CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Since the middle of the 1980s, locating the mass graves where “the disappeared” were left behind by state violence, and then exhuming and identifying the corpses, have become routine procedures. [1] Elevated to the status of “best practice” [2] by expert networks specialised in the management of post-conflict violence, [3] exhumation is seen as a means to halt clashes and depoliticise conflicts. This practice is in turn linked to a two-fold “exit strategy” from violence.

2Finding a way out of violence means first and foremost removing uncertainty for the families of missing persons and creating conditions that will allow them to mourn. The forensic anthropologists, [4] psychologists [5] and brokers involved designate the “families of missing persons”– also seen as “victims” granted “the right to know” [6] – as the legatees of the process. Locating the dead and returning their bodies to their families, so that the latter can finally offer them a decent burial, permits the hitherto deferred mourning process to take place.

3Exhumation is thus seen as a tool to be used in the process of “reconciliation”. Whether it is employed in the service of criminal investigations (in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, etc.) or paralegal inquiries (“Truth Commissions”), exhumation helps to appease political antagonisms and restore “national unity”. [7] The uncovering of physical evidence, the thorough investigation of the facts, and the creation of a chain of responsibility, all enabled by the forensic analysis of human remains, are seen as tools to ward off revisionism and permit instead the construction of a shared narrative.

4The implicit moral convictions and presuppositions of these expert beliefs were critically scrutinised by scholars analysing the mechanisms for “an exit from violence”. [8] In their view, these measures, by being carried out in a perspective of pacification, effectively depoliticise the institutional management of past violence. By establishing legitimate criteria for expressing suffering, such policies position “victimhood” and “trauma” as the only possible vocabulary. In doing so, these policies therefore dismiss the figure of the activist and the vocabulary of heroic struggle. This analytical standpoint is also a critical posture endorsed by certain victim communities that seek to break from the practices implemented in postconflict contexts. Assimilating healing – as encouraged by this post-conflict therapeutic process (including victim hearings, face-to-face meetings between victims and persecutors, exhumation, etc.) – with political closure, some associations have chosen to continue the fight begun by the missing activists and to refuse all reparation policies. [9]

5Victims or heroes? This article sheds new light on this semantic tension, also experienced in other contexts, [10] and which concretely reveals the incompatibilities between the agendas of post-conflict experts and those of activist groups seeking to continue the struggle. Rather than focusing on the discrepancies between the therapeutic practices used to promote an exit from violence and the combative postures of “victims” or their representatives, here we shall analyse how these actors are organised. Spanish activist communities offer one such perspective from which to document the processes of extroversion [11] which involve borrowing contemporary pacification standards, and adapting them to activist objectives. This organisation and implementation will thus be analysed in the context of the exhumation of mass graves in Spain. Since the beginning of the 2000s, Spain has witnessed an upsurge in protest movements addressing the impact of the state violence perpetrated during the country’s civil war (1936-1939) and under Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975). The “Recovery of Historical Memory”, as the movement is called locally, unites different protest groups that combine “Republican” activism with the practices and vocabulary first used by the Southern Cone of South America during the 1980s (protests against the fate of the disappeared, against “impunity”, for “Truth, Justice and Reparation”, etc.). In this respect, the forensic exhumation of the missing persons “disappeared” by Franco’s forces, led by ad hoc groups since October 2000, has become a common practice, one which illustrates the adaptation of postconflict standards to protest objectives.

6The activity of the Federación Estatal de Foros por la Memoria (FEFM – State Federation for Memory Forums), an association specialised in the excavation of mass graves since 2002, is here used as a case study. [12] Historically correlated with the shift towards forensics in studies on human rights violations, [13] the activities of the FEFM are part of a sphere of unified practices. Composed of scientific and professional experts (forensic anthropologists and archaeologists, psychologists, historians, etc.), working with activist personnel and the families of missing persons, the association broadly operates within the three protocol phases recommended in this field of international activity: 1) an ante mortem historical investigation, via the collection of documents and testimonies from family members; 2) the scientific exhumation of a body; and 3) laboratory analysis, body identification, and the determination of cause of death. Nevertheless, even though the FEFM reproduces these international norms, the association’s activist operations are at odds with the objectives and ethical constraints endorsed by many international actors. [14]

7Often described as the “Popular Front for Memory” by its leaders, who embrace the spectrum of political families belonging to the Republican left-wing, the FEFM adopts a “revolutionary” perspective on exhumations and refuses to create “sanitised memory”. [15] The association in no way wishes to work towards “reconciliation” – a principle that it in fact condemns as belonging to the pact made between the outgoing pro-Franco elite and the democratic opposition during Spain’s transition, symbolised by the 1977 Amnesty Law. And, in fact, exhumations are not limited to reparation for families of missing persons, as such a narrow scope of activity would depoliticise the cause. Conducted by actors who have made the transition to pro-victim activism and are working to re-mobilise those disappointed by Spain’s parliamentary left, the exhumation of Republican victims has become a practice operated in protest against the principle of reconciliation. By replacing “the rifle and the bayonet with the shovel and the pickaxe”, [16] by exhuming the corpses of fallen “comrades” imbued with the values of a struggle ready to be reclaimed, the FEFM seeks to continue the conflict between “Franco’s heirs” rather than resolve it.

8A localised sociology of the circulation and activist appropriation of post-conflict principles and practices allows us to arrive at two conclusions. First, this sociological lens reveals the suggestive power of the care policies advocated by international experts. Locally observable practices are, in effect, shaped by the action frameworks and legitimate frames of reference proposed. But, on the other hand, the possible hybrid forms and redefinitions to which pacification practices are subject deny them any sort of innate consistency. In other words, an analysis of the forms of subjugation engendered by the technical “governance” of human rights (the psychologising of identities, the deconflictualisation of conditions, etc.) must be supplemented by an investigation of the concrete ways in which these techniques of governance are absorbed by actors, and how, simultaneously, the latter make use of them to self-govern. In the case of Spain, whose “democratic transition” has long been touted as a “model of democratisation”, [17] and where the public powers are accused of timidly dealing with the spectre of Franco’s violence, [18] adapting the tools of pacification to the political needs of certain Spanish left-wing groups has given rise to a number of infra-state mobilisations breathing new life into Republican activism.

9This article is thus not concerned with setting the argument for reconciliation as virtuously structured by the “transition” against the reality of the persistence of traumatic memories. [19] The metaphor of “the return of the repressed”, which naturalises the opposition between “remembering” and “forgetting”, overlooks both the social conditions behind memory production [20] and the historicity of what we are required to remember. [21] This metaphor in fact surreptitiously lead us back to the normative, teleological premise according to which violence necessarily produces a “reserve” of traumatic memories, which are inevitably expressed, sooner or later, in the public sphere. [22] The “politicising of memory” is here linked to the emergence of new means of expression and resources for action – products of the activist appropriation of contemporary pacification practices – that update and reinvent the forms of protest against the order inherited from the “democratic transition”.

10This activist appropriation will be analysed from the perspective of the renewed problematisation of forensic exhumation, documented via participant observation [23] which was conducted during the 2012 excavation of a mass grave located near the Andalusian village of Istán. [24] After analysing the motivations of the various actors involved, three concentric movements, with the mass grave at their centre, will be used to describe the dynamics behind this combination of expert and activist spheres of activity.

