Page last updated at 07:17 GMT, Tuesday, 20 October 2009 08:17 UK

Dig may lay Spanish poet mystery to rest

By Steve Kingstone
BBC News, Granada

Cordoned off area in southern Andalucia where it is believed the remains of Federico Garcia Lorca could be found
The site where Federico Garcia Lorca's remains may lie is being closely guarded

The answer to one of Spain's great historical mysteries is believed to lie in an area of olive-clad mountainside, the size of half a football pitch.

The site has been fenced off and placed under 24-hour guard, such is the sensitivity of what is about to take place.

This remote spot, between the Andalucian villages of Viznar and Alfacar, is where the poet and dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca was murdered before daybreak on 18 August 1936 - by gunmen loyal to General Francisco Franco.

The Spanish Civil War was a month old, and seven decades later the remains of arguably its most famous victim are set to be unearthed and identified.


"If they discover him it will lay a ghost to rest," says Ian Gibson, a Madrid-based historian who has penned a biography on Lorca.

Archive picture of the young Federico Garcia Lorca
It is not certain if the remains of the Spanish poet will be found at the site

"Through finding him, we will learn more. I think he was tortured before they finished him off.

"There may be bullets inside the grave, and who knows what else. It is vital that we find and open it."

Mr Gibson is himself a protagonist in the Lorca story.

In 1966 he tracked down a man known locally as "Manolo the Communist", who as a teenager was forced to dig graves for the fascist death squads in Spain's southern Granada province.

Manolo took the Irish-born historian - along with three others - to the exact place where he recalled burying Lorca.

A stone plinth close to a lone olive tree marks the spot - and it is here that the archaeologists will dig.

Born into a landed, left-wing Andalucian family in 1898, Lorca was an obvious target for Granada's fascist usurpers.

Fame and envy

Firmly identified with the Second Republic, the elected liberal government challenged by Franco, he had publicly sneered at the city's conservative bourgeoisie.

Works such as "Yerma", in which a peasant woman murders her husband, had enraged the Catholic press; while Lorca's fame and financial success had generated envy.

Together with the poet's acknowledged homosexuality, it added up to a death sentence.

Until recently, Lorca's surviving relatives refused to countenance a search for his body, arguing that it would add nothing to his legacy.

Laura Lorca
We decided to give [samples of] our DNA in order to be able to identify him
Laura Lorca,
Lorca's niece

But their hand was forced by the 2007 "Historic Memory Law", under which victims' families can ask for state help in unearthing remains.

Such a request was made by the family of Francisco Galadi, one of Spain's anarchist bullfighters murdered alongside Lorca.

With the site to be excavated with or without their blessing, the poet's family elected to take part.

"We have decided to give [samples of] our DNA in order to be able to identify him," explains Laura Lorca, the writer's niece and president of the Federico Garcia Lorca Foundation in Madrid.

Acknowledging that her uncle's body is "probably there," she nonetheless adds a caveat.

"It is also possible that the assassins moved him a few days later because he was very well known," she says. "We really don't know."

Conspiracy theorists have alleged that the family entered into a secret deal with the Franco side, to recover and rebury the body years ago, without publicity.

But Laura Lorca vehemently denies this.

"It is impossible," she says. "My father [Lorca's brother, Francisco] would have known, someone would have known.

"But no one ever said anything. It's out of the question," she stresses.

No mobile phones

In planning the exhumation, the provincial authorities have promised the family maximum discretion, amid fears that footage of Lorca's bones might surface on the internet.

"We want to ensure that this does not become a media circus," explains Antonio Martinez Caler, president of Granada's County Council.

"Access to the site will be restricted, and the dig-team will not be allowed to carry mobile phones. We don't want secret recordings or photographs appearing."

But with the focus firmly on Lorca, others say it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Just a short drive from the cordoned-off excavation site is the Barranco de Viznar, a dried-out ravine where dappled sunlight breaks through a clutch of pine trees.

Flowers placed at the site of a mass grave at Barranco de Viznar, honouring those killed by Franco government soldiers during the Spanish Civil War
There has been anger over delays in identifying sites where many died

Here, hundreds - and perhaps thousands - of unidentified victims lie in a mass grave.

No one can be sure of the exact figure.

But the emotional pull of the area is apparent from the bunches of flowers lining the dry earth, and the golden plaques on stones, honouring individual victims.

A solitary headstone pointedly states "they were all Lorcas".

"It's shameful that we're only starting to search for Granada's disappeared in 2009," says Juan Antonio Diaz Lopez, a literature professor and member of the Historic Memory Association.

"Of course, under Franco, you could be sent to prison for merely asking about the victims, but our democratic politicians have since failed us."

He blames the so-called "pact of silence", which followed General Franco's death in 1975, in which an amnesty law, essentially forgiving Franco-era crimes, was approved as part of a precondition for a smooth transition to democracy.

The agreement lasted for a quarter of a century, after which individual families began petitioning judges for permission to exhume lost loved ones.

The 2007 Historic Memory Law gave the process an official, state-led character.

"If we can now find Lorca," says Diaz Lopez, "it will be a light, a symbol of hope for other families who never dared to search for their relatives.

"They too can ask the regional government for help and money."

'Sons of bitches'

But 70 years after the Spanish Civil War ended, the scars of a divided history are still visible.

In Granada's municipal cemetery, the perimeter wall is lined with bullet holes, where Republican sympathisers were gunned down by Franco militia.

A monument to the Spanish fascist party founder, Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, Granada
The monument to Spain's fascist party founder has never been taken down

The pleasant Plaza de Bibataubin, where orange trees offer welcome shade, still retains a monument to Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Spanish Fascist Party.

Erected in the waning years of the Franco dictatorship, it has never been taken down.

At the base, someone has scrawled "hijos de puta" - sons of bitches.

Amid the enduring recriminations, and the breathless excitement surrounding the exhumation, the custodians of Lorca's legacy want to keep the focus on his work.

"He was fundamentally a poet of the land, who depicted the greatness of the human spirit in the face of hardship," explains Alfonso Alcala Moreno, the director of the museum which now occupies the house in Fuente Vaqueros where Lorca was born.

"Of course, the bones and Lorca's death are part of the story," he concedes. "But they're just a detail. To us, Lorca's work is very much still alive."

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