“Here we found men, women and a child”, clinging to his mother, breathes Ignacio Lorenzo, 70-year-old archaeologist, meticulously exhuming the last skeletons from a mass grave opened in recent months in the cemetery of this village of Aragon (north).
“Their crime was to have voted for left-wing parties or to be unionized,” he continues.
A “systematic repression of the population” by the nationalist camp of General Franco which resulted, according to the testimonies of survivors, in the execution at the start of the conflict of 350 people in this commune then having 3,000 inhabitants.
The grandparents of the famous Spanish singer Joan Manuel Serrat were among them.
Ignacio Lorenzo and his team have so far found more than 90 missing Republicans in the cemetery, some with their hands and feet tied, others with signs of torture. Others could have been buried, according to him, under vaults built after the Civil War, which now makes them inaccessible.
According to the British historian Paul Preston, author of “The Spanish Holocaust”, 200,000 people were executed behind the front during this conflict: 150,000 in the Franco zone and 50,000 in the Republican zone.
And “there are still 114,000 missing”, mostly Republicans, Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez recalled on Tuesday, defending his “democratic memory” bill which must be voted on at first reading Thursday by the deputies and which is for the first time of the search for the disappeared a “State responsibility”.
According to Mr. Sanchez, Spain is “after Cambodia, the country in the world with the most missing”.
– Physical and mental border –
Passed into the hands of Franco’s troops shortly after his 1936 coup d’etat, Belchite was taken over by the Republicans a year later after a battle that left more than 5,000 dead and completely destroyed the village.
A two-week siege followed by republican reprisals, as evidenced by inscriptions on gravestones in the cemetery: “murdered by the reds”, “murdered by the enemies of God and of Spain”.
After his definitive victory in 1939, Franco decided to keep the ruins as they were, to use them as an element of anti-republican propaganda and had a new village built right next to it.
The two Belchites are separated by a door which is only open during guided tours and which marks a physical and mental boundary.
“A break took place after the Civil War, the past was left there” in the old village, explains Mari Angeles Lafoz, socialist municipal councilor.
Born in the “Vieux Belchite” in 1946, in one of the few houses still standing, Domingo Serrano, mayor of the village from 1983 to 2003, endeavored during his mandate to save what remained of the old village. . But without real means.
“We let it decline (…) as if we had thought it was better to forget it”, regrets the former mayor, for whom the seven million euros recently promised by the government of left for a project still to be defined, arrive “40 years late”.
– The past, a “sensitive” question –
Belchite is a “Spanish Pompeii”, visited by 40,000 people in 2019 before the pandemic, explains archaeologist Alfonso Fanjul, 48, because it remained frozen like the Roman city buried in the year 79 by the eruption of Vesuvius.
President of the Spanish Association of Military Archaeology, he leads a team of volunteers from around the world who clean and restore the original cobblestones of the old village.
“It really is one of the few places in the world that reminds you so starkly” of what happened within its walls, insists one of the volunteers, Ellie Tornquist, a 24-year-old American student from Chicago.
If the past is omnipresent in Belchite, it is especially difficult to digest as in other parts of the country where after the war, victims, executioners and their descendants sometimes continued to live side by side.
The memory of the Civil War still strongly divides Spain, the left wishing to rehabilitate the Republican victims while the right accuses it of wanting to reopen the wounds of the past.
The Civil War is “a very sensitive issue”, admits Mayor Carmelo Pérez, elected from the Popular Party (right). But “Belchite is a unique place in Spain” to which “we can” still “give back its dignity” and make it a place of peace, he insists.