People and history

Burying myths, uncovering truth
From The Economist print edition

In the aftermath of fighting or repression, people are often told to forget things. But in free societies, selective memory cannot be imposed for ever.


THE 15 boxes of bones were wrapped in the red, yellow and purple flag of the Second Republic. Each held the remains of a man whose support for a brief political experiment in the 1930s had proved fatal. At a ceremony in Madrid on March 6th the bones were given to descendants: mostly middle-aged grandchildren, but sometimes already aged sons or daughters.

They wept for men they had mostly never known. The victims had died of hunger and disease in one of the makeshift prison camps set up by General Francisco Franco in the early days of his 36-year dictatorship, established after the republic’s defeat in a bloody, three-year civil war.

It is only now, 34 years after Franco’s own death brought a rapid transition to democracy, that the bodies have been exhumed from a piece of wasteland near Burgos. “It was very, very moving,” said Jose Marca Gonzalez, who led the group that campaigned to have the bodies dug up. “I recovered my grandfather’s remains. It was something that, before he died, I had promised my own father I would do.”

This story is just one of hundreds of tales of Francoist repression that have emerged as the result of a citizens’ movement to disinter and identify victims. It started when a journalist, Emilio Silva, penned an article about his grandfather’s death at the hands of a Francoist death squad. He went to his grandfather’s home region of El Bierzo, in north-western Spain, in 2000. People pointed him to the spot where the body was buried. Mr Silva dug up a mass grave containing not just his grandfather but a dozen other victims.

News of the exhumations spread and imitators appeared. Suddenly Spaniards found that thousands, or tens of thousands, of Francoist victims lay in unmarked graves scattered around the countryside. Years of official silence, in Franco’s time, were followed by an unofficial pact of forgetting as Spain’s young democracy agreed to look forward, not back. The grave-diggers broke the silence. Their effort to find the truth has snowballed; now Mr Silva heads a group called the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, with branches all over Spain. Some 5,000 sets of remains have been recovered so far from 170 grave sites. The association has a list of 12,000 families who are now searching for the remains of lost relatives.

In places across the world whose recent past has been scarred by repression, war or both, attempts have been made by the authorities (from governments to warlords) to lay down rules about what must be remembered and what must be forgotten. Often, it seems too risky to give free rein to the investigation and commemoration of the past. But people’s patience has limits; sooner or later ordinary citizens will challenge the prevailing wisdom and demand a fuller account. And unearthing the past often means literally that: digging graves and studying the evidence.

The trouble with truth

In Northern Ireland more than a decade after the “Troubles” largely ended, peace activists say there are still huge obstacles to a search for the full facts. This may reflect the ambivalent nature of a “settlement”, based on a blanket amnesty and with the territory’s future wide-open. Given that hardliners have gained influence since the killing stopped, the constituency for real truth-telling (probing all dirty secrets) is weak. But Marie Breen-Smyth, co-founder of a truth recovery group called “Healing Through Remembering”, says the wish for full disclosure is strong among many of those worst affected by war.

Nor does the overthrow of a tyrannical order instantly make it easy to examine the past. Sometimes elements of the old regime remain influential, and threaten to make a comeback. That was the case in Argentina in the 1980s, recalls Mimi Doretti, a veteran of that country’s human-rights movement, who pioneered the use of forensic science to reveal the fate of Argentina’s 10,000 or more “disappeared”. Only in recent times, a quarter-century after the junta’s fall, have enough facts been gathered to enable hundreds of prosecutions. A similar pattern of gradual truth recovery has occurred in many Latin American countries that underwent tyranny.

In other cases the removal of one set of despots paves the way for another “received” truth which people question at their peril. In Rwanda the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide were replaced by the Rwandan Popular Front (RPF), whose own record is not spotless. But any Rwandan citizen who doubted the RPF’s version of the genocide could face jail. Zimbabwe, Uganda and Ethiopia are other examples of African states where ex-rebels have imposed new versions of history. But Kenya stands out as a country where the grass-roots demand for truth-telling (for example after the bloodshed of 2008) is strong.

Sometimes quite a lot of time has to pass before real truth-telling starts. But even in the most entrenched of conflicts, the passage of years emboldens people to question official stories. Take Cyprus, an island whose de facto partition in 1974 enabled the Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot authorities to impose their respective versions of that year’s fighting and previous rounds of mayhem. For at least two decades after 1974 a key role in the Greek-Cypriot story was played by the 1,619 people said to be missing after the Turkish invasion of July 1974. The Turkish-Cypriots countered that 809 of their people were missing, mainly after the bloodshed of the 1960s. Each side played down killings that occurred in its own ranks, and blamed the “enemy” for its lost sons and daughters.

Neither tale was wholly false. But a subtler truth began emerging around 1998, when two Greek-Cypriot women went to a cemetery with pickaxes and hacked away at the marble slabs where they said their husbands were buried. When police stopped them, they summoned cameras: they had exposed the fact that the government knew the locations of some of the “missing”; indeed, they were on Greek-controlled land, so perfectly accessible.

Investigative journalism by a Greek-Cypriot, Andreas Paraschos, and a Turkish-Cypriot, Sevgul Uludag, helped establish that the sites of many mass or individual graves were in fact known to the authorities. Mrs Uludag got death threats from within her community, and was once assaulted by hard-line Greek-Cypriots, as she helped expose how some of the killings had been by extremists acting against their own respective sides. Partly thanks to a change of line by Greek-Cypriot diplomats, a bicommunal effort to recover and identify remains started in 2004; so far over 800 have been examined.

The parallels between Cyprus and Spain have been explored by two Belfast-based scholars, Iosif Kovras and Neophytos Loizides*, who say both cases highlight the same paradox. On one hand, there is an (often reasonable) sense in countries recovering from conflict (especially an internecine one where communities or even families were split) that opening tender wounds could reignite war. But “selective oblivion” and the peace it buys can’t last for ever. One day people start remembering and they demand the truth.

See “Delaying truth recovery for missing persons”, a paper by Iosif Kovras and Neophytos Loizides