“We had nothing,” Dolores told me, “my mother and father gathered my sisters and me up in their arms and ran to the gates. My mother was a Gibraltarian citizen but we lived in Spain where my father worked, so we were able to get across before they closed the border that night. There were thousands of people running away.”
Some years ago I was privileged to listen to the stories of some elderly Gibraltarians who recalled vividly the events of July 1936, when sections of the Spanish military rebelled against their own government. Some of the first shots in the mainland were fired just over the border, in La Linea, where people gathered to celebrate La Feria, the annual fair.
“We thought it was the start of the fireworks,” said Marie Paz, still faltering in English despite over seventy years of living in Gibraltar, “my sisters and I were excited, playing in the crowds. Then there was panic, and we realised there were Moroccan soldiers running and shooting at anyone who got in their way. We ran and ran and ran. We got home and hid, and sometimes I think I’ve been hiding ever since.”
Mari Paz is not her real name, but none of the people I spoke to want their names revealed. I wasn’t going to write about them personally; I was simply researching for a novel I have yet to write, but with the more recent opening up of Gibraltar’s awareness of the conflict that has contributed so much to our national identity, a precursor to that pivotal event, the Evacuation, that cemented a sense of “Gibraltarianism”, perhaps it is time to air those stories, to explore those personal memories.
Marie Paz’s story was typical of what local people experienced. “It was terrifying,” her friend, Dolores, continued, “I was only a little girl. We were excited because we were going to the fair. Suddenly the roads were filled with soldiers shooting at anyone: men, women, children, everyone. My mother and father grabbed us and we ran away. We ended up sleeping at Catalan Bay for a while, and my father was stopped by the Gibraltar police because he was not even fully clothed! They let him go when they realised what had happened. The British fed us and gave us so much help. We used to go to what eventually became the hockey pitch to wash our clothes with water from a well that there was there and we used to lay them out in the sun to dry.
“We had nothing. But little by little we were helped, and we were given a place to live. What distressed us most were the stories that came in from Spain, hearing about the killings and the rounding up of people – for no reason, not everyone was a socialist, mainly we were poor people trying to make a living and get by in life. But the Falange would round people up and take them away in vans, up into the hills to shoot them and bury them in graves lined with lime, so wild animals would not dig up the bodies. Our loved ones just disappeared. And those that murdered them are still around. If not the ones that did the shooting, their sons or grandsons still live, still carry the hatred. That is why I will not tell you my name.”
Another interviewee, Lourdes, talked about how they heard of the vengeance killings, of the disappearances of people who stood accused of being socialists, or communists, or freemasons, or gay, or had not been married in church. People would be taken for any spurious reason. Those who backed the victors in the war became rich from the pickings left behind by the refugees.
“Women who were married by the civil registry, which is the only way they could get married in some places under the Republic, were treated as whores. I remember one girl being tarred and feathered, she had oil poured down her throat and then she was dragged through the streets of La Linea, her body emptying itself,” Lourdes’ voice trembled with anger, “I went with my mother to take a woman from Gibraltar to La Linea, and beg with the authorities to tell her where her son had been taken. He was just a boy, and he was seen being snatched up by the Guardia Civil. Eventually she was shown his body. He had been executed with others earlier, and he lay on the ground, naked. She wept and begged them to let her have the body, and she wrapped him in her apron so he would not be buried naked. She felt the agonies at his birth and she washed his body with her tears at his death. They murdered him and they would not even let her bury him. They did not let anyone they shot have the respect of a grave where loved ones could grieve.”
My own grandmother, Manuela, was vituperative when she related her recollections of the Civil War. “They are evil and should rot in the hell they came from,” she tells me, “my friend was just a girl expecting her first baby and she was so happy. We had to work because we could earn some money sewing in Gibraltar, and her husband could not find work. Someone gave her a knitted toy to take home to Spain with her. She did not have any idea that there was contraband stitched into the toy. And I have no idea why the Guardia stopped her. Perhaps he was tipped off. The fascists had many spies in Gibraltar that they paid for information. The Guardia pulled her to one side. I could hear her pleading but I was too scared to say anything and the Guardias waved us on. I heard the shots. Not even in the name of war can you justify that. The next day I went into work in Gibraltar and I never returned to Spain again.”
Gibraltar in 1936 opened its arms to refugees. Not entirely happy with the situation of thousands huddled in makeshift refugee camps, the Governor pressed to have as many people returned to Spain as possible. Gibraltar was a melting pot of political ideologies, some supporting Franco’s rebels, many supporting the legitimately elected Spanish Republican government. The British colonial powers ruling Gibraltar were overtly non-interventionist but quietly managed to support the rebel cause. The Roman Catholic Bishop openly supported the rebellion as did the clergy and some of his congregation, while others went home from Mass and proceeded to take in refugees into their already overcrowded homes and shared what little they had. Gibraltar was a place where class divisions were deeply entrenched in mimicry of its imperialist colonial masters. While the masses of poor and working class refugees, usually socialist sympathisers, were housed in overcrowded conditions with relatives or in tented camps, the loved ones of the wealthy, military and land-owning classes in Spain, who were usually monarchist or fascist supporters, were cared for in more luxurious conditions with the middle and upper class Gibraltarians. There were street scuffles, angry scenes and almost a riot during those heated years when Gibraltar would watch the Civil War play out at the feet of the Rock.
The value of exploring the Spanish Civil War experience of Gibraltar is that it helps us to shed light on complex social issues, especially where other documentary evidence and primary sources are scan; social issues which resonate even today. The roots of our identity lie in our history and the period of the Spanish Civil War, perhaps because it tells of class divisions and conflict between indigenous ideologies and those of the ruling powers, is not explored as it should be: our children learn about the Great Siege but not about the lives their great grandparents lived. Importantly, study of this period leads to a better understanding of how our society developed since the repatriation after World War II, how our social attitudes, including our attitude towards Spain over the last eighty years, have evolved. And above all, it leads to the recognition of human suffering and dignifies this with remembrance.
During my research, some people kindly pointed out that perhaps it was best if these things are forgotten, put aside, not discussed. But, as I was colourfully told by Conchi, a Spanish woman who had walked with her family from Cordoba in 1937 escaping Franco’s repression: “If you let skin grow over an open wound, it festers, and that putrefaction must eventually come out. Better to leave it open, clean it and let it heal.”
Eighty-two years may have passed but the memories of what