Catalan Government Exhumes Mass Graves

Archaeological work in Caseres, July 2019.

Archaeological work in Caseres, July 2019.

This past July, the Catalan government exhumed three mass graves from the Civil War that may include remains of International Brigade members who died in battle.

The exhumation projects undertaken this summer by the Generalitat de Catalunya (the regional Catalan government) are part of a broader government effort to locate, recover, and identify individuals who disappeared during the Civil War and the Franco regime. The exhumations took place at Batea and Caseres, in the region of Terra Alta, which was the scene of intense battle action between the end of March and the beginning of April 1938 during the Republican retreat.

After the Francoist army broke through the front in Aragon and the Republican army retreated to the east, the Loyalist forces tried to establish several successive lines of defence. One of these was on the banks of the Algars River, in the municipality of Caseres, west of Gandesa. We know that the units active in Caseres included the Mackenzie-Papineau battalion and the 59th battalion of the XV International Brigade (also known as the Spanish Battalion). The Lincoln-Washington and British battalions, for their part, operated in the area between Batea (to the north) and the road from Caseres to Gandesa, along with the XI, XII and XIV Brigades and the 11th Republican Division. Given the urgent need to contain the Nationalist advance, the bulk of the IB moved between Caseres and Batea. They included Canadian, American, British, Irish, Austrian, German, French, Italian and Cuban troops, as well as Spanish.

As we know, the Republican army did not achieve its purpose. On April 2, Franco’s troops broke through and advanced towards Corbera d’Ebre and Gandesa, where the Republicans established new lines of defence. Finally, the retreat ended on the left bank of the Ebro River, where the Republicans reorganized and prepared the Ebro offensive, which would take place in July.


One of exhumations took place on a field where, shortly after the retreats, a local farmer came across a soldier’s body.


One of three recent exhumation efforts took place on a farm field in Trufes where, shortly after the retreats, a local farmer came across a soldier’s body. Trufes belongs to the municipality of Batea, where the XI International Brigade saw action. The farmer, who identified the body as a member of the IB, buried it between the field and a pine forest. To avoid disturbing the remains, he decided to leave that part of the field fallow, obliging his descendants to do the same. The Generalitat’s archaeologists have explored the area but have not been able to locate the remains. Their displacement or disappearance may well be due to rains or the simple passage of time.

The second exhumation effort, in Mas del Primo alongside the road that joins Gandesa and Caseres, was prompted by a more recent event: bones surfacing. Oral history suggests that the place where these bones appeared was in fact a burial site of international volunteers killed in action. According to local witnesses, the bodies were deposited in shell craters and the trenches that followed the line of the road, and simply covered with dirt. At this site, archaeologists have been able to map the trenches and recover some remains, although they have not been able establish an anatomical connection.

The third dig, also in Caseres, took place near a mountainous area that the Republican army called Barranc dels Barcelonets and which today is known as l’aubaga dels brigadistes or “the Shady Valley of the Brigaders.” Although mass graves were known to exist in what had long been crop fields, a private initiative in the 1990s converted the fields into a pine plantation. When an excavator unearthed human remains, the plantation project was interrupted long enough to rebury them. It is these remains that were now recovered by the Generalitat.

It is important to note that exhumation is not the end goal but merely the starting point of a broader historical study. This includes an attempt to identify the remains, which are often being claimed by the families of the disappeared. Catalonia’s Ministry of Justice, which oversees the exhumation project, has assembled a broad-based team of professionals for this purpose, including historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and geneticists. Once the archaeologists have done their work, anthropologists study the remains to determine, where possible, their physiological characteristics, age, sex, and the circumstances of death. This information in turn allows for a more precise historical interpretation of the mass grave that will be useful later, when the genetic data are recovered and cross-referenced with those of living relatives.

In those cases where the family relationship is direct (for example, between a father and a daughter, or between two brothers), mass data cross-referencing could reveal the victim’s identity. On the other hand, in those cases where the relationship is more distant (for example, between a grandfather and a grandson or between an uncle and a niece), directed cross-referencing of data is needed. In these cases, historical studies and analyses by anthropologists are especially useful because they allow the team to narrow down its hypotheses.

In the event that a body can be identified, the family may claim the remains. If the family declines, the Catalan Government takes charge of burying the remains in suitable conditions in the town cemetery or in a purpose-built memorial. Any unidentified remains are buried as well, and will remain anonymous pending any future genetic data cross-referencing.

Selection of bone pieces for the extraction of DNA in the cemetery of Castellar del Vallès (Barcelona), 2018. This allowed identification of the remains of an Italian anti-Franco guerrilla who was murdered by the Civil Guard in 1949.

