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Belchite, the open wound of the Spanish Civil War – Health and Lifestyle News – Report by AFR

Like many Spanish villages, Belchite was devastated by the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939.

But it’s the only one that looks much as it did at the end of the conflict, with scattered piles of rubble, a barely standing bell tower, and mass graves.

“Here we found men, women and children,” said Ignacio Lorenzo, a 70-year-old archaeologist, as he exhumed the last skeletons from a mass grave in this village in the northern region of Aragon.

“Your crime was voting for left-wing parties or being a member of a union,” he said.

The Siege of Belchite was part of a Republican offensive in 1937 to capture Zaragoza, the capital of Aragon, from the Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco.

Franco won the war and established a dictatorship that lasted until his death in 1975.

The repression of Belchite by Nationalist forces early in the war resulted in the execution of 350 of its approximately 3,000 residents, according to survivor testimonies.

Veteran Spanish singer Johan Manuel Serrat’s grandparents were among those killed.

Lorenzo and his team have so far found the remains of 90 missing Republicans in the cemetery, some with their hands and feet tied. Others showed signs of torture.

British historian Paul Preston, author of The Spanish Holocaust, estimates that 200,000 Spaniards were killed far from the front lines – 150,000 in areas controlled by Franco’s forces and the rest in Republican areas.

Franco’s regime honored its own dead but allowed its opponents to be buried in unmarked graves scattered across the country.

“There are still 114,000 missing,” Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said earlier this week, mostly Republicans. Only Cambodia has more missing persons, he added.

His government has drafted a law that makes the exhumation of people who disappeared during the war a “state responsibility” for the first time. The bill faces its first parliamentary vote on Thursday.

– ‘Forget it’ –

Belchite was captured by Franco’s forces shortly after the start of the war, taken over by the Republican camp a year later before being recaptured by the Nationalists.

The fighting claimed at least 5,000 lives and completely destroyed the village.

After the war, Franco visited Belchite and ordered it to be abandoned and preserved in its devastated states for propaganda reasons. A new village was built next door for the surviving residents.

The ruins of Belchite are now fenced off and can only be visited on a guided tour.

“After the civil war, a rupture took place, the past was left behind,” said Mari Angeles Lafoz, a socialist councilwoman in Belchite.

Domingo Serrano, mayor of Belchite between 1983 and 2003, made efforts during his tenure to preserve what remains of the ancient village but had no real means.

He himself was born in 1946 in “old Belchite”, in one of the few houses that had survived the war.

“We’re letting it go downhill,” said Serrano. “It’s like we thought it would be better to forget it.”

But the €7m recently set aside by the government for “old Belchite” came “40 years too late,” he said.

– ‘Touchy topic’ –

The ruins of Belchite – which include a cathedral riddled with bullet holes and shattered by mortar shells – were visited by 40,000 people in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic halted travel.

It was nicknamed “Spain’s Pompeii” after the Roman city was buried under ash in a volcanic eruption in AD 79, said archaeologist Alfonso Fanjul.

The 48-year-old president of the Spanish Association of Military Archeology is leading a team of volunteers from around the world cleaning and restoring the village’s original cobblestones.

“I think it’s really one of the few places in the world that can remind you so strongly of something that happened,” said one volunteer, Ellie Tornquist, a 24-year-old college student from Chicago, United States.

But the civil war continues to divide Spain.

While parties on the left want to rehabilitate the memory of the Republican victims of the conflict, the right accuses them of reopening the wounds of the past.

The current mayor of Belchite, Carmelo Perez of the conservative Popular Party, admits that the war is a “very sensitive issue”.

But the village “is a unique place in Spain” where we can “restore dignity” and create a place of peace, he said.

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