberria: The case against Garzón is "a setback" in the freedoms won in Spain. Credit: Íñigo Royo/IPS

Part of that work was carried out in close collaboration with famous Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón.

“As long as the families want us to, we will search for them,” said Etxeberria at a conference held during the 8th San Sebastián Human Rights Film Festival, where “Los caminos de la memoria” (The Paths of Memory) — a documentary that explores the historical amnesia regarding the fate of those who lost the 1936-1939 Spanish civil war — was screened.

“The three rights of victims are truth, justice and reparations, and these have not been forthcoming” in the case of the roughly 200,000 victims of murder and forced disappearance during the war and the 1939-1975 dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, Etxeberria said.

“I don’t think we’ll find them all, it’s impossible,” he added.

With the passage of the “law on historical memory” in 2000 and a lawsuit filed by a son who had lost his father, Etxeberria began to excavate in Priaranza del Bierzo in the northern province of León. The bodies of 13 civilians shot by firing squad at the start of the war were unearthed. It was the first scientific excavation of mass graves carried out in Spain, nearly 70 years after the war began.

With virtually no political or financial support, the team of experts led by the professor of forensic medicine from the University of the Basque Country in northern Spain has included dozens of volunteers from around the world.

According to Etxeberria, the law was an attempt to “move from truth to reparations, but no one wants to get involved in the justice aspect.” No one, that is, except for Judge Garzón who, based on this investigation, launched an unprecedented legal inquiry in 2008 into the fate of the victims of Franco-era crimes — a probe that has now landed him in the dock.

The so-called “superjudge” has been accused by right-wing groups of overreaching his judicial powers by ordering the investigation of the mass graves, which they say violated the amnesty law passed by the Spanish parliament in 1977, two years after Franco’s death.

Etxeberria spoke with IPS about the challenges faced in the excavation process.

Q: How does the process work? A: We always act at the request of families, or, in exceptional cases, at the request of city governments. In every case, we notify the judicial authorities of the relatives’ wish to investigate. But in general, the authorities dismiss the claims on the argument that the statute of limitations has expired.

Nevertheless, we follow universal criminal forensic standards in our investigations, producing formal criminal reports based on standard procedure.

Q: What kind of hurdles have you run into? A: The worst thing was the attitude of some municipal governments towards the families. Especially at the start, they were ignored because of doubts and fears that have gradually dissipated. In some cases, that was due to ideological stances opposed to vindicating the memory of Republicans (supporters of the left-wing Popular Front government).

Q: Two hundred mass graves have been uncovered. Aren’t these amazing results, given the scarce political or economic support you have received? A: So far there has been no interest at all on the part of the justice system, and very little interest among other institutions. What has been done is the result of the personal dedication by experts who have participated out of a sense of ethical commitment.

Only in the last three years has there been government support to help cover the costs of the exhumations and lab work.

Q: What kind of people are on the team? A: Historians who have already investigated the repression and suffering under the Franco dictatorship. And social anthropologists who have been gathering oral histories that shed light on what happened.

Archaeologists, forensic anthropologists, forensic doctors and psychologists take part in the exhumation, and the investigation is completed with laboratory work that ends with the identification of the remains and the determination of the cause of death.

Q: What do you think about Garzón being put in the dock for trying to fill the legal vacuum left by the law on historical memory? A: It looks like we’re sliding backwards. In Spain there is no risk of a return to dictatorship, but this is a sad development that brings to mind pre-constitutional times.

Actually, the victims’ families had sought judicial support and safeguards to provide legal guarantees for the investigation that was launched.

Q: You have stated that you didn’t know that in the areas where no fighting took place, “so many people had been killed.” Could you give us some details? A: In one grave, we found 11 women among the 17 people buried there. They were nurses in a psychiatric hospital who were killed by the pro-Franco forces.

There are graves everywhere, and it is surprising how many there are in rural areas inhabited by peasants and seasonal workers who never even found out that there was a war, because they were killed in the first days after Franco’s military uprising (against the elected Popular Front government in July 1936).

Historians have put together lists of up to 130,000 people killed in areas not near the front lines. These crimes involved forced disappearance, to which no statute of limitations applies.

Q: In 1998, the bishop’s office of Barcelona asked you to exhume the body of a bishop that they wanted to beatify. Have there been other requests like this? A: Before the first grave containing the bodies of Republicans was exhumed in 2000, the bishop’s office in Barcelona asked us to investigate the remains of Bishop Manuel Irurita, who was murdered and buried in a mass grave in Montcada and later moved to the cathedral.

We have also been asked to investigate right-wing people killed by the Republicans. But there are few such cases left to investigate, since the Franco regime did so itself after the war ended. Furthermore, there is no comparison between the victims on the two sides, in either quantitative or qualitative terms.

Q: Is it true that you might soon be working on exhuming the remains of Republicans buried in the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), the memorial built by the Franco regime? A: At the end of the war, the pro-Franco forces discovered that the victims in their ranks numbered fewer than the war propaganda had claimed. So they brought the remains of victims from the Republican side to the Valle de los Caídos.

The families didn’t know it at the time, and that’s why they have now requested the recovery of those remains that were buried at a strongly symbolic pro-Franco site.

There are two possibilities: to remove the remains or to transform the spot into something that truly reflects the ideas held by both sides and the real history of events.

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