11The mass grave project will first be broadly contextualised, including by examining its village environs. In order to understand the FEFM’s political position, I will start by describing how the association critically negotiated its role with local actors (elected officials, village residents). These local conflicts indirectly reveal the conflicting ways in which the victims of forced disappearance are portrayed in the political sphere, and how they consequently inform the FEFM’s position. The focus will then move to the observable interactions, practices, and conflicts surrounding the mass grave. Analysing the association’s material occupation of the space demonstrates that activist resources (discipline, organisation) and expert resources (scientific practices and discourse) marginalised local narratives in favour of a process of political objectification and redefinition of the mass grave. Finally, the last concentric circle will focus on the “content” of the mass grave. I will argue that the management of the bodies – a combination of activist martyrdom and expert post-conflict practices – ultimately sought the scientific identification of “left-wing Republican victims”. By way of introduction, let us first consider to what extent the practice of forensic exhumation changes how activist legacies are transmitted.

Dramatis personae: the activist trajectories of the “excavators”

12A funeral rite for families, an action repertoire for protest entrepreneurs, a routine exercise for archaeologists and physical anthropologists used to the practice of excavation, an open archive allowing historians to identify victims and redefine the geography of massacres… A snapshot would show that exhumations implicate a number of different interests and forms of engagement. Despite the division of labour and the different ways of framing the process, which the specific skills and expectations of different actors working together entails, the FEFM refuses to establish a division between scientific expertise, activism, and individual remembrance. Unlike other groups analysed, [25] within the FEFM both activists and scientists purport to be “left-wing/Republican/victims”.

13Although I will be analysing how these different interests align with the victims’ cause, this does not mean that I take on trust the actors’ alleged motivations. Studies commonly claim a form of activist awareness that has in fact been reconstructed retrospectively. Moreover, they often merely reproduce the types of justification that are the result of activist consensus. However, over and above the strategies deployed to present the group as cohesive in public, a serious attempt should be made to analyse how motives for involvement align with organisational discourse. Repeated participation in exhumations – whether or not this is superimposed on previously internalised activist representations – over the long term gradually redefines the activist and ethical positions to be adopted with regard to the “disappeared”. Repeated actions thus help to redefine the cause as well as how individuals commit to it. This redefinition is first and foremost in terms of status and concerns both “activist” and “scientific” profiles.

14For FEFM activists who were formerly, or still are, affiliated with associations and partisan organisations (primarily the Spanish Communist Party and the Young Communist League), mobilisations concerning “the disappeared”, in which many inadvertently became involved during the 2000s, represented the potential for protest that redefined the lived experience of activist engagement.

15Their claim to “memory activism”, within which they now situate their action, is first and foremost a function of a whole range of potential rewards (accelerated upward mobility in the activist world, greater responsibilities, symbolic returns) to which previously established activist structures hindered access. This activist identity is equally forged by the gradual acquisition of new technical skills. Exhumation is a form of recruitment: it is during the emotionally charged moments when bodies are discovered that the organisation succeeds in enlisting scientists, volunteers, and the family members of missing persons wishing to “continue the fight”. Exhumation is likewise a tool for geographic establishment: faced with competition from other organisations, exhumation mobilises the activist networks in a given region, brings together local groups, and marks a territorial zone as being under the FEFM’s auspices, thus influencing the strategies of rival groups. Moreover, learning how to collect testimony, how to do archival research, mastering the legal vocabulary of human rights, and differentiating a bone from a pebble caught in the riddle are all practical skills and techniques that are specific to memory-based activism.

16With regard to the professional personnel involved (archaeologists and physical anthropologists), the gradual transformation of their perceptions (of their role in the process, of the meaning that the cause of the disappeared holds, etc.) was dependent on the action frameworks within which they had successively operated since their first experience with an organisation. The stance of scientific neutrality they assumed during the first excavation, seen as a one-off form of technical assistance, came gradually to be reinterpreted in light of the socialisation frameworks they experienced during exhumations. Before joining the ranks of the FEFM (2002–2005/7), the principle archaeologists and anthropologists had first collaborated with organisations that had little access to activist resources (small associations of families, university research units) and lacked any structured organisational discourse. These first experiences (described variously as “human”, “in the service of others” and “morally important”) nevertheless helped to shape individual perspectives. As those interviewed stated, the emotions involved with recovering the dead – which were often heightened by the presence of the families involved – meant that the strictly “scientific” scope of their work had to be somewhat nuanced.


“Bones are no longer just bones, I couldn’t deal with them like the Roman [skeletons] that I generally exhume for work!” [26]
“Once I was there, it was everything but a routine excavation, it was a completely different world, and in this process, the scientific aspect was the least important element.” [27]

18In the wake of these first experiences, the need to identify corpses as well as determine the cause of death meant that it became necessary for many researchers to acquire forensic skills. Archaeologists and anthropologists, thanks to the training provided by North American forensic anthropologists (ballistics, the inner workings of the legal system) during academic exchanges, but also as a result of personal initiatives (through reading, attendance at seminars, documentation on the Latin American experience), internalised new questions which resituated the support they gave as forming part of the practical universe of human rights. As a result, these scientists learned how to identify the use of firearms, to draft reports that followed the constraints imposed by legal forms, to approach personal accounts scientifically, and so forth. Not long ago seen as the subject of basic research, excavated remains are now if not the subject of legal expertise, at least of investigation. To this end, the practices of archaeology and biological anthropology have gradually been incorporated alongside investigatory mechanisms designed to repair the injustices that are the legacy of Franco’s repression.

19If, after the ordeal of their first exhumations, growing awareness regarding the cause of the missing persons progressively redefined the meaning of their participation – as was the case with the integration of new expert practices – then these scientists would, while working with the FEFM, ultimately adopt a combative “activist-expert” stance and become committed to the cause’s long-term success. [28] Archaeologists and anthropologists were approached by the collective regarding collaboration from 2005, and discovered in this new experience an unprecedented working environment.


While we were exhuming the bodies, people didn’t talk about bones or victims, they spoke of comrades… people no longer said “it’s the relative of this or that family”, the person was called by his name… We spent our time talking about “why”, “why” were they killed? I really liked it, it wasn’t a sterile working environment like in other organisations […]. I liked all the flags, and music and protest songs, it was a whole different atmosphere. [29]

21“We are all activists”, “all comrades”: the group’s internal management as established by the FEFM’s leaders effectively seeks to erase all differences in status. As a form of “social, cultural and political activism” according to the organisation, exhumations must be conducted by a cohesive group. The desire to build community spirit and a horizontal frame of action – the extension of the work done by local community organisations in working-class neighbourhoods, many of which FEFM members had formerly long been involved with – wholly informs the group’s personnel management philosophy. The group expects every individual to be versatile, participating in all tasks and displaying a pro-active approach at all times. Outside the work of excavations, all other activities are also conducted as a team (getting up, eating meals, showering, etc.) and governed by a strict schedule. This ritualisation of daily activities, constantly reinforced by those activists trained to manage personnel (using both encouragement and admonishment), has generally been interpreted by scientists borrowing from both the activist and professional registers, as a form of “solidarity” or “interdisciplinarity”. Conducting excavations with the FEFM means experiencing a “magical” work environment, [30] where scientific analysis is an immediately useful tool, recognised by other members of the team, but ultimately a complementary one, subsumed within a political programme by the activist context (“devotion”, “political resistance”).

