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The Return of Civil War Ghosts: The Ethnography of Exhumations in Contemporary Spain

AuthorsFerrándiz Martín, Francisco
KeywordsAnthropology of violence
Transitional Justice
Mass Graves
Social Memory
Issue Date2006
AbstractMass graves resulting from episodes of extreme violence are crucial evidence of the wounds of history, and a key to understanding the dynamics of terror. The intentional jumbling of unidentified corpses in unmarked graves is a source of disorder, anxiety and division in many societies (Robben 2000). As a sophisticated instrument of terror, this type of grave is intended to bury the social memory of violence and thus to strengthen the fear-based regimes of the perpetrators, which can survive for decades. Yet as social and political circumstances evolve, social memory eventually returns to confront these unquiet graves. Events of recent decades in countries such as Argentina, Guatemala,Spain and Rwanda show us precisely this. What happens as a result of these return visits, often involving exhumations, depends on the national and international contexts in which the remains are found, investigated and manipulated(Verdery 1999). This paper explores the contemporary controversies around the exhumation of Civil War (1936-1939) mass graves in Spain, as well as the ethnographic challenges posed by them.
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