Anything But Paella

San Isidro’s Dark Secret

San Isidro de Albatera is a small town not unlike many other small towns you may drive through in this part of Spain. In reality there’s not a lot there to cause you to stop off, but it does hold a dark and somewhat forgotten secret.

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Around the train station there have been many changes as they prepare for the AVE line to pass through. This has enabled the town’s dark secret to be hidden even deeper than before. To get there from the town itself now takes a rather torturous route through a tunnel under the railway tracks and then around the industrial buildings at the other side.

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Actually, torturous is quite an inappropriate adjective to use. Why? Well, the dark secret comes from the Spanish Civil War. In 1937 a Republican labour camp was established where prisoners were put to work. By 1939 this had been converted by Franco’s troops into a concentration camp and it is not known people died there. Looking out over the fields today it is hard to contemplate the horrors which occurred at this location.

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In 1995 survivors of the camp put up a memorial. It has survived the station’s upgrade but is now completely cut off from the town. Two iron beams stand pointing skywards with gruesome broken chains resembling barbed wire wrapped around their upper reaches. The plaque at the bottom merely hints at what happened here. The municipal website offers a more in-depth history of the encampment but, as usual, Google doesn’t translate it very well if you choose the English version!

The fight for recognition of this site as a mass grave has been long and arduous. When a map of known sites was published in 2011, San Isidro was not on it despite being one of the largest in the entire country. The Commission for Historical Memory have fought for this and at last have succeeded. From the iron memorial continue along the road for another 500m or so and you’ll see an information board which stands on the edge of a field on which stands the only remaining building from the camp – the bakery. The distance from the memorial to the information board highlights just how big this camp was.

The camp was a Republican labour camp from 1937 until March 1939 housing disaffected soldiers performing duties in the agricultural sector and maintaining the streets of Albatera.
At the end of the Civil War, Franco’s vengeful troops created one of the hardest concentration camps in Spain on the same site. It is estimated that 20,000 Republican prisoners were interred at the camp between April 1937 and its closure on 27 October that year. They suffered terrible conditions and ill health through poor diet and harsh treatment. The camp was razed to the ground on its closure and no photographs (other than the ones on this information board, one presumes) exist to this day.
A strictly monitored attraction whenever we went out in the sun.
First we had to sing “face to the sun”, salute and then shout “Arriba España.”
(Is this gallows humour in the face of the firing squad?)
To see your loved ones you had to pay 2 pesetas to stand behind a barbed wire fence 3 metres away so you couldn’t even understand their shouts. Pay another 5 pesetas and you could be together without the barbed wire for a short time but under the vigilance of a Moor.

The entire site is currently being scanned with metal detectors trying to find artefacts such as bullets from this dark period in the area’s history. At a later date earth scanners will be used to try to find the location of mass graves. A grim task but an important one for the families of those who suffered so much here.

Many thanks to two English language reports about this site from Geoff Martin – Civil War on the Costa Blanca and Spain’s past Casts a Sinister Shadow. Without them, I wouldn’t have known anything about this moving memorial.

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