22As a space where individuals join forces and camaraderie thrives, excavations are also moments of communion with symbolic and ecological spaces that stand apart from the everyday. At the individual level, getting involved means experiencing a group expedition that resembles an adventure. Conducted in the open air – a rare enough occurrence for the many members of the FEFM who are not archaeologists or anthropologists – exhumation is a physical activity that is experienced bodily (sweat, dirt, exertion, lack of sleep) and whose less pleasant aspects are often glossed over when recounted later (vaunting instead the authenticity of the experience, the frugal dining conditions, and unselfish physical exertion). According to certain activists, the encampment in the heights of Andalucía, dotted with Republican flags, recalled the poetic ambience of the French Resistance. Just as then, night-time watches were organised, foodstuffs were stockpiled, a village was “liberated” (even if only with “shovels and pickaxes”), and political strategies were discussed and honed. Even if this glossing over of activist and professional labour – sometimes half-admitted – stems from the ecological and spatial environment in which the action unfolded, it is diachronically maintained by a close-knit community that has been established as a result of shared experiences. In fact, the FEFM brings together many individuals who have collectively experienced adversity (in 2010, the activists were thrown out of a village and seriously intimidated by small, far-right groups) and success (gathering a large number of villagers for a commemorative ceremony, for example). These are the kinds of “feats” that shape group memory and lead to the reassessment, over time, of what these activities mean, ultimately positioning exhumations within the arena of struggle.

23But this profound redefinition of activism is also suggested by the immediate biographical consequences of individual involvement in the cause. Rather than being merely reduced to a space where internalised values are played out, or where victims are commemorated and their fates are finally determined, exhumation sites gradually establish a new relationship with oneself. The desires and skills developed over the long term when fighting for the cause of “the disappeared” are often redeployed within domestic, familial, and professional spheres. Within these spheres, activists may: rewrite their family history (research their family, discover that their great-great uncle had been shot, start looking for his body, and themselves become a family member of “the disappeared”); reconfigure their relationship to their home (write a book about the repression suffered by individuals in their village, their neighbourhood, on their block, etc.); reimagine the deeper meaning of their professional occupation (erect ethical boundaries in their professional practices, modelled on the current conflicts in the activist world; reclaim the “political” implications of their role as a scientist; volunteer; or organise “critical” academic conferences), etc. Commitment to the cause of “the disappeared” is expressed in the work that activists do on themselves, while remaining coherent with the context in which they first became engaged in the cause. Those who take part in exhumations adopt new interpretative frameworks, and modify their representations of their daily lives (activist, professional, familial), with the result that they end up claiming to be the ideological, emotional, and at times even biological, descendants of their “comrades, Franco’s victims”, with whom they identify.

24Regardless of their different paths in life, excavators all report that they discovered their “own history”. This kind of “discovery” is attested to by a rhetoric of political or community identification (“I became a Republican/a victim”, etc.), but can above all be observed in the critical attitude adopted towards the ordinary everyday power relations within which individuals had been enclosed up until that point. For the excavators, when asked how this critical attitude plays out in their practical lives, challenging the ‘official history’ of the civil war and Franco’s dictatorship meant challenging the micro-truths which regulated the roles imposed on them on a daily basis. For one physical anthropologist, embracing the cause of “the disappeared” meant refusing the scientific “sterilisation” that governed his academic position and forbade activist engagement. For an activist, disappointed by the Communist Youth League, it meant condemning the “revisionism” of traditional political organisations, which led him away from the “true” struggle and alienated him by causing him to “forget” his “Republican roots”. Finally, for a number of those surveyed, joining the cause meant rejecting the domestic “fear” in which they were raised, which trapped them in the insouciance of the easy-going citizen. As their level of commitment to the cause increases, these actors historicise the conditions and certainties that govern their subjugation: trivial conflicts in their own families, commonplace epistemological debates with other academics, the power struggles within their political parties: all are seen as the subtle effects of the “forgetting” produced by the “Transition”.

25Problematising a cause is indissociable from problematising one’s concept of self. Consequently, when analysing how a cause is constructed, one cannot overlook the field of experience in which the work of problematisation takes place. [31] Creating the cause of “the disappeared” is not limited to the effects of categorisation by mobilisation entrepreneurs. The forms of sociability experienced when working with mass graves transcend the excavators’ social positions, as a result of overlapping influences or “impregnations”. [32] Over the long term, excavators experience and are subject to the very problematics that they mobilise, which reshape the process of self-definition. In this respect, over the long run, the process of exhumation engenders constantly evolving subjectivities. [33] In this article I shall therefore analyse exhumation as a socialising experience: the political dedication, which exhumation demands of both scientific and activist personnel, fuels and configures the unique framework behind the FEFM’s mobilisation.

Act 1. Arrival in the village: establishing a critical space

26Two days before the exhumation took place, the vanguard of the team arrived in the village of Istán – a modest hamlet of 1,500 inhabitants isolated in the Andalusian highlands – for the first time. Their arrival was punctuated by chance encounters and interactions, and gradually revealed the interpretation that the team collectively held of its “right of entry” into this unknown village. In this case, the FEFM immediately established critical power relations with two groups of actors: villagers and local elected officials.

Choosing the village of Istán

Exhuming “Istán’s mass grave” was a project dictated as much by circumstance as by choice. At the start of 2012, the FEFM envisaged exhuming a mass grave in Sant Quirze del Vallès in Cataluña. But as archaeological surveys were unable to locate the mass grave, at the beginning of the summer the organisation “turned to” Istán, where it had also planned to excavate a site. Following the discovery of a foot that rain erosion had uncovered – as part of the grave was situated on a hillside – the relative of a missing person had called on the village’s deputy mayor at the beginning of 2012, who in turn contacted the Málaga chapter of the FEFM. The FEFM thus benefited from all the documentation available at its local chapter and decided to organise the excavation of the Istán grave. This abrupt change in venue had the (sociological) merit of making the local support that the organisation enjoyed more visible (logistics were taken care of in just a few weeks). Moreover, this change also demonstrated the commitment of the scientists involved – since the majority of the archaeologists and anthropologists lived in Barcelona and its environs, exhuming the Istán site entailed a much longer and more expensive trip (especially in the middle of the summer holidays) than was the case for Sant Quirze del Vallès. Finally, the change also helped to gauge the unity of the mobilisation’s goals, as the objectives announced during the preparatory meetings for the Catalan excavation were transferred onto the Istán project.

27With their highly visible mini-vans and backpacks, over-stuffed with equipment, and an escort provided by the deputy mayor, young city people, bearing the FEFM’s Republican logo on their T-shirts, burst into the village. This was in-your-face activism: in front of everyone, they filmed the slightest movement behind an intimidating camera, all in an atmosphere of camaraderie (laughter, complicity, inside jokes). These first moments clashed with the small village’s tranquillity and did not go unnoticed. Especially in the eyes of one young man, who feigned curiosity and immediately went up to the newcomers to find out their intentions. Then he went on: “That’s a Republican flag, right? You’re here to dig up our dead, aren’t you? […] If it were me, I’d give the corpse a big “bang” in the head [miming a kick]”. Two octogenarians, their stares icy, were distinctly heard to exchange the following: “Where did these guys come from?”, “From all the places they should be right now instead!” The group’s initial exploration of the village was accompanied by whispers, sudden silences, and hostile glances, fuelling the sense of intrusion.

28Despite not exactly receiving the warmest of welcomes, the excavators were unaffected. They had anticipated this sort of response during the whole trip down to Istán, and instead proudly accepted the situation. Without ever acting improperly, the activists were amused by the villagers’ reactions, which they filmed and commented on as they went along; their laments concerning this state of affairs only serving to further convince them of their project’s validity and, ultimately, over-determining its impact. Confronted with the villagers’ reactions, the excavators remained polite and, when necessary, tried to neutralise sceptics with wellmeaning, if pedantic, statements (“By taking care of the dead, we’re taking care of you guys, the living!”) The organisation’s members were quite used to this. These reactions echoed the obstacles they’d encountered in previous villages. They only served to confirm the “fear” in which Istán was plunged. “La vamos a liar” (“We’re going to make a mess”) – this expression, often whispered amidst laughter, was somewhat self-fulfilling. The organisation’s presence in the village immediately established a difference of opinion on which the activists congratulated themselves. This was a disagreement that was also interpreted in political terms. Both the villagers’ hospitality and their mistrust were ceaselessly filed under political labels: the “fascists” and the “families of Republicans”.

