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Spain's past casts a sinister shadow

Costa Blanca is a favourite destination for tourists but it also holds some dark secrets. GEOFF MARTIN investigates

As the planes deliver thousands of tourists to Alicante airport to begin their holidays in Benidorm and other resorts along the Costa Blanca, I suspect only a tiny number know anything of the brutal past of the area which still sits well within living memory.

My own research into the civil war on the Costa Blanca began by chance just behind the lighthouse at El Faro on the headland at the southern tip of Alicante's huge bay.

Walking the hills, and taking in the superb view across the Med to the island of Tabarca, I came purely by chance upon some disused anti-aircraft gun emplacements and a derelict barracks and munitions block.

I guessed that they must have been civil war era and after some inquiries in a nearby bar established that they were republican positions designed to repulse Italian and German fascist bombing raids on Alicante and the surrounding area.

I didn't need any more than that. My journey into the dark and hidden past of the Costa's sunshine resorts had begun.

My travels since then have taken me to remote corners of the area by train and bus and on foot as I've followed up leads and tried to piece together fragments of information and history to gain a proper understanding of what took place in the area over 75 years ago and why so much remains buried deep under the rocks and sandy soil.

They've taken in Benissa, with its military hospital and fantastic International Brigades memorial, the dockside in Alicante where the final republican surrender to Italian fascist forces descended into brutality, torture and murder and the last remnants of the Mediterranean Wall's defences.

I'm still on the trail but probably the most harrowing experience so far has been the visits to the sites of the two concentration camps close to Alicante.

Campo de los Almendros (Field of Almond Trees) was a makeshift concentration camp just north of the main city. It was there that the thousands of republicans rounded up on the dockside were taken by Franco's forces when Alicante became the final stronghold of the Spanish republic to fall to the nationalists on March 31 1939.

Today it remains a desolate place, hemmed in by a wire fence and located just behind a shopping centre. There is little to mark its significance, apart from a symbolic olive tree regularly subject to neofascist vandalism. There are a couple of small signs, but they say nothing of what terror took place in this small corner of the Costa Blanca.

Estimates suggest that up to 30,000 prisoners passed through in its short time of operation. There was no food and no water and other reports say that up to 2,000 may have died, some machine-gunned by Italian troops on the slopes of the nearby hill.

The Los Almendros camp was dismantled on April 6 1939. The prisoners were dispersed, mainly to the labour camp at San Isidro/Albatera which is a short train ride south out of Alicante's main terminal.

Today, the site of the San Isidro camp sits within the shadow of the high-speed rail route being built down to the south of the country and to reach it you have to pick your way through the building works.

A monument was erected by survivors in 1995 and its twin iron beams, wrapped at the top with broken chains, stand proud against the backdrop of palm trees.

All that remains of the original camp is a small brick shed that was close to the gatehouse, now used as tool store. It is estimated that 25,000 people died at the San Isidro camp. During the night, falangists would arrive from all over the country to drag away and torture and shoot prisoners.

In 2011 the Spanish Ministry of Justice, after years of pressure from the historical memory campaigners and counter-pressure from the far-right Manos Limpeas, finally produced a map of known sites of mass graves from the civil war period.

It's an important resource that goes some way to exposing the scale of the far-right butchery and to offering some hope of closure for the many surviving friends and relatives of the victims.

But, despite the fact that thousands were murdered at San Isidro and with many buried adjacent to Albatera railway station, this location was left off the official map even though it is thought to be the one of the largest mass graves in the country. Nobody has explained why. A campaign to recognise the terror, brutality and mass murder at San Isidro rages on and deserves international support.

That support for the campaigning groups in Spain like the Historical Memory Commission isn't just important in terms of what happened in the past, it's crucially important in terms of what is happening in the country right now.

After years of EU-imposed austerity and corruption scandals involving the elite and the upper-echelons of the political class, the far-right is once again on the march.

 

Fascist attacks on left-wing and multi-cultural events are on the rise and the Movement Against Intolerance, a monitoring organisation, says that Spain is experiencing its worst wave of far-right extremism since the mid 1990s, a previous period of economic and political crisis.

The connection between those who not only want to keep the truth of the Spanish civil war buried and locked away but who also seek to tear down the few memorials to the International Brigades and others who fought and struggled for democracy and progress and a resurgent far-right is brutally clear. The only people who benefit from hiding the past are those whose bloodline tracks back to the same ideology and ethos as Franco's butchers.

The efforts of all of those fighting for truth and justice, including formal political prisoners from the years up to 1975, deserve nothing less than our full support. La lucha continua!

 

Geoff Martin is head of communications at the RMT union. More information on the Costa Blanca during the civil war can be found on the blogsite www.costablancacivilwar.blogspot.co.uk.

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