Photo: One of the mass graves being exhumed in the the old cemetery of Soleràs
By Sílvia Marimon, El Soleràs, November 20, 2017
When one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War was fought at the Ebro front, where it is estimated that more than 30,000 people died and about 70,000 were injured, the small town of Soleràs (Les Garrigues) hosted two military hospitals and a third mobile hospital unit. The doctors were overstretched and could not save many of the wounded soldiers. Virtually every day, from July until November 1938, Josep Maria Flix and his cousin worked the track from the hospitals down to the old cemetery, with a donkey cart. They always did this night, under the light of an oil lamp. When they arrived at the cemetery, abandoned since the beginning of the 20th century, the dead soliders were tipped off the cart into trenches. On this dusty site, surrounded by an old stone wall, without tombstones and with no crosses, it is estimated that a hundred soldiers were laid to rest, across four such trenches. The last pit
On October 16, the department of Institutional Affairs, External Relations and Transparency began the exhumation of the common pit -the largest that has been excavated so far- and so far the archeologists have located seven pro-Franco soldiers and 25 Republicans. This was the last trench which was opened, at least for now, because after the application of article 155 on October 27, the department which was led til then by Raül Romeva is barred from any activity.
The soldiers are neither mixed together, nor buried in the same way. The rebels used the cemetery after the Republicans, and their dead are placed in an orderly way, with military tags, boots and personal objects, such as knives and belts, aligned with each corpse. Republican soldiers, on the other hand, are tossed in chaoticly, without shoes, with remnants of fabric – probably blankets and sheets – and placed one of top of the other: in a hole of 1×2 meters, for example, there are up to seven dead soldiers. “There is evidence that they received medical treatment, because there are amputations and remainders of bandages,” says Anna Camats, in charge of the team of archaeologists.
Photo: Trench with rebel soliders (by Santi Iglesias)
According to Camats, there are seven families who have said they know they have relatives buried here. “There is a family from Maldà who knew that their relative had a leg amputated and was then buried in Soleràs; surely this will make him easier to identify, “says Camats. All the remains will be transferred to the Autonomous University of Barcelona, where genetic analyses will be undertaken and compared to those of the DNA bank created by the Generalitat. “We know that they are all men, and there are two who were from the Camina del Biberó because they are 16 and 20 years old,” says archaeologist Diego López.
The name registry of pro-Franco soldiers
It will be easier to identify pro-Franco soldiers. It is known that there are 32, according to the historian Queralt Solé, because there is a listing with names and surnames that the City Hall of Soleràs sent to the Government of Lleida on November 11th, 1960, when they were undertaking procedures to exhume soldiers and bury them in the Valley of the Fallen [National Civil War Monument]. This report details that there are four ditches where there were burials of “’reds’ with no identification and without a record of the total number buried.” Only two of Franco’s soldiers were transferred to the monumental mausoleum [the aforementioned Valley of the Fallen]. A third soldier of the Francoist side, the lieutenant Santiago de Luchi Rincón, was the only one who had a cross in the old cemetery. In 1961, however, his relatives moved him to the new Soleràs cemetery.
“We have always known that this mass grave was buried in the cemetery,” says the Mayor of Soleràs, Jordi Sarlé. “It is very important that all this has been found, that there is evidence and that we remember it,” he adds. Sarlé says that when the exhumations end, the municipality will put up signage to inform the public about the graves. The last months of the Civil War was infernal in this small agricultural municipality. The Republican side had lost many soldiers and the 27th Republican division, isolated in the Borges Blanques, called for volunteers to fortify the defensive line. Volunteers, who were to be between 18 and 45 years old, had to appear in the village square, but there was a huge protest and Republicans shot five residents, who were buried in the new cemetery when the war was over.
Photo: General view of the old cemetery excavation site (by Santi Iglesias)
It was very difficult for doctors trying to save lives. In September 1938, Pere Tarrés, who was a medical lieutenant of the 133 mixed brigade, wrote from Albagés, a town a few kilometers from El Soleràs: “It’s a bad place. Air raids happen very often. They keep bombarding us.” In the Soleràs there was a blood donation centre in the parish house, a hospital to attend patients at the Seró house and a third hospital in the Mas dels Esplans. Consol Flix remembers that from that third hospital, one could hear the soldiers calling “mother….mother…..” and crying out for water.
On December 23, 1938, the rebel army launched an offensive that ended the Battle of Les Garrigues. There were up to 12 bombings. Between December 23 and January 6, the Francoists occupied more than 40 nearby villages. There was so much hurry that someone even left the shovel with which the dead were buried in one of the ditches of the old cemetery. The Civil War was about to end. On January 26, Barcelona fell, and a few days later, came the rest of the country. The Republicans had lost and Franco restored his extremely effective repression machine.
A longstanding historical claim, now blocked by article 155
Many years ago relatives of the victims of the Civil War have clamored to know where their dead rest. In Spain there are more than 114,000 missing persons. It is the second country with the highest number of disappeared, just below Cambodia. In 42 years of democracy, the number of exhumations and identifications has been laughably low because Spain has turned away from reconciliation. Between 2009 and 2010 the policies around war memory were pushed forward in Catalonia, but then came the cuts and the budgets for such work were greatly reduced. When Raül Romeva assumed control of the Department Institutional Relations, External Affairs and Transparency, he said that the exhumation of graves would be one of its priorities and announced a budget of 800,000 euros beween 2017 and 2018. At this time, the census of missing persons has 5,297 cases on file, and the genetic identification program, which was launched in September 2016, has 1,023 samples. Throughout 2017, 129 graves have been located and the remains of 101 individuals have been recovered. The grave of the cemetery at Figuerola d’Orcau has been excavataed, where 17 Franco soldiers were buried; Another grave was dug in Rams, Vilanova de Meià, where there were three republican soldiers; two graves were exhumed in Prats de Lluçanès with republican soldiers firemen, and brigadists – probably Czech or Croatian – dug in Cassà de la Selva. But the ambitious plan that Romeva had has remained only half complete. There were 40 further planned undertakings. Whether they will happen will depend on the political future. For the moment, the application of article 155 has frozen all of this work.