Spain’s civil war casts a long shadow – it is still an occasional cause of argument in bars and at family gatherings – but as the years pass, its effect on Spanish society diminishes.
Except in one case.
Television and newspaper reports continue to appear detailing the judicial exhumation of stillborn babies. What the police find in the coffins beggars belief: sometimes there is nothing; other times, there are bags of sand, or bones belonging to much older children; in one case, the remains of a dog were found inside a coffin.
And every time these coffins are opened, Spanish society is forced to confront a secret that is almost too terrible to contemplate: the theft of tens of thousands of children from their rightful parents and given away in illegal adoptions.
The practice began immediately after the war. The state and church ran hospitals, and doctors and nuns targeted families stigmatised as being “Reds” or the poorly educated. Their modus operandi was very simple: upon birth, the child would immediately be whisked to a separate room. A doctor or nurse would then go straight back to the mother, inform her that her child had died, and that the state would pay for the burial.
In some clinics and hospitals, they even went as far as to have a dead baby’s body frozen, which could then be presented to parents as “proof” of the child’s death. Nuns even took photos of mother’s holding their supposedly dead babies, to allay the suspicions of other family members, and then the mothers were hoofed out onto the street. One mother describes being discharged within an hour of giving birth, ‘numb from grief and with my thighs still wet with blood’.
The real babies were then given away to families close to the regime, or sold to those who could afford to pay for them. And meanwhile, empty coffins were being buried all over Spain.
Doctors, priests, nuns, and orphanages were all complicit in this and could act with total impunity: with the Franco dictatorship having a firm hold on Spanish society, no one ever dared questions – but because of this overconfidence, the paperwork relating to the illegal adoptions was extremely sloppy and left paper trails all over the place. One clinic had listed 37 stillbirths due to “earache” in a two year period, all signed by the same doctor.
Once democracy returned to Spain, people began to ask questions, but it was not until the onset of widespread internet access that the scale of the problem became apparent. People who had assumed their case was an isolated one, suddenly realised there were dozens of others; and those dozens became hundreds; and then thousands; and then tens of thousands.
It is now estimated that the problem could even run into hundreds of thousands of cases between 1939 and 1987 – the practice was so ingrained in Spanish society that it continued for 12 years after Franco’s death in 1975.
And so, the heartache continues as mothers seek children, siblings seek brothers and sisters, and men and women seek parents. And every time those coffins are dragged from the ground, a little part of Spain’s soul is dragged with them.