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The Dark History of Moncofa - The Orange Grove Graves

Simon has been exploring Spain's secrets for almost two decades after falling in love with the country and its people as a young man.

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In late October of 2017, I rented an apartment in the small coastal town of Moncofa. From my terrace I could see the Mediterranean to the East, and the foothills of the Sierra de Espadán rising in the West. At night my dreams were filled with visions of the sea as the waves crashed below me. It was idyllic.

The beaches, nature reserves and orange groves hold dark secrets, however. As my girlfriend and I strolled hand-in-hand over the rocks and sand, we were passing over the site of one of Franco's infamous concentration camps.

Valencia fought hard in the civil war. Medieval castles were brought back into use and still bear the scars of aerial bombardment alongside those of centuries-old assaults. Every major town laboured to construct refuges and shelters. Militias were raised and anti-fascist slogans sprang up like wildflowers.

Not far to the North, George Orwell was shot through the neck on the front lines in Catalonia. He, like many others, had seen the spectre of fascism rising and was determined to combat it, first by informing the public through his writing, but soon after by taking up arms in defence of his ideals.

By the spring of 1939, however, Franco's troops had occupied the entire region, leaving only pockets of resistance. Posters appeared in villages and towns instructing Republican soldiers to go "to the prison camp closest to their respective towns" to obtain "due assistance" so that they would be able to "reintegrate with their respective towns in the shortest possible time.”

This was a trap. Under the pretence of re-assimilation, Republican soldiers, both male and female, were corralled in prison camps hastily constructed by the fascist army. In the tiny town of Moncofa alone, at least 3,500 were imprisoned in just one month.

Some survived, but many did not. Four of these latter were José Belloti Palmer, Manuel Arnau Canós, Amadeo Martí Vila and Esteban Avilés Millán. On March 29th, 1939, all four men were taken from the concentration camp to the house of a local dignitary in the town square. From there they were driven by truck to an orange grove on the outskirts of town.

The local Francoists then ordered them at gunpoint to dig their own graves.

After being tortured, the men were summarily shot, heaved into the graves, then covered with the loose earth that they themselves had dug from the ground.

I’ve walked through those orange groves. I may even have walked over those men’s graves. It’s a tranquil area, the countryside protected from development because of its environmental importance. Come summer, empty villas and apartments are dusted off and filled with holidaymakers. In the winter months, though, old local families weather the storms, and many of them will never forget.

So many are the unmarked graves of Franco's victims that no one can set a figure. From the Andalusian mountain ranges to the orange groves of Moncofa, the bodies of men and women who fought fascism in Spain lie hidden.

There are many, though, who are committed to bringing them back into the light. Throughout the country, commissions and councils are being convened to bring peace to the families of the victims, and to recognise their sacrifices and the wrongs done to them.

In April of this year, eighty-two years after the murders in Moncofa, the Provincial Council of Castellón’s Historical Memory Delegation pledged its resources to the recovery of the bodies of José Belloti Palmer, Manuel Arnau Canós, Amadeo Martí Vila and Esteban Avilés Millán.

The delegation, formed two years ago, has already ordered exhumations at the Civil Cemetery of Castelló de la Plana, and was awarded an additional 50,000 euros in funding this year to expand its work.

While that work continues, and Spain struggles to right the wrongs of the civil war, our feet still travel daily over grave injustices.

In yet another cruel twist of fate, over half of the site of the original concentration camp has now been reclaimed by the sea, but whilst time and tide may have washed away many of the physical traces of this horror, memories are long, and history is still being written.

© 2021 Simon Roots

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