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February 22, 2019

Battle over Franco's imposing tomb in Spain

Battle over Franco's imposing tomb in Spain
'General Franco in the 1960s' - By: AFP

A 150-metre-high cross on top of a basilica, carved into a mountain by political prisoners. Welcome to the tomb of General Francisco Franco.

Decades after the military dictator was buried, in the divisive monument in the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen) near Madrid, his remains may soon be exhumed.

"As an established and European democracy, Spain cannot allow for symbols that divide Spaniards," Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez declared as his Socialist government announced plans to transfer the remains this month.

Franco filled the basilica with the bodies of thousands of his supporters and Republicans alike, bringing together in death those who had once fought each other so bitterly during the civil war.

But critics say this was a forced "reconciliation" and charge it is unacceptable to give such ostentatious recognition to a man who once ruled Spain with an iron-fist.

Located just 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Madrid in a tranquil, mountainous area full of pine trees, the giant cross is visible kilometres away.

It looms over a giant esplanade and a basilica watched over by Benedictine monks where the late dictator rests, fresh flowers laid on his tomb every day.

As visitors enter, a stone plaque reminds them that Franco inaugurated the place on April 1, 1959.

A little further, two massive angels carrying swords stare down at passers-by.

Then comes a large and gloomy nave carved into the mountain rock, with a floor of black marble, which leads into a dome dominated by an altar.

On one side is the tomb of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of Spain's fascist Falange party who was shot dead by Republicans during the civil war.

On the other side lies Franco's tomb.

Both are covered with roses and carnations.

- Family objections -

For many, the valley is a symbol of a past that Spain still finds difficult to digest after authorities opted to draw a veil over the civil war and ensuing dictatorship as the country transitioned to democracy.

"Generations have come and gone and we continue to be divided by a war that we didn't experience," said Cristina Campo, a 42-year-old visiting with her family.

But would taking away Franco's remains heal wounds?

"Exhuming the remains isn't difficult in itself," explained Gabino Abanades, who on November 23, 1975 managed the team tasked with burying Franco's embalmed body, three days after his death.

"It can be done in around one hour," he said in front of the monument, surrounded by tourists.

He added that it would be "logical and normal" for the remains to be transferred to the vault which the Franco family has in the El Pardo cemetery near Madrid.

But Franco's descendants are completely opposed to moving his remains.

"The seven grandchildren have all signed a letter that they have handed to the prior of the Benedictine abbey, in which they voice their opposition to the exhumation," said Juan Chicharro, president of the Francisco Franco Foundation, which defends the dictator's memory.

- Unequal treatment -

Some 20,000 political prisoners were forced to participate in the construction of the monument between 1940 and 1959.

Using dynamite, they bored through the cliff where the basilica now lies and built the Benedictine monastery and a hostel.

In the mountain lie the remains of some 27,000 fighters loyal to Franco and around 10,000 Republicans.

The families of the Republicans were never told about their transfer to the valley.

The names of the Franco fighters, says historian Julian Casanova, are all written down in "a register marking their departure from the cemetery and a register marking their entry into the Valle de los Caidos".

"Where the Republicans are concerned... there was no departure register when they were taken, and the entry register is very inaccurate. That's a problem."

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