In 2011, a team of forensic anthropologists uncovered a mountain range of bodies over 30 meters long in Gumiel de Izán (Burgos). The profession of the majority of the 59 victims who were sought there made the place known as “the railway pit.” They had been buried by street sweepers from Aranda de Duero and murdered by squads of Falangists in 1936. Ten years after that exhumation, the Minister of Public Works, José Luis Ábalos, and the president of Renfe, Isaías Táboas, have presented a website (www.memoriahistoricaferroivaria.org) and a movie, The children of iron, that document the cruelty of the Franco regime with that group.
88% of the workforce, about 90,000 people, were subjected to purification committees. “The objective,” explains historian Miguel Muñoz, author of several investigations into repression in the sector, was “to exterminate the unions and place the workers in a situation of permanent terror.” They were removed from their trade, but also killed, executed after being sentenced to death, imprisoned, used as slave labor or forced into exile. The website contains an exhaustive database with the files of the reprisals, including at least 4,592 women. The movie, which can be seen at Renfe’s YouTube channel, It takes its title from an article that Miguel Hernández published – under a pseudonym – in 1937 as a tribute to the railroad workers.
Researchers Francisco Polo, Miguel Muñoz, Fernando Mendiola and Carlos Hernández participate in the documentary, explaining the multiple methods of repression used by the Franco regime against railroad workers, and also relatives of the victims who suffered it, such as Antonio Sin, José Báscones, Luis Miguel Martín Montoliu, Paqui Chaves or the former national coach Vicente del Bosque.
Flavio Báscones had worked as a brakeman in the Compañía de los Ferrocarriles. He was a member of the UGT and the PSOE and in Mataporquera (Cantabria) he had been elected mayor. The website states that during the Civil War “he dug trenches and fought to defend the city, but finally had to take refuge in France with his family, where he remained in exile until his death.” His son José remembers the journey of his flight, from Matarporquera to Ribadesella, from there to Gijón – “they swept through the cinema where they had sheltered us, we couldn’t breathe from the dust” -, then to Bordeaux, by train to Girona – “we ate lettuce we picked pine nuts from the orchards … ”-, to a colony in Lloret del Mar (Girona), from there to Paris and to the Belgian city of Liège, where he managed to meet his parents at the beginning of March in 1940, before finally settling in France and living his second war. “That generation suffered a lot,” recalls Vicente del Bosque. His father, Fermín, also a railroad man, was imprisoned in Salamanca and Vitoria.
Francisco Chaves was assassinated in Torremejía. “He was a foreman of roads and works,” recalls his granddaughter Paqui. “The Francoists caught him and killed him. They shot him and left him lying in a gutter. There was no trial. His death certificate says ‘died from war’.
Antonio Sin was sentenced to the death penalty. He waited eight months for her, recalls her son Antonio, until she was commuted in exchange for transfer to the Bustarviejo penal detachment (Madrid), where she worked, with almost 1,000 other prisoners, on the works of the Madrid-Burgos railway. The families of many inmates settled right across the street, in self-made stone shacks. “That was our home, in the mountains, under a large stone,” Antonio recalls. His mother, who was a teacher, used those very hard days to teach the children of other prisoners.
The criminal detachments were always located close to the large works and it was the employers of the winning companies themselves who went to the prisons to select the personnel: the healthiest, the strongest. When they were released, many of the prisoners continued working for the same work and the same company because exile was always added to their sentences: they could not return to their environment. This was done by, among others, Antonio Sin.
Since 1938, prisoners of war and political prisoners were used in different railway works to repair the ravages of war or build new infrastructure. Until 1940 the number of forced laborers exceeded 9,000. During the last months of the war, work on the railroad accounted for 7.1% of that carried out by prisoners. The figures remained close to 3,000 until 1945; during the 1950s they dropped to below 500.
A team of archaeologists led by Alfredo Ruibal, from the CSIC, excavated the Bustarviejo detachment in 2007 to document the lives of the prisoners and their families. The complex has been recovered and enabled to become a place of memory.
Ábalos: “We tried to hastily close a black chapter. We were wrong “
The Minister of Public Works, José Luis Ábalos, criticized the Transition in the speech he gave when presenting the new website and the documentary. “Memory hurts, but it is healing. Against it certain sectors continue to revolt whose communion with fascism we cannot stop denouncing. Repression is not the worst thing left by dictatorships as abominable as the one we suffered. What really annihilates us as a society is oblivion and silence. Political reasons are not lost on us. We are trying to hastily close a dark chapter in our history to embrace democracy. We naively believed that reconciliation consisted in not looking back and we were wrong. We were unfair because we did not want to see the open wounds. And only by looking at the past will we be able to have a worthy future. This is the great lesson we have learned. It is time for the victims of the Franco regime and their families to stop paying the bills for our democracy ”.
Miguel Hernández said in The children of iron, published in 1937: “Greased muscular like axles or motors, they carry traces of smoke on their foreheads, and on their skin the pure traces that work leaves with their powerful horse hooves. They look like ore on fire, traveling through loyal Spain from end to end heroic and swift under enemy bombardments. Their muscles tremble like machines, and like machines they don’t mind rolling tirelessly through these days when the freedom of Spain depends on the effort of each Spaniard ”.