29This desire to “make a mess” also emerged during the first discussions with local elected officials. As the primary local liaison for the organisation in the village, the deputy mayor (from the Izquierda Unida, the Unified Left party) [34] welcomed the team upon its arrival in Istán. While striving to establish a personal rapport and ideological complicity with the group’s members, the deputy mayor nevertheless made sure to present herself as their sole legitimate interlocutor. Behind the scenes, however, this strategy of seduction and control over the initiative was mocked by the activists. The very first morning, during a press conference organised in Málaga to present the excavation project, two events provoked the group’s anger. The president of the FEFM felt that he had been disrespected by the regional representatives of the Unified Left Party, which he accused of having ignored him in front of the media and of having appropriated the initiative for themselves. Even worse, during her presentation, the deputy mayor declared that the same project would have been undertaken even if individuals from the “other camp” – pro-Franco supporters – had been buried in the mass grave, which, for the FEFM, was unspeakable because it made all “victims” equivalent. These public positions, seen as political machinations, were condemned by the collective. The dispute emerged later, however, during an otherwise trivial discussion in the village. During the exchange, the president of the FEFM explained the “philosophy” behind exhumations to the deputy mayor and attempted to wrest back political control of the situation by outdoing her rhetorically:


Deputy mayor: Bar X will make sandwiches for you, how many of you will there be?
President of the FEFM: Twenty-five people.
DM: Twenty-five! Oh! Twenty-five… I didn’t know that you needed that many people to exhume a grave!
P: It’s not just the grave that interests us, we’re also doing political, social and cultural work […] The important thing is getting people to visit the mass grave, to host activities and to raise awareness about what happened here.
DM [whispering]: Yes, yes I understand, it’s important […] but I know my village, you have to be very careful moving forward, don’t push people too much […] I support you 100% but I know how people are around here… [35]

31After this first meeting, over their apéritifs, the activists all murmured their satisfaction, saying that “she wasn’t expecting that, she’s scared”; “they [the elected officials] must be complaining about the mess they got themselves into”; “everyone in the village must be flipping out!”; “they can go to hell, we’re here to get things moving, like we always do”. The role of “troublemaker” that the FEFM meant to adopt in the village, as revealed by such backstage scenes, was in fact merely the local expression of the critical place occupied by the FEFM in the Spanish political landscape.

32The activists’ mistrust vis-à-vis the local officials should be seen in the context of the conflicts with partisan actors experienced by FEFM leaders from the very beginning. Created within the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) in 2002, the association was originally named Foro por la Memoria (Memory Forum) and was mainly founded by card-carrying members. Progressively marginalised by internal conflicts, the organisation’s members decided to cut ties with the PCE in 2005 and to create the FEFM. [36]

33The organisation’s gradual autonomy from the party was intimately linked to the controversial career of L.M., [37] a card-carrying activist in the town of Leganés (south-west of Madrid). After occupying a number of local activist positions during the 1980s and 1990s (in neighbourhood associations, as the political secretary for the PCE in Leganés, organiser for local protests, etc.), L.M.’s trajectory took a new turn in 1999. At that time, he joined a neighbourhood association called Asociación Cultura Paz y Solidaridad Haydée de Santamaría [The Haydée Santamaría Association for Culture, Peace and Solidarity]. This organisation introduced him to issues that, in retrospect, he describes as “memorial” concerns. [38] In the context of the mediatisation of the first protests organised by the families of the disappeared at the beginning of the 2000s, L.M. decided to advocate for “historical memory” within the PCE. He thus managed to attract the attention of the party’s leaders, who asked him to write a column on memory in Mundo Obrero, the Party’s newspaper. Thanks to the contacts made during his investigative reports, and relying on activist friendships that helped him to establish himself in both the political and activist spheres, L.M. decided to create the Foro por la Memoria in 2002. This was to be an association integrated within the party apparatus and devoted exclusively to honouring the memory of PCE activists.

34Although the small organisation originally benefited from a certain freedom of action, as it expanded it would increasingly become subject to the Party’s growing attempts to neutralise it. The first tensions were a result of the critical stance that the organisation gradually adopted. The “historical denial” from which Franco’s victims suffered, and of which L.M. became increasingly aware in the context of this new form of activism, provided critical content that reawakened his former desires to influence the party’s orientation from the inside. [39] His outspoken criticism of the 1977 Amnesty Law, [40] which the PCE had supported, caused a lot of controversy within the Party – especially since “Reconciliation” was being used as a resource for historical legitimacy by established PCE leaders. [41] Collaboration with non-partisan activists, made possible by his local community involvement, as well as the discovery of a cause that transcended party lines, likewise convinced L.M. of the need to move beyond the merely “Communist” dimension of the issue.

35Moreover, both the legitimacy and persistence of his insubordination with regard to Party leaders were cultivated in two ways, notwithstanding Party admonitions. On the one hand, as a community mobilisation entrepreneur, he enjoyed the support of many activists marginalised by various Andalusian PCE chapters. In the Huelva chapter (in the southwest of Spain) where the activists organising the exhumation of the Istán mass grave were from, for example, political conflicts had pushed members to strategically commit to the issue of memory politics. A local chapter of the Foro por la Memoria was thus created in order to influence local conflicts. Elsewhere, contacts with local politicians during the first exhumations (2002-2005) fed into the growing suspicion with regard to elected officials. Being subject to electoral constraints, local officials were accused, if not of hindering the exhumation process, at least of trying to contain its disruptive repercussions.

36These early dynamics (2002-2004) demonstrate how the boundaries of the cause were increasingly being reassessed (a shift from the “memory of Communism” to the “memory of the Republican left”), as were the acquisition of resources enabled by interdisciplinarity (enlisting regional PCE members that were at odds with the party hierarchy), and also reveal the growing disconnect between the Party’s perspective and the reconfigured expectations of activists on the ground.

37These seeds of discord led to open conflict that crystallised in the wake of the 2004 legislative elections. According to L.M., controlling “historical memory” became a major objective for a number of leaders hoping to secure institutional positions for themselves if the left won. The fact that certain activities were obstructed, and meetings were held without his knowledge, as well as the fact that he received a number of personal threats, led L.M. and his followers to leave the PCE behind in 2005 and to create the FEFM by bringing together activists from other local chapters. [42]


And from there, when the organisation became autonomous, what happened is that historical memory, which was in fact a tool to transform the Communist Party from the inside, became an end in and of itself. Memory was no longer a tool, but our goal. [43]

39Commitment to the victims’ cause can first be linked to the gradual emancipation of activist action from the party framework. Only a “citizen” collective that brought together all the different elements of the Spanish political left – Socialists, Communists, Anarchists – aligned in relation to the shared goal of (re)founding a Republican Spain, would be capable of undertaking the task of ideologically recapturing hearts and minds without being obliterated by the agendas of traditional organisations.

40On the fringes of such political skirmishes, the leaders of the FEFM slowly but surely came to establish tense relationships with the families of victims and, over the course of their activities, to reconsider the latter’s role. These tensions were a result of the dissent which emerged with the main association representing the families of the disappeared, the Asociación para la recuperación de la memoria histórica (ARMH – Association for the Recuperation of Historical Memory), the organisation with which the president of the FEFM experienced his first exhumation project in 2003. Accused of not politicising the cause enough, and of reducing exhumations to a mere family affair (recovering bodies in the name of “dignity” and nothing more) – in short of establishing a “private memory” [44] – the ARMH was seen as honouring family trauma to the detriment of the activist struggle of those exhumed “comrades”.

