New law in Spain could help families in their search for long lost relatives

Spain’s Law of Democratic Memory would condemn the regime of Francisco Franco and create a national DNA bank to help search for the disappeared.

By Santi Donaire
Published 27 Jul 2022, 11:00 BST
A girl runs through the esplanade of the Valley of the Fallen, a mausoleum built under ...
A girl runs through the esplanade of the Valley of the Fallen, a mausoleum built under orders of the late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled from 1939-1975. More than 33,000 victims of the Civil War and Franco's regime were buried here without the consent of their family members. With the passage of Spain's new Law of Democratic Memory, the bodies will be exhumed at the request of the relatives, and the government will convert the site into a monument in memory of the deceased.
Photograph by Santi Donaire

Well into her nineties, Rosa Coscollá still remembered with perfect clarity the day that two policemen entered her house and took away her father. The year was 1939, near the end of the Spanish Civil War. She was just 15 at the time, living in the rural town of Xeraco, south of the city of Valencia.

When she saw her father for the next and last time, he was in jail—badly wounded, malnourished, a political prisoner. Vicente Coscollá Ibáñez was soon executed, and Rosa spent the rest of her life hoping for the day when DNA samples would be obtained from the mass grave to confirm where her father was supposedly buried.

A group of archaeologists and forensic volunteers, in 2016, search for the remains of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, who was executed near the city of Granada by Nationalist forces at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. His remains have yet to be found.
Photograph by Santi Donaire
Forensic scientist Javier Iglesias digs through an excavation of a mass grave at a cemetery in Paterna, Valencia, 2017.
Photograph by Santi Donaire

"In her final years, she was obsessed with her father's case," says Jaume Coscollá Ferrer, Rosa's nephew. "She wanted to bring her father back and bury him—even a piece of his body, a bone, anything—with her."

Shoes made of esparto grass and tire soles, a jacket, and twine handcuffs were among the personal artefacts of victims shot by Franco supporters and found in 2019 at the site of a mass grave in Paterna. Many of the bodies discovered had been tied up with twine.

Photograph by Santi Donaire
Laura Martín wraps her arms around her relatives as they embrace in 2017 after learning that a court in Valencia would investigate a mass grave in the area. In August 2019, with new DNA testing, Martín was able to confirm the identity of remains belonging to her great-grandfather and relocate them at a cemetery with other deceased family members.
Photograph by Santi Donaire

An archaeologist removes a memorial that was built in the 1980s and placed atop a mass grave in Paterna. The grave harboured more than 150 bodies and its excavation in 2020 took more than five months.

Photograph by Santi Donaire
Inma Herranz, a restorer and conservator with the ArqueoAntro Scientific Association, inspects items found during the 2017 exhumation of a mass grave in Paterna. Herranz is in charge of conserving the objects, which are returned to family members in cases resulting in a positive genetic identification.
Photograph by Santi Donaire

Rosa died last year at 98, but her family’s situation is far from unique. Thousands living in Spain today lost relatives between 1939 and 1975, when Francisco Franco’s brutal military dictatorship killed or disappeared more than 114,000 people.

A group of forensic experts with the ArqueoAntro Scientific Association work on the 2017 exhumation of 41 bodies at a mass grave in Paterna. Families had to petition for funding for this excavation. Under the new Law of Democratic Memory, the Spanish government would cover the costs.
Photograph by Santi Donaire

Two days before Día de Los Santos, a holiday in Spain that honours the dead, a woman sits next to a mass grave in Paterna that had been exhumed weeks earlier, in the autumn of 2018.

Photograph by Santi Donaire

A woman holds a portrait of a relative, killed under the Franco dictatorship, during a 2015 demonstration in Madrid in support of a new law that recognises the rights of victims.

Photograph by Santi Donaire

This week, the country is expected to pass a new law: Ley de Memoria Democrática (Law of Democratic Memory). It will declare that the Franco regime and its politically-motivated criminal sentences were illegal, and make the Spanish government legally responsible for recovering the bodies of the disappeared.

Photograph by Santi Donaire

In 1977, two years after Franco’s death, Spain’s parliament passed an amnesty law. It declared that members of the regime could not be prosecuted for crimes committed during the dictator’s rule—or during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), which saw more than half a million deaths and led to Franco’s rise to power. The law became known as El Pacto del Olvido — The Pact of Forgetting. Franco officials and allies reintegrated into public and private spheres of influence without much, if any, retribution for the human rights violations they committed.

Pedro Mayor Alaponont was four years old when his father was arrested by Franco's fascists. "I only remember one thing: the day they took him away by train," he said before his death in 2022. Mayor passed away never able to identify his father's body.

Photograph by Santi Donaire

A sketch by a forensic scientist in 2017 deciphers the disposition of bodies found in a mass grave in Paterna. Experts attempt to individualise each body in order to facilitate better identification. Evidence also is collected to determine the cause of death.

