The lost children of Franco-era Spain

Seventy years after the end of the civil war in 1939 in which more than 350,000 people were killed, Spain is still divided over how to deal with what the country calls its "historical memory".

Sue Lloyd Roberts

August 25, 2009 / BBC News

Many people, especially the older generation, say that it has been so long since the war took place that now it is time to forget.

However, those related to victims of the Franco era, and the younger generation, say that it is necessary to know about the events of that time, that they owe it to those who died.

Old battle lines are being redrawn.

When Franco died in 1975, there was an agreement between his friends and foes, often dubbed the "pact of forgetting", in which both sides agreed a mutually beneficial amnesty to paper over their divisions in order to move forward to a modern, democratic Spain.

Unlike South Africa, Spain has never had a truth and reconciliation commission, so only now are long-repressed aspects of Spain's dark past coming to light.

Young volunteers

The dead on the losing side of the war had been thrown into unmarked, mass graves, but people have not forgotten where they are.

Exhumations are now taking place all over Spain. In Malaga, just metres away from Spain's famous Costa del Sol, teams of young volunteers work alongside academics and forensic scientists.

They are watched by old men who, as children, remember seeing their fathers rounded up by the Fascist troops.

"My father was assassinated," says 72-year-old Antonio Perez Ruiz. "Not killed because he deserved it. He was killed by those who in those days went around calling themselves nationalists. But who were these people? Do 'nationalists' go around killing fellow Spaniards, supporters of a democratically elected government?"

'Important work'

The young volunteers, working in t-shirts under the hot August sun, are as indignant as the old men.

Nuria complains that she was not told the truth about the civil war at school and she now wants to know:

"It's a bit late, but better late than never," she says. "The work we are doing here is important. We mustn't forget these people."

As students and academics alike dig away at Spain's past, other horrific stories about the Franco era are emerging.

As people begin to talk about this period, we are finding out that some 30,000 children were forcibly removed from their parents, given to childless pro-Franco couples or put into institutions where they were brainwashed and cruelly abused.

We met Uxenu Ablana in Pravia, in northern Spain. He says his life came to an end in 1936 when, at five years old, he was taken from his parents.

His father had been a government driver and was imprisoned. His mother died and Uxenu spent 12 years in four different orphanages run by the Church and by the dictatorship.

'Armed priest'

Uxenu took us back to the first orphanage where he was called "son of a red" by the priests, whom he says had a fanatical hatred of anything left wing.

He told us about "the priest who, when we were sitting at the table, either eating or writing, had a cane and he would whip us on the neck if we used our left hand".

"On two occasions as he leant over, a gun fell out of his robes and fell to the floor and we realised that he had a weapon he could kill with," he said.

He was interned with his three brothers, all of whom died of tuberculosis.

The priest in charge, he says, used to abuse them sexually:

"The priests collaborated completely with the Falangists who had overthrown the government. They were paedophiles and they converted me to atheism - they were bad and I refused to believe a word they said."

'Nonsense' claims

In another orphanage, run by the Auxilio Social, the main welfare institution in Franco's Spain, Uxenu and the other children were made to sing Falangist hymns celebrating the godliness of Franco's followers.

Uxenu says that at the Auxilio Social orphanage he would endure serious punishments and go for up to 15 days without a meal at night.

"I complained, I cried, but there was no-one who cared. I never received any affection," he says.

Dr Felix Morales, vice-president of the Franco Foundation says people like Uxenu are lying:

"These people can say what they like, but it is not true. I don't know anything about these stories about what the priests and nuns did or any such nonsense.

"As all the people you spoke to well know, there was a department set up - the Auxilio Social - to look after poor children and war orphans."

Reluctance to talk

He goes on to claim that he had testimonies from children looked after by the Auxilio Social who went on to do well in life. And he claims that Franco's effect on Spain was positive:

"In 1936, when the war began, Spain was a poor country. I am old and I remember. It was a backward country. Franco left a different country - the eighth most industrialised in the world with a proud middle class."

Another exhumation is taking place in Milagros, in central Spain in an area which was pro-Franco during the conflict.

It is said to be still sympathetic to the dictator, so I am not surprised when my attempt to talk to local people about the digging down the road, was met with reluctance:

"We all agreed to forget these things when Franco died," they remind me. "It's been too many years," says one woman.

Only one local, born well after the war, was prepared to go further:

"I'll get the butcher to talk to you," he said. "He knows everything in the village".

But, after a few minutes, he came out explaining that the butcher would not talk because the subject was "incandente" that is, more than 70 years after the war, it is still an inflammatory subject.

You can watch Sue Lloyd Roberts' film on Franco's missing children on Newsnight on Tuesday 25th August 2009 at 10.30pm on BBC Two.

Listeners to BBC Radio 4 will also be able to hear a report on the PM programme at 5.00pm. Viewers of BBC World can also see her documentary Spain's Dark Past in the Our World series from Wednesday 26th August 2009.


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