41The activists’ negative perception of the ARMH’s role was likewise forged by their gradual familiarisation with the realities of village life during the first excavations organised by the FEFM. Activists confessed that they found themselves in areas where hitherto unsuspected “fear” and “political apathy” reigned.


“They killed him even though he was someone who had never done anything bad”; “No, he wasn’t a Communist, he was a good guy”; “We told him not to get involved in politics, he put us in a sticky situation”, etc. [45]

43As they conducted their first surveys in the villages, the activists came up against a familial discourse that depoliticised the victims’ deaths, obscured the circumstances behind these deaths, and sometimes – when they recognised the victim’s political activism – even accused the dead of being responsible for the stigma with which families had had to live in the village, generation after generation. The figure of “the villager” was retrospectively depicted by the activists as an actor in need of emancipation. He or she was also seen as repeating local “popular beliefs” that distorted reality, as well as the fatalistic narrative produced during the years of post-transition amnesty.

44The “victims do not belong to the families” (nor to rival groups, then), any more than they belong to traditional left-wing political organisations. The critical stance adopted by the activist group upon its arrival in the village thus connected up a number of different dynamics. It locally translated the negative perception, forged during the experience of activist reorientation, of the role played by traditional political organisations in the fight against impunity for the Franco regime; it was also the result of the struggle for position within the memorial activism arena.

Act 2. The political objectification of the mass grave: helping the dead to speak and redefining the situation

45Appropriating a cause also means appropriating a physical space. As Javier Auyero observes, “it is in the space that all the representations shared by individuals find a home, thus determining the organisation, both physical and mental, of these individuals”. [46] The way in which space is physically occupied makes concrete the political work undertaken by the group to define the cause.

46In Istán, while the first archaeological surveys were being conducted early on the second day, the rest of the team began to physically appropriate the areas surrounding the mass grave. At first glance, the layout of the area appeared to be both functional and symbolic. Tents were set up in order to create a separate area for the excavation site, a space for testimony, into which families and villagers were welcomed, as well as a space for documentation and communication (computers on site allowed historians to consult the archives). At the same time, flags from the Second Spanish Republic were displayed, as well as an impressive banner positioned at the camp’s entrance proclaiming “Truth, justice and reparation for the victims of Franco”.

47But more importantly, this appropriation of space erected a border between the “grave” and the “village”. Fences, security cordons, activists wearing high-vis vests in charge of regulating entry, security passes… after a few hours of work, access to the grave was effectively defined and limited. This demarcation of the territory structured the activists’ actions and representations in different ways. From the perspective of the meaning that individual actors gave to their actions, and that they co-produced as a group during interactions, erecting a border was an accepted tactical initiative that allowed the organisation to control the cause and strip the villagers of any influence. “When they [the villagers] come to the mass grave, they’re on our land. When we’re in the village, we’re on theirs” was the strategic justification provided a number of times by an experienced activist to several first-timers. This appropriation of space also corresponds to the management of activist activities. Organising the space effectively satisfied the need to streamline activities (exhuming, collecting testimony, etc.), helped to maintain group cohesion, and redefine duties (guarding the grave at night, cleaning the corpses, taking care of security, filling water bottles, were tasks that activists, psychologists and historians all performed). This also conveyed an image of professionalism to the media, to potential new activist recruits, and to rival organisations.

48By expanding its focus to the surrounding village, the organisation’s appropriation of space redefined the situation, reconfigured the relationship towards the “victims”, and reshaped the identities of those actors present. What precisely then was the “terrain” thus delineated by the activists, and of which they became temporary custodians?

49First of all, the border marked the regimes of historicity that suddenly had to co-exist in the village. By physically taking control of a portion of land, the group transposed onto it knowledge, ideas, and practices – in short, a worldview – that sought, if not to rival the hitherto unchallenged local narrative, at least to translate it into a new language. Before the team’s arrival, the mass grave – and the bodies it contained – had always been specifically associated with the village world. As in other Spanish villages, the charnel ground had been given a nickname based on local folklore (“la lomilla de los muertos”, or “the hill of the dead”), a name that was passed down from generation to generation. The site was also the subject of stories, told in whispers or merely alluded to. Other uses were also made of the mass grave – scaring children, for instance: “Don’t go play over there, the dead will climb out of their graves”. Only two narrow markers signalled the mass grave’s existence: it remained within the boundaries of local geographical unity and within those of reported narratives, which were often clouded over by family shame.

50As the organisation established itself in the village, it effected a shift of both scale and meaning: the “hill of the dead” became a grave filled with “Franco’s victims”; as in other cases, “the dead” were now referred to by forensic examiners as “the disappeared”. The “firing squad”, long the subject of rumours and varying stories, became the result of “planned” repression at the national level. The mass grave was stripped of its singularity, likened to many others, repositioned in the realm of state violence, and treated accordingly. The political objectification of the grave, which reconfigured the local narrative through repeated interactions between activists and villagers, was dependent on the specific resources mobilised by the FEFM to drum up support. The academic authority of the actors present (historians, physical anthropologists, archaeologists, psychologists, etc.), as well as the activists’ rhetorical mastery, acquired during previous excavations, helped to counterbalance the villagers’ scepticism.

51But it was first and foremost the physical organisation of the space as arranged by the group that was designed to create new meaning. The physical barriers erected served as mental barriers intended to define visitors’ behaviour. Control over space was here a resource that determined the meaning that was to be conferred to the reappearance of the bodies.

52When victims’ relatives came to the site, these dynamics became clear. [47] For example, one daughter of a victim wished to “see her father again”. Once on site, she was greeted at the entrance by a psychologist and then invited into the area reserved for providing accounts and testimony. She was then accompanied to the grave. A first barrier was crossed. Behind her, villagers and curious passers-by would only be allowed to see the bodies during visiting hours specifically designed for this purpose. When this woman reached the second security cordon, situated beyond the excavation site, the activist in charge of regulating entry asked her to wait for a few moments, in order to inform the archaeologists and anthropologists of her arrival. Meanwhile, the psychologist placed a hand on the visitor’s shoulder in the guise of a comforting gesture. Once the second threshold was crossed, the woman finally found herself in front of the bodies. After a long moment of silence, often caught on film, the victim’s relative was invited to go back to the testimony area. A long interview ensued, conducted by the aforementioned psychologist, as well as a historian and a physical anthropologist.

53In this clearly defined territory, freedom of movement was largely restricted. Visitors were guided, forced to pause momentarily and asked to cross barriers that gave rise to intervals of waiting, as well as to short discussions where the situation was explained and endlessly redefined by the various experts framing the visitors’ experience and interactions. As they crossed the space, always escorted by a member of the team, visitors found themselves in a number of micro-spaces where they were encouraged to adopt appropriate behaviours. For instance, the experience was structured so that visitors could have moments where they could become emotional in front of the grave, where they could contemplate in silence, where they could express their anger to the activists, where they could speak at length during an interview process and delve into their memories to recall physical details to the forensic anthropologist. Different individuals were trained to control entries and exits, to provide moral support, to explain, to encourage therapeutic anger – this distribution of roles within a clearly defined space sought to shape the legitimate attitudes to be adopted when faced with the reappearance of the disappeared. Despite its obstacles, the site did not hinder but instead aimed to create reparative behaviours hitherto not allowed by the “village”, according to the mobilisation entrepreneurs.

54The physical appropriation of the space also sought to wrest the monopoly of the meaning of the grave back from the village. This rewriting of the local narrative could be concretely observed. In the controlled area, the “dead”, as described in the village narrative, became the “disappeared victims” claimed by the organisation. In fact, the village narrative’s hold vanished when the material bodies were discovered – at the moment when “the hill of the dead” became, under the gaze of the villagers, a display of corpses bearing all the traits of their late humanity (shoes, personal effects, etc.) and of the violence they suffered.

