Over the years Málaga has had many cemeteries which, I’m afraid, have mostly been lost to memory, except for the last three. The San Miguel & the San Rafael cemeteries were in use from the beginning of the 19th century and were closed in 1987 due to the construction of a new cemetery, the Cementerio Parcemasa (named after the company who owns it). You may be wondering why there were two cemeteries in operation at the same time in Málaga: this is because San Miguel was mainly for the well-off bourgeoisie merchant-class residing in Málaga (the Heredia’s, Larios, Reding… families) and San Rafael was more of a small cemetery on the out-skirts of the city designated for the families who “lived” outside the “city walls”.
Baring this in mind, up to the 1930’s San Rafael was much smaller than today: it was mostly confined to the central strip of the enclosure (the area can be ascertained thanks to the uncovering of the original wall during the excavation of the site). It was only enlarged to encompass the “new burials” created by the executions of political prisoners during the Civil War (but only the ones who repented to the priest before execution, the rest were “dumped” in the Civil Patio). Above these graves is where the new niches were built.
The Area being excavated
The area under scrutiny is still mainly the southern strip of the cemetery, from east to west. In the eastern corner we have what is known as the San Francisco Patio, and in the west we have the Civil Patio. While I was there we were mainly concentrating on San Francisco, as we had just opened the Civil.
Originally it was thought there were only 10 mass-graves, but 18 have been documented to-date, and it is thought there might be up to 30. The number of buried is between 4000 and 5000 (no-one is in agreement, but it is generally agreed the number is circa 4800 bodies).
We know how many bodies there are in the cemetery thanks to the work of don Francisco Espinosa, president of the “Asociación contra el Olvido y por la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica”, who has spent years sifting through the prison records kept in the Provincial Historic Archive in Málaga: he has a long list of who is where; all the archaeologists have to do is find them.
Now, this sounds easier than it really is. Thanks to the great fore thinking of Percemasa (the funeral company who own the new cemetery), on closing San Rafael they found it much easier to knock down the niches and leave it as a dump, which was then used by Celia Villalobos’ municipal government as a tip-site for the earth moved during the habilitation of the New Fair Ground. This means that the north end is 15 m higher than it should be (you can still see some of the palm trees above the ground), making any graves under that end almost 20-30 m down under the rubble, rubble which makes any kind of electro-magnetic survey almost impossible, although the one done by the University of Granada’s Geological Institute was excellent. But many of the findings have had to be done by intuition and asking the older family members of the executed if they remember where their loved ones were buried.
All in all, the team put together by Prof. Sebastian Fernandez has done a very good job with the resources they have been provided with by the Town Hall and the Junta.
Some anecdotes about the executions
It has been very difficult to interpret some of the findings. For example, the first findings added up to the explanations give up to that point: big hole dug in front of the condemned, bullet in the back of the head and the bodies toppled into the hole, to be then covered in quicklime. Some didn’t have holes in their heads, but this was because they were lined up in front of the wall and shot, and then moved to the hole. The whole process of execution is perfectly recorded in the prison records, from the incarceration of the person, to his (or her) transfer via lorry (as one old lady told me “like swine to the slaughter”) to the cemetery, sometimes to dig the hole they were to be buried in, although sometimes it was already dug, and to be executed.
But then some strange findings began popping up. Some names in the records weren’t of people from Málaga city, some bodies were in coffins… turns out that they’d also been rounding up political prisoners from the local towns and adding them to the rest, like for example the General Secretary for IU in Mijas, a poor farmer who was given the job because no-one else wanted it. Finding coffins was strange at first, but then realization dawned when someone said that families had been paying the undertaker to give their loved-ones a proper burial.
To-date 2200 bodies have been exhumed, 20% female and also 40 infants. The women came as a shock at first, but then we realized that at times they executed couples together, or when they went for the father or brother of a prisoner and didn’t find them, they would take the sister. Finding children was also strange, but on close scrutiny of the records we found out that when someone was taken prisoner from one of the towns their whole family would follow and set up home around the prison, causing there to be outbreaks of cholera (the biggest was in 1938) which killed many children: where did they put the bodies? In the only holes they could find (the bodies of the infants were found above the levels of quicklime)
Many bodies were found still with their belongings, which has made identifying many much easier: objects found such as combs, spectacles, money (both republican and nationalist), gold teeth, medallions (I found one of the Virgin del Carmen), pencils, leather boots… the list is endless.
One last anecdote is probably the most chilling. Some bodies have been found with their hands crossed behind their backs, testifying to the fact that many prisoners had their hands tied when shot. But some of these seemed to have rust around their wrists: turns out that a new Guardia Civil lieutenant from Seville came down to help with his expertise on the matter of executions, and discovered that some of the prisoners were able to escape by untying their bonds; he put a stop to this by tying their wrists with metal wire.
A last word
My personal experience of the dig (I was only there 15 days) was very enjoyable, and because of being British the political consequences of this dig didn’t affect me. But I must emphasize the importance of the political implications: whenever anyone gets political about it, it affects the unstable harmony necessary to carry out this kind of excavation. But official visits from government delegates like María Gámez and Francisco Paneque are sometimes necessary to keep digs like San Rafael in funding and the public’s mind.