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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Middle East is a place where the past is always present. And that is also true in the country where we're going next: Spain. In recent years, there's been a movement to dig up dark secrets of the Franco dictatorship - Francisco Franco, the leader of Spain from the 1930s onward. But there's one atrocity that's only now coming to light. It involved the stealing of thousands of children from leftist parents so they could be indoctrinated in fascism and archconservative Catholicism. Jerome Socolovsky has the story.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: Seventy-nine-year-old Ushenu Ablana is still afraid to talk about his childhood. That's because it evokes a part of Spain's past that many people here would rather forget.

He sits in the corner of a restaurant, away from the other diners, in the northwestern city of Santiago de Compostela. He takes out a faded photo album and begins his story.

Mr. USHENU ABLANA: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: In the 1930s, during the Spanish Civil War, the town where Ablana was growing up was overrun by right-wing insurgents seeking to topple the Spanish Republic. How his mother died remains a mystery.

Mr. ABLANA: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: First they told me it was in childbirth, he says. But that was one of their many lies. Later, I found out from old folks in the town that the rebels had tortured her to find out where my father was. Ablana says his father was suspected of being a leftist and imprisoned until long after the war ended. Ablana was shuttled between orphanages, where he got tuberculosis. He says the priests starved him, sexually abused him, and indoctrinated him in fascism.

Mr. ABLANA: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: I'm a Falangist and I will be a Falangist till I die, goes just one of the songs that still echo in his head.

Mr. ABLANA: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: They ruined me, he says. They stole my youth and my life. Ablana and thousands of other children were stolen in the early years of the dictatorship when Franco's victorious forces were killing, imprisoning and sending thousands of people to labor camps. But the stolen children were forgotten until around a decade ago. A historian studying the plight of female political prisoners stumbled onto evidence that more than 12,000 of their children had been taken and sent to orphanages or given to families that supported the regime.

That historian is Ricard Vinyes, who was himself jailed by the Franco dictatorship. He says the regime was alarmed at how Spanish women had broken out of their traditional domestic roles under the pre-war Republican government. So a state psychiatrist came up with a theory that politically active women were by definition morally degenerate and should not be allowed to raise children.

Professor RICARD VINYES (History, University of Barcelona): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: It was amazing to see all the letters and telegrams of congratulations he got from a senior military brass, the historian says.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The Lost Children of Francoism")

SOCOLOVSKY: Vinyes helped make a documentary called "The Lost Children of Francoism." In it, a voice reads from the diary of a prison chaplain who was troubled by what he saw. He recorded the despair the mothers felt as their children were stolen, often just before the mothers were executed.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The Lost Children of Francoism")

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: They cried, please don't take my daughter, or kill her along with me. After Franco died in 1975, Spaniards decided not to rake over their past. But in recent years, volunteers have been digging up mass graves from the Civil War, and the last statues of Franco are now being torn down. A few months ago, Spain's top investigating magistrate, Baltasar Garzon, called on the judiciary to investigate the abduction of the children. Back at the restaurant, Ablana says he thinks the probe won't go far because most people would rather forget about the dictatorship.

Mr. ABLANA: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: The young - none of them know what happened. Even my own children, who are in their 40s and 50s, don't want to talk about it, he says. The dictatorship may have ended more than 30 years ago, but for many Spaniards the tyranny of silence endures.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

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