55It is not for this article to measure the emotional impact on the visitors of these long silent interactions between the villagers and the bodies. At most, we can simply observe that the “reappearance” of the dead, as well as the inner turmoil that it produced, was immediately contextualised and mediatised by individuals whose actions continually translated and redefined the situation. [48]

56The transition from narrative to physical reality was simultaneously expressed both in words and actions by the different actors present. Faced with the exhumation, villagers not only interacted with the corpses, but also with forensic scientists. Situated within the gravesite’s enclosed surroundings, the latter manipulated the bodies in accordance with sophisticated methodologies, explained their work to the villagers and engaged with them, clipboards in hand, jotting down the smallest of statements. They subjected each stray detail recalled in passing to a rigorous taxonomy, and posed questions that the villagers had never even considered before. Both the experts’ practices and their energy bore witness to a “post mortem corporality”, a second life granted to these bodies, whose fate had hitherto been confined to indigenous narratives. These corpses suddenly had something to say, something that the villagers were not aware of, and from acting as witnesses the villagers became assistants in the forensic endeavour. Similarly, when a visitor surveyed the charnel ground it was in the company of the psychologist. The latter interviewed the villagers at length and established a safe space for them to speak out. She validated and affirmed all of the sentiments they shared, acknowledging their version of the facts (and not the accepted version), in order to position them, as she put it, “before their own reality”. [49] The psychologist served to approve individual narratives, which sought to challenge village rumours, censorship, and revisionism. Finally, the discovery of the bodies was mediatised using the activists’, historians’ and FEFM supporters’ reference points and vocabulary. They generalised the facts (referring to “crimes against humanity’) and recontextualised them in a national geographical framework by expounding upon excavations taking place on the other side of the country. They detailed the number of victims in the region, made numerous historical references in order to situate this tragedy within a long line of massacres, and standardised the vocabulary (“comrades”, Franco’s “coup d’état”, Republican “legitimacy”, etc.).

57When they went to the “hill of the dead”, visitors found themselves both confronted with the extraordinary reality of these tortured bodies, and also propelled into a clearly defined space, saturated with references conveyed by actors with skills and credentials that were intimidating to a rural public (medical, scientific, legal and activist jargon especially), and which encouraged the rewriting of the village’s history. This was an appropriated space, where the practice of prosopopoeia acted as a palimpsest. The dead were “made to speak” for a variety of reasons: forensic experts had the corpses bear witness to the truth of a violence that had been challenged or altered in village memory; activists and historians had them reveal the political dimension of repression, euphemised by village censorship; lawyers used them to authenticate the existence of an injustice that had been endured, and which had to be condemned and redressed in accordance with international law; and for psychologists they were a means to allow the grieving process – hitherto in limbo – to finally unfold. These were the different discourses that attempted to reconfigure the site’s meaning in the eyes of its visitors. But although these discourses appeared to each have a different perspective, they were in fact all aligned in relation to a shared activist grammar.

Act 3. Establishing “left-wing victims” and politicising the post-conflict environment

58Over dinner at the local bar on the first night, in the middle of a conversation about the number of Spanish Republicans who had been deported to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, two activists suddenly wondered aloud if some of these victims had not been from Istán, since “most of them were from Andalusia”. Checking the data on a tablet, the activists were immediately able to determine that two villagers had indeed been deported. While one of the activists went to talk to the owner of the bar about it, the leader of the FEFM concluded that “if they deported people from this small village, that means that it was really Republican in these parts”. Returning to the table, the activist informed the group that a guerrilla was supposedly also buried in a cave not far from the village. The decision was made to go and exhume his body (which ultimately did not happen due to the lack of a specific location).

59During the preparatory meetings that I observed, [50] the debate was already polarised regarding the necessity of proving the “Republican” identity of the victims. This debate would continue on the ground in the village. As a result of chance encounters and confidences gathered here and there, the activists established a makeshift political genealogy of the victims that they jotted down as they went along. The activist investigation did not merely note the raw facts, however. On the contrary, the evidence gathered was continually adjusted to fit the activist grammar.


“We have to verify the results of the February 1936 elections in the village, then we’ll be able to see if there were people here who supported the Popular Front!”; “We have to get more information about where the members of the resistance were in this area!”… [51]

61Counting the number of victims was done alongside establishing a map of the Republican resistance and documenting its planned repression. The goal was proving that the organisation was defending structural, targeted victims, in a politicised village, and not merely the victims of “jealousy”, “vendettas” or “score-settling”, as villagers generally described the situation.

62Incidental discoveries – such as the presence of resistance fighters in the area – were greeted enthusiastically and continually aligned with the organisation’s goals by the president of the FEFM during debates, in order to unite the group in its mission. These discoveries gave greater meaning to the group’s activities: the excavators were not mere gravediggers, come to meddle in private affairs, as some villagers claimed, but “memorial activists”. They could also been seen as confirmation of the “fear” that still existed in the hamlet: “They’ve been there for 70 years and no one has dared to dig them up!”, members of the group exclaimed, thus justifying their cause. Such discoveries likewise brought individual motivations and the meaning of lived experiences in line with official FEFM discourse. During discussions, anthropologists, archaeologists and psychologists effectively encountered the same ways of dramatising the cause again and again – that of a hidden truth (the victims’ political identity) – that silence and ignorance would have concealed indefinitely, and which had now suddenly been brought to light by the organisation’s efforts. Finally, the political definition of the victims confirmed the legitimacy of the organisation’s stance with regard to its rivals: unlike exhumations that only celebrated the “dignity” that the victims’ relatives could now enjoy and which “privatised” suffering, the FEFM made public the deadly stigma of a political identity.

63On the ground, the combination of activist conceptions of martyrdom and post-conflict theory were obvious. The lengthy testimony sessions overseen by the FEFM psychologist were one example. After asking relatives questions to determine the psychological trauma provoked by the victim’s “disappearance”, the psychologist would suddenly switch to political issues.


Was he an activist? With the Democratic Transition, as the family of a victim did you feel that things got better? Have you ever been recognised as a victim’s family member? Do you think the exhumations are good for the village? For the country? Do you think this helps to bring about justice?

65Developing this questionnaire was in and of itself a heuristic endeavour, as it allowed reflection on the nature of the link between the legitimate framework of psychosocial intervention in the post-conflict universe and the gradual adaptation of individual behaviour in relation to the specificity of the activist collective. When asked how she developed this questionnaire, the psychologist admitted that, not knowing how to prepare, just a few days before her first excavation with the FEFM she downloaded a protocol concerning the “model for psychosocial intervention” designed for use during the excavation of a mass grave. [52] This document, prepared by a Spanish NGO, follows current international norms. The first time, the FEFM psychologist followed the questionnaire to the letter. Then, over the course of her involvement with the organisation, she began to eliminate questions that she did not find relevant, replacing them with other “psycho-political” questions more appropriate for the group’s focus. The “politicisation” of the questionnaire – concrete proof of which could be seen in the notes added and crossings-out on the photocopied documents – also extended to the perception that the psychologist had of the interview space that she controlled. Although she admitted that this was a space that allowed for grieving to finally begin, she also considered it as “a place where left-wing values and Republican ideals were reclaimed […] thus allowing all this hidden pride to be expressed”. The argument for activist therapy is not just rhetoric: it is a function of those chance events previously experienced (the interview space at times providing an arena for the expression of activist anger, or even becoming a place for recruiting victims’ relatives into the ranks of the FEFM) that have served as justification for the activist cause. It is on this basis that individual “trauma” was gradually recognised as a form of political “trauma”. According to the psychologist, so long as mourning was rendered impossible, it would likewise be impossible to reclaim the Republic.

66As much as anything else, the work of identifying bodies sought to establish “Republican victims”. This agenda was often revealed during chance occurrences. At the edge of the mass grave, an elderly woman had come to provide a photograph of her father, “buried” there. The picture was passed around. Enthralled, one activist examined the image at length. Then, teary-eyed, he admitted that this picture allowed him to humanise the bodies they had found and to truly understand the cruelty involved in the killings. The photograph was then passed to the physical anthropologist. With a jeweller’s magnifying glass over one eye, the anthropologist wrote down every physical detail, in order to aid future laboratory work. Later, two historians examined the image. This time, the magnifying glass was used to identify any elements that might point to Republican political activism (insignia, uniforms, clothing details).

67Although the details observed by the physical anthropologist were kept confidential, those reported by the historians immediately became part of group discussions. When asked about their role, the historians explained that they hoped to fulfil a double function when identifying bodies.


We historians, we’re here to complement the work done by the forensic anthropologists and archaeologists. First, we help to identify the bodies. They examine the bones and remains to reconstruct the victims’ stories and determine the truth of the matter. We complement this work by examining documents, archives and personal accounts, and help with identification. Then, our second job is documenting everything that happened here in Istán, the political events […]. We consider the individuals in the grave like friends, like comrades, we’re here for them because we have an intellectual, moral and historical obligation to them […]. [53]

69Documenting the political context is a common method in forensic investigations on missing persons. This process allows researchers to identify acts of repression and helps with biological identification. [54] In Istán, however, the historians’ work did not assist with forensic identification, but rather came to supplement it. By consulting the village archives, the records of resistance organisations, and the few monographs penned by local historians, these researchers were attempting to prove that the individuals identified by bio-anthropological means were in fact political dissidents and that Istán was an oppressed Republican village.

70Control over the images of the bodies likewise merits attention. Within the ranks of the FEFM, only the activist in charge of audio-visual media was authorised to film and take photographs of the ongoing work. When journalists visited the site, always escorted by this activist, they were asked not to take pictures of the dead and to focus instead on panoramic views (where Republican flags and activist banners were prominently placed). Control over the images was primarily designed to prevent sensationalism in the media, which would highlight the abused bodies (perforated skulls, handcuffed skeletons) to the detriment of the ideals being defended.


For ten years, we’ve been inundated with images of old people mourning, and with bones, we don’t care about victimisation, that’s not the problem, we want the media to talk about the ideas that these people defended, and that we defend today, we want them to talk about the Republic! [55]

72As an arena in which to reveal the “truth” of the gratuitous violence endured, and as a place for the collection of memories, [56] displaying these bodies meant presenting the media with a space in which political identity and a political programme could be actualised. In front of the microphone, that brief moment in which the effective impact of a speech is linked to its capacity to make generalisations, international human rights standards and conventions were invoked by the group’s leaders in order to emphasise the barbarity of “Franco’s coup d’état”. However, it was the ceremony organised in honour of the “comrade-victims” that really publicly displayed the grammar of activism. Held at the end of the excavation project in front of an audience of family members and villagers, this ritual involved the entire FEFM staff and served to crystallise the link between the commemorative repertoire of the Republican left and post-conflict theory. The way in which villagers were invited to participate, the rhetoric used by the group, and the participants selected all combined aspects of a commemorative funeral rite with those of a Republican political meeting.

73The individuals invited to come up to the microphone were confined to those who knew how to leverage their local roots in the service of political activism (e.g., the great-nephew of a missing person who called himself a Republican and spoke of his relative’s assassination in general terms, rather than telling a personal story; and “Andalusian-Republican” community leaders and local representatives, who constantly referred to the heavy price paid by the region’s inhabitants). The tribute paid to the victims was also a tribute paid to the excavators’ selfless dedication. While their willingness to work for free, their outsider status, and their high level of scientific skill all attested to their integrity, these characteristics also helped to highlight the dedication of the group, which called itself “the final anti-Franco militia” come to “liberate” the village. Finally, the commemoration attempted to historicise the village’s story. Exhuming the bodies was seen as putting an end to the limbo of defeat in which Istán seemed to be permanently stuck. After the group sang A las Barricadas and The Internationale in honour of the victims before them, the president of the FEFM spoke fervently to this “Republican village” and called on each and every resident to follow the example set by “the comrades before them” in order continue the struggle for a Third Spanish Republic.

Opening up the debate. Republican subjectification: a traumatic legacy, or a political one?

74The FEFM’s stance can in part be likened to the antagonistic position adopted by certain organisations that have refused to accept victimhood status in other contexts. In such cases, “victimhood” is seen as a social identity that is dependent only on the contingent experience of an “event” (being wounded or tortured, disappearing, losing sight of a loved one forever, etc.), encompassed within a subjugating category (“trauma”) that tends to conceal individuals’ real activist identities and runs the risk of setting up an equivalence been their status and that of executioners. [57] In a consensual register, victimhood status thus aligns itself with the pacification efforts of post-conflict policies. In such cases, instead of institutionally condemning victims to perpetual grief, [58] organisations sometimes prefer to confront things head on. Such was the strategy chosen by the Mothers of the Plazo del Mayo in Argentina or by certain anti-apartheid activists. [59]

75The FEFM’s criticism of “private” and “depoliticised” victims is connected to this position, with the difference that this association also criticises the contemporary mechanisms for managing the victims of state violence. Although the aforementioned groups have claimed activist heritage and rejected the traumatic legacy that post-conflict therapy supposedly produces, the FEFM has in addition chosen to adopt a stance of activist extroversion with regard to these care policies. In this case, establishing victimhood status does not take place on the fringes of the mechanisms adopted – such as forensic exhumation – but at the heart of these processes, by means of détournement (diversion) [60] and re-enunciation. [61] If we limit ourselves to the practice of identification – one of the main functions of forensic exhumation – the current ethnographic study reveals that the identification of the disappeared is inseparable from identification with their struggle. To achieve this, the collective’s specifically designed activities seek to eliminate any sort of strictly “private” and emotional relation to the victims. Instead, they try to orchestrate a “political communion” with the dead, in activist terms, which seeks to lay bare the conditions for investing in the Republican cause.

76In the context of Spanish protests supporting victims, this type of activist problematisation and management of the cause of “the disappeared” fuels the accusation by the FEFM’s challengers that family grief was instrumentalised for ideological ends. Although these families deserved to be freed from their pain (shame, guilt, anger, etc.) and regain emotional stability, [62] they were often cast by the FEFM as supporting actors, stripped of the ability to properly mourn their dead, so long refused them, and at times denied the right to even consider themselves true victims. The “right” way to reclaim a family narrative – hitherto shot through with gaps, silences, and discontinuity – as well as the possibility of “expressing oneself” and speaking freely [63] were to be altered by the FEFM’s “ideological manœuvres”.

77However, reducing the FEFM’s practices to the strict realisation of Communist commemorative repertoires, designed to honour a shared community identity to the detriment of the individual, [64] does not stand up to empirical scrutiny. As evidenced by the integration of current practices in the international world of post-conflict management, the collective’s activist strategy also achieves individuation of the fates of “the disappeared” and their relatives. In other words, although exhumation appears to assign a collective identity that places little emphasis on personal perspectives and emotions, in reality, the process as organised by the FEFM nevertheless remains oriented towards the victims’ families. For the latter, as an example, the process of re-interring the bodies is an occasion for renewed access to the past subjectivity of the victims. In addition to recovering the bodies, who are now finally granted a place in the village cemetery and the “community of the dead” from which they had been excluded, [65] the FEFM presented the families with a series of investigatory reports (forensic, psychological, historical) that recreated the victims’ individual identities (their first and last names, their occupations, their genealogy), how they had lived (their personal stories and economic situations) and their daily lives (their relationships and a number of biographical anecdotes). The attention to the individual thus contrasts with the commemorative repertoire that allegedly glorifies the heroic actions of activists, whose names could be interchangeably engraved on a headstone. On the contrary, forensic identification, historical research and the collection of personal accounts by psychologists recreate robust biographical subjectivities.

