Finding A Long-Lost Father As Spain Exhumes Decades-Old Mass Graves : Parallels Ascension Mendieta watched a gunman march her father away 77 years ago. Now she finally knows where he was buried. Spain has 2,300 mass graves. As they're exhumed, the country confronts a bloody past.

Finding A Long-Lost Father As Spain Exhumes Decades-Old Mass Graves

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In Spain, there could finally be an answer to a mystery that has troubled people for 80 years - who lies in the unmarked mass graves left over from the country's brutal civil war of the 1930s? Some of those Spanish graves are only now being exhumed, as Lauren Frayer reports.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Dateline Spain, July 18, 1936.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Spain's civil war pitted Nazi-backed fascists against communist-backed Republicans. Half a million Spaniards were killed. Then, in 1939...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Spain's 3-year-old civil war ends and Generalissimo Franco enters Barcelona.

FRAYER: A fascist general won and took over Spain, but the killing didn't stop when the war ended. General Francisco Franco's forces continued to execute his opponents, including Timoteo Mendieta, a trade union leader.

FRANCISCO VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: "They knocked on the door in the middle of the night - a man with a pistol," says Francisco Vargas, Mendieta's grandson. "My mother's last sight of her father was him being marched away with a gun to his head." Vargas' mother, Ascension Mendieta, was 13 at the time. She's 90 now and the plaintiff in a case that has finally led here to a mass grave being exhumed in Guadalajara, east of Madrid. It's one of 2,300 such graves across Spain, and it's the one in which Timoteo Mendieta's body was dumped.

ASCENSION MENDIETA: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: "I never thought this moment would come," says Ascension Mendieta, a tiny figure at the side of the grave wrapped in a fur coat against the bitter cold. "I'm happy to finally find my father. I would like him to be buried with me." After Franco died, Spain passed an amnesty law banning investigations of political crimes from his era. So relatives of his victims have sought justice in foreign courts. An Argentine judge ordered the Mendieta grave exhumed, and for the first time, a Spanish judge allowed it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: At the edge of Guadalajara's cemetery is a wall still pockmarked with bullet holes. This is where Franco's victims were lined up and shot, then dumped in a pit.

NATALIE CHULIO: It's really rare to see graves at this depth. It's over three and a half meters. We were measuring...

FRAYER: Why is it so deep?

CHULIO: They must have known that they were going to be killing so many people.

FRAYER: Natalie Chulio, one of the excavators, climbs down a ladder into the tomb.

CHULIO: Using paintbrushes and dentist tools, we basically remove the dirt around the bones to remove...

FRAYER: She lifts the leg bone of a skeleton with leather boots still intact. DNA testing comes next. Alejandro Rodriguez is a historian comparing forensic data with historical documents.

ALEJANDRO RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: "The dictatorship held sham trials," he says, "and kept meticulous records of the people it killed." There were atrocities on both sides of Spain's civil war. But after Franco won, he wrote the history books and many Spaniards never learned about the mass killings by the fascists. So this gravesite has drawn a crowd, including Sergio Lopez, a 17-year-old high school kid. I asked him why he came.

SERGIO LOPEZ: For knowing more about what happened really. In school, they don't teach you about this type of thing. I mean, it's a bit hidden maybe.

FRAYER: Unlike Germany, which requires its schools to teach about its war atrocities, Spain's civil war is something many people still don't discuss. But as these graves are exhumed, this country may be forced to confront its bloody past. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Guadalajara, Spain.

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