Photograph by Santi Donaire
The faces of people who disappeared during the Franco dictatorship cover a banner during a 2018 rally held by relatives of the victims in downtown Madrid near City Hall.
Photograph by Santi Donaire

The right-wing Franco regime targeted not only members of the political opposition, but also unionists, members of the LGBTQ community, Romani people, and anyone else deemed enemies of the state. Some 2,500 mass graves are now thought to be scattered throughout the country; of the tens of thousands of bodies they may hold, only a fraction have been identified.

In addition, for the first time, all assets that were seized by the military during the dictatorship will be investigated, and any titles of nobility granted by Franco will be eliminated. The new law will also establish a State Prosecutors’ Office for Human Rights and Democratic Memory, to create a national DNA bank and to investigate cases of human rights violations during the war and the dictatorship.

A family gathers at a cemetery on the outskirts of Valencia in July 2021 for the reburial of a relative whose remains from eight decades ago was recently exhumed from a mass grave.
Photograph by Santi Donaire
Rosa Coscollá, who died in 2021, holds a photograph of her father, who was killed by Franco's dictatorship in 1940 in Valencia. DNA testing determined the identity of her father's remains, but Coscollá passed away still waiting for answers.
Photograph by Santi Donaire
Iker García Múñoz, 14, whose holds a photograph of his great-great-grandfather whose family believes he was buried at a mass grave in Paterna . "When the grave was opened, my mother told me that my great-grandfather burst into tears," he said. "I have never seen my great-grandfather cry in my life."
Photograph by Santi Donaire

Though it has faced steep political hurdles, the 2022 Law of Democratic Memory would not be the first of its kind to be passed. It builds upon the country’s 2007 Law of Historical Memory, which expanded rights for victims of the war and the dictatorship but was largely criticized for falling short in its scope.

The new law brings renewed hope to families whose relatives’ disappearances have loomed over the past 80 years. “There are so many families who, disgracefully, still can’t find their relatives,” says Laura Martín, whose great-grandfather, a town mayor, was assassinated for his left-wing politics and recently exhumed from a mass grave in Paterna, Valencia.

Amparo Orts Granell, 86, poses on the sofa at her house in a village in Valencia, 2020. Her father was killed on October 23, 1940 when she was 5. In March 2022, Orts was able to bury the identified remains in her hometown of Meliana. "Here lies José Orts Alberto, who was shot on October 23, 1940 at the hands of Franco's regime for being a councilman in Meliana," says the tombstone, which now sits next to his late wife.
Photograph by Santi Donaire
The skull of a murdered person found in 2017 during the excavation of a mass grave of people killed by the Franco dictatorship in the 1940s. Most victims appear with a bullet hole in the skull, a sign of their fate.
Photograph by Santi Donaire
Forensic scientist María Fortuna cleans a set of teeth found during the 2017 exhumation of a mass grave in Paterna.
Photograph by Santi Donaire
The skull of a victim found in a mass grave in Paterna is examined during a forensic investigation conducted by the Department of Biology at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in 2021. All bodies found in mass graves are sent for genetic and anthropological study, in order to identify them and their cause of death.
Photograph by Santi Donaire

In addition, Martín sees a need to revisit the legal cases surrounding the assassinations. Many were marred by corrupt trials, she says, and justice never was served. “This new law supports the reality of those trials, which were completely unjust.”

Spanish photographer Santi Donaire has spent the past six years documenting the exhumation of mass graves and visiting the homes of these families whose relatives were murdered during the dictatorship. His black-and-white photographs are poignant reminders of the long-lasting wounds of political violence. “This is a project about a society that tries to repair its wounds, seek justice and rediscover its past,” he says.

A group of forensic experts prepare for the 2020 excavation of a mass grave in Paterna, thought to hold the bodies of more than 100 people.
Photograph by Santi Donaire

Donaire’s project began in 2016, when he joined a search for the still-missing remains of Federico García Lorca. The renowned Spanish poet was executed near the city of Granada by Nationalist forces at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936—allegedly for his socialist political beliefs and then-rumoured identity as a gay man.

“What surprised me the most was the absence of any television or newspaper media, and the lack of institutional help in the search for one of the most important authors of Western literature,” Donaire says. If there was so little interest in the search for Lorca, Donaire thought, there would be even less effort to track down regular, anonymous people who had been disappeared.

But historical and societal trauma does not easily fade with the passage of time. Often this trauma is passed down through the generations, and many families resolve themselves to silence—out of shame or fear, or in order to shield younger members from the painful past. Some descendants, like Rosa, die waiting for closure.

Others have formed associations to continue the search for traces of their lost relatives. Even those who have succeeded in properly burying their relatives, such as Martín’s great-grandfather, say that the significance of the law stretches far beyond individual families, and requires a national reckoning of memory and justice.

“The country needs this reparation, this revelation, this realisation that the Spanish government committed a very large error and we cannot forget it,” Martín says. “In 80 years, time has cured absolutely nothing. We need to recognise this history in order to bury it as it deserves.”

Photojournalist Santi Donaire began documenting the excavation of mass graves in 2016, during several months as a freelancer with the ArqueoAntro Scientific Association, which was investigating the disappearance of people during the Francisco Franco regime. Donaire has continued to document cases of the disappeared on his own. Follow him on Instagram @esedonaire.

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