78Moreover, the FEFM does not limit itself to providing individualised care, unlike other organisations whose primary goal is helping families move past their traumatic memories. The FEFM seeks to offer families a new way of expressing themselves without having recourse to trauma narratives, an operator of meaning that, when used in its everyday sense by activists, [66] would confine the tragedy to its “humanitarian” dimension and exclude the possibility of claiming “left-wing” roots. According to the activists, this kind of approach would mean the ultimate ideological victory of Francoism, which would have destroyed the pride of belonging to the left. Instead of a traumatic legacy, the FEFM strives to provide a political legacy: redressing the wrongs endured by the families of the disappeared entails scientifically proving (by using the knowledge and skills available during the investigation, aligned with an activist grammar) the existence of a political line of descent and inviting relatives to reclaim ownership of this legacy.


We have to put an end to “grandfatherism” [abuelismo], they weren’t killed because they were grandparents or parents, brothers or sisters, but because they fought against fascism, because they were revolutionaries. People need to reclaim their values. [67]

80Advocating for the values of the disappeared victims, perpetuating their legacy, reconnecting family narratives with the Ur-narrative of past struggles and nostalgically lamenting the loss of an exalted political past: raising the awareness of the families of “the disappeared” certainly relies on the traditional emotional tools employed by memorial movements. That said, the activists’ attempts at raising awareness were not limited to the simple rhetorical exposition of grievances and references that seek to enlist the public’s emotional support. They were combined with a form of appeal that invited individuals to reflect on their own heritage and, ultimately, to fulfil a duty of testimony. Via a strategy of physical presentation of the “Republican bodies” at Istán, this “mechanism for awareness” [68] sought to reveal the political nature of individual heritages. Consequently, it is not so much that the FEFM invokes nostalgia for a mythical struggle, in the hopes of enlisting loyalty and creating “heirs”, but rather that it operates directly on filial ties by insinuating itself into the cracks of family narratives and traumatic experiences, ultimately redefining and transforming them into a catalyst for renewed political struggle.

81“Finding the disappeared means finding the ‘Republican’ inside of you”: such could be the motto characterising the work of subjectification undertaken by the FEFM. Exhuming bodies seeks to produce new ways of understanding oneself: the process encourages everyone involved to delve into their own genealogy, reclaim their own “activist background”, and join the fight against “Franco’s heirs”.


The FEFM and its rivals

82The number of organisations specialising in the forensic exhumation of “the disappeared” has greatly increased since 2000, when the first contemporary excavations took place. Within this sphere, the FEFM is positioned in relation to two other major organisations: the Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (ARMH – Association for the Recuperation of Historical Memory) and the Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi (Aranzadi Scientific Society). Created in 2000, the ARMH inaugurated the contemporary practice of exhuming victims. It brings together relatives of “the disappeared” and enjoys a great deal of attention from the media. The association likewise has access to activist resources provided by some of its most active members (individuals with close ties to the United Left or the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, former UN officials, etc.). The ARMH is organised as a network and works alongside independent agencies at the national level (Psychologists without Borders, Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi) and the international level (the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team). At the local level, the association collaborates with dozens of small community organisations. These groups are not, however, organically linked to the ARMH. The organisation acquired a research unit in 2009, on the campus of Ponferrada University in León, in order to identify the exhumed bodies of Spanish civil war victims. It also boasts its own network of biological anthropologists and archaeologists. The Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi, which also specialises in exhumation, operates primarily out of the Basque Country. It is exclusively composed of archaeologists, anthropologists and forensic doctors from the University of the Basque Country. Since 2000, this group’s members have acted upon the request of the associations of victims’ families, including the ARMH, and have limited their collaboration to providing strictly “scientific” assistance. Some of its members, who are well known in academic circles, have helped to draft protocols seeking to systematise the practice of forensic exhumation and align it with international norms.

83The Federación Estatal de Foros por la Memoria (FEFM-2005) originally created within the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) under the name of Foro por la Memoria in 2002, can be differentiated from the two groups mentioned above because of its organisational structure and the composition of its members. Since 2005, the Foro has acted as an umbrella organisarion uniting twenty or so local chapters of varying size, which function according to a pyramid structure. The organisation is primarily composed of activists from the PCE, who transitioned into memorial activism, as well as multi-positioned activists from within a number of left-wing groups (the National Confederation of Labour, student groups, local neighbourhood organisations, self-managed social centres, etc.). With regard to scientific personnel, until 2005, the group initially collaborated with archaeologists who belonged to (or were affiliated with) the Communist Party. After 2005, the FEFM began to recruit archaeologists and biological anthropologists from the Autonomous University of Barcelona. During certain excavations, the FEFM also collaborated with some of families of “the disappeared”.

84The FEFM stands out because of the strict control it has over its members (internal discipline, the abnegation it demands of them). It also strategically recruits its collaborators. In the past, however, the group has also collaborated with the international NGO Equipo Nizkor (which specialises in the fight against impunity) and a number of foreign forensic anthropologists. This was the case when the FEFM organised the 1st Conference on the Victims of Franco (20-22 April 2012, in Rivas-Vaciamadrid), during which the group attempted to unite dozens of organisations dealing with the victims of Francoism. While the ARMH and the Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi state that they work strictly in favour of victims’ families, for the FEFM, exhumations are a way to rebuild the Republican left in Spain.


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    This article is also based on 24 biographical interviews conducted with members of the FEFM (2012-2013), as well as multi-site observation of the members’ activities during the same time period (protests, celebrations, memorial services, meetings, conferences, lab work).
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    I am drawing on more than twenty interviews conducted with members of organisations which specialised in exhumations (Association de récupération de la mémoire historique, Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi, Association de récupération de la mémoire historique de Catalogne, in particular).
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    Initials have been changed. Interview conducted in Madrid on 24 March 2013.
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Since the 1980s the forensic exhumation of mass graves has become common practice in post-violence contexts. Carried out to relieve the psychological “trauma” of the victims’ families who demand the “truth” on past crimes, forensic exhumations are now considered as standard “best practice” in the field of conflict resolution. Can this political therapy be put at the service of political strife and diverted from its objective of reconciliation? This article analyses the invention of a new form of political protest. It focuses on the activities of the Federacion Estatal de Foros por la Memoria, for whom mass grave exhumations are a way out of reconciliation and a deliberate move to revive antagonisms.

Sélim Smaoui
Sélim Smaoui is currently a doctoral candidate in political science at Sciences Po Paris and a visiting lecturer and research assistant at Sciences Po Aix-en-Provence. He works primarily on protest movements concerned with the victims of Franco’s regime in Spain. He is also the author of works on protest movements in Morocco, and his publications include: (with Mohamed Wazif) “Étendard de lutte ou pavillon de complaisance? S’engager sous la bannière du ‘mouvement du 20 février’ à Casablanca”, in Amin Allal, Thomas Pierret (eds), Au cœur des révoltes arabes. Devenir révolutionnaires (Paris: Armand Colin, 2013), 55-79 (Sciences Po Paris, CERI, 56 rue Jacob, 75006 Paris).
Translated by
Sarah-Louise Raillard
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