Selection of bone pieces for the extraction of DNA in the cemetery of Castellar del Vallès (Barcelona), 2018. This allowed identification of the remains of an Italian anti-Franco guerrilla who was murdered by the Civil Guard in 1949.

These three digs are the first involving mass graves from the Republican retreat. Many other exhumations have preceded them, however, thanks to a 2009 law that enables the Catalan Government to locate mass graves from the Civil War and the Franco dictatorship and exhume any remains it finds. The General Directorate of Democratic Memory, in Catalonia’s Ministry of Justice, is responsible for this work.


The Generalitat has created a Census of Missing Persons holding the names of individuals who disappeared throughout Spain.


As part of the 2009 law, the Generalitat has created a Census of Missing Persons holding the names of individuals who disappeared throughout Spain, which currently includes almost 6,000 records, for some 600 of which the death or burial site has been documented. It has also created an online Map of Mass Graves that includes all the 517 graves that have been located so far in Catalonia. Meanwhile, a Genetic Identification Program allows living relatives who register their loved ones in the Missing Persons Census to donate a DNA sample to facilitate the identification of exhumed remains.

So far, Catalonia has performed 17 digs, exhuming 290 bodies. Five of these have been identified, claimed by their families, and returned. They included three civilian bombing victims in the village of Soleràs (Lleida), a Republican soldier who died in a war hospital in the same village, and an Italian member of the anti-Franco guerrilla who was murdered by the Civil Guard in 1949 in Castellar del Vallès, Barcelona.


So far, Catalonia has performed 17 digs, exhuming 290 bodies. Exhumation is not the end goal—it’s a starting point.


Some of the archaeological work has brought large mass graves to light. In 2017, a dig on the outskirts of Miravet, near the Ebro river, allowed the exhumation of 99 bodies. The fact that most of them were buried without clothes and in many cases with prosthetics suggests that they died in a medical context, in a field hospital that was hitherto unknown. This hospital, located at the foot of the Serra de Cavalls and halfway between Pinell de Brai and Móra d’Ebre, took in wounded soldiers from the Battle of the Ebro. The genetic lab analyses of the remains are still ongoing. At the same time, we are researching to locate cases from the Census of Missing Persons that could have been admitted to that hospital. Also in 2017, a dig at the old cemetery of Soleràs yielded the remains of 146 people, including the Republican soldier and three civilians mentioned earlier. The village probably housed three Republican hospitals that received wounded soldiers evacuated from the fronts at the Ebro and the Segre rivers, and was the scene of virulent clashes during Franco’s occupation of Catalonia.

To be sure, the number of cases registered in the Census of Missing Persons (6,000) is low relative to the number of fatalities during the Civil War and the dictatorship. Moreover, only 2,000 of the relatives who have registered in the census have been included in the Genetic Identification Program. This makes it more difficult to recover the identities of the exhumed corpses.

Despite the high mortality rates among the International Brigades, the Census includes only a very small number of international volunteers. The Catalan government has begun a campaign to locate families of those international volunteers who disappeared in Catalonia in order to add their records to the Census of Missing Persons and, if possible, to locate and identify their remains. Anyone interested in finding their relatives is invited to register for the Census on the website of the Generalitat, or contact the General Directorate of Democratic Memory directly at memoria.justicia@gencat.cat.

The mass graves in the old Soleràs cemetery, where the bodies of 146 people were recovered (2017).

The mass graves in the old Soleràs cemetery, where the bodies of 146 people were recovered (2017).

The search for the disappeared is only one aspect of the Generalitat’s public policies on historical memory. The Catalan government also issues official documents to invalidate the sentences issued by Francoist courts and awards compensation to people who were interned in prisons and concentration camps, a program for which almost 40,000 applications have been received. In addition, the Generalitat promotes the recovery of historical memory through three institutions. The Memorial Consortium of the Locations of the Battle of the Ebro (COMEBE), created in 2001, focuses on recovering the historical memory of this area and to promote projects that help to raise awareness of the Battle of the Ebro. The Memorial Democràtic, founded in 2007, aims to recover the memory of the Second Republic, the Republican Government of Catalonia, the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist repression. Finally, the Exile Memorial Museum (MUME, in La Jonquera, near the French border), which opened in 2008, has been working to promote knowledge about political exile, in particular that resulting of the Spanish Civil War.

Gemma Domènech i Casadevall is the general director of Democratic Memory at the Catalan Ministry of Justice. Eulàlia Mesalles Godoy is the coordinator of historical research. Jordi Martí Rueda is an historian.

Share

Leave a Comment