SHOULD we open graves?
There is a deep taboo, in many cultures, against disturbing the remains of the dead, epitomised in Shakespeare’s own epitaph:
Blesse be the man that spares these stones
And curst be he that moves these bones.
Closely related to this taboo, however, is a belief that leads directly to breaking it. Almost all cultures believe that it is important that human remains should be disposed of with respect, by loved ones, and that their graves should be publicly recognised.
Where this has not happened, particularly in cases involving murder, and especially political murder or ethnic or ideological massacre, the opening of graves and the moving of bones is often sanctioned, so that the dead may be reburied in dignity, and with an appropriate memorial.
Those who have experienced the permanent “disappearance” of a family member or friend usually say that the worst part of their terrible experience is not knowing where or how the body has been disposed of. And of all the horrors of the Nazi and other holocausts, the most absolute is the attempt to make both individuals and entire ethnic, cultural and political communities vanish from history, to erase the memory of their existence.
Recent decades have seen a series of efforts to recover both the mortal remains and the memory of victims of political persecution, in diverse countries and under varying circumstances. In Ireland, we have witnessed the campaign by relatives of IRA victims, often those unfortunates accused of being “informers”, to recover their bodies from lonely and unmarked graves.
Grim scenes have ensued where large areas of bog or coastline are searched, on the basis of information that is at best inadequate — underground armies do not keep good records — and no doubt sometimes misleading, whether out of fear of judicial repercussions or sheer bloody mindedness.
It is not, of course, only revolutionary or terrorist groups who cause this kind of misery. States have repeatedly used “disappearance” as a political strategy. The most high-profile cases towards the end of the last century were probably the US-sponsored Latin American rightist military dictatorships. The Argentinean military used their air force and navy to dump bodies of dissidents far out in the Atlantic. This grim slaughter inspired an extraordinary civic movement. The Madres del Plaza de Mayo showed heroic courage in demonstrating, like a Greek chorus, in Buenos Aires during the darkest hours of the dictatorship. Their demand that their children’s bodies be returned to them made a significant contribution to ending the generals’ rule.
While many bodies were never found, at least records have been opened in most cases, providing some limited closure for families who at least now know where and when their loved ones died. Court cases have also been successfully taken against many of those responsible, a remarkable sign of robust democracy in societies that have suffered so terribly and so recently from its authoritarian rule.
Many, including people of goodwill, argued at the time that to reopen these graves, literally or metaphorically, was to risk provoking the military to further authoritarian adventures, but the opposite has been the case.
The legitimate prestige of bearing arms for the nation has often been elevated into an absurd cult of untouchable “honour” in Latin — and other — cultures. The revelation that army officers, unrestrained by democracy and the rule of law, could stoop repeatedly to vile acts of torture, murder and disrespect for the dead, showed up that cult for the puffed-up sham it is.
There is disturbing evidence that, before the generals fell, at least one democratic state close to home found their methods an inspiration. Confronted by an escalating terrorist campaign from the Basque terrorist group ETA, very senior elements in Felipe González’s Socialist Party (PSOE) government in Spain set up their own state terrorist group, the GAL (Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación). In 1983, the GAL kidnapped two young ETA members and — we now know — tortured them for about six weeks. The interrogation of Joxe Antonio Lasa y Joxe Ignacio Zabala was supervised by a colonel (later general) in the Guardia Civil, Enrique Galindo, and a senior PSOE politician, Julen Elgorriaga.
The young men were then driven to Valencia, shot and buried in quicklime. Their bones were unearthed by a hunting dog about a year later, but were not identified for another decade, when major media and judicial investigations into the GAL inspired a local policeman to take a second look at their remains.
Further terrible indignities followed, with Basque police baton charging relatives and friends during Lasa’s and Zabala’s funerals. But their exhumation did lead to a degree of justice being done, as Elgorriaga, Galindo, and other members of the Guardia Civil were convicted of their murders and jailed. They all received remarkably early releases from prison, but at least the responsibility of top political and military figures for the shameful and disastrous ‘dirty war’ against ETA had been publicly established. A democratic judiciary had gone some way towards purging the sins of a democratic administration that had betrayed democracy’s basic principles — something we have yet to see in regard to mounting evidence of multiple dirty war campaigns by British forces in Northern Ireland.
Spanish democracy, however, is having considerable difficulty in coming to terms with the legacy of a much more extensive campaign of terror and disappearance than the GAL’s, and even than ETA’s.
In the early period of the 1936-1939 civil war, up to 30,000 people are believed to have been “disappeared” by militias and regular troops acting for General Franco’s rebellion against the democratic Second Republic. People loosely classified as leftists — trade unionists, teachers, chemists, voters for republican parties — were rounded up, shot, and buried in unmarked mass graves outside dozens, perhaps hundreds, of villages and towns.
Rather disturbingly, it took 20 years of post-Franco democracy before their relatives could summon the courage to demand that victims’ remains be exhumed, identified and decently buried. To this day, Spanish conservatives — many of them descendants of the executioners, or inheritors of their political tradition — are obstructing this process. Their best argument is the example of the former Yugoslavia, where the opening of 1940s graves unleashed the spectre of inter-community conflict. But this occurred in a very different context — the memory of the dead was resuscitated before democratic structures had been established to deal with the trauma it inevitably reveals. Those who oppose decent reburial for the last of Spain’s unrecognised civil war victims are really saying something else — they are either too ashamed to face the reality of the past, or, much worse, they are not ashamed of it at all, but do not want to be reminded of it.
If Spanish democracy was strong enough to face the facts about state terrorism in the 1980s, against a contemporary terrorist threat, it is surely strong enough to cope with healing the wounds of events which took place 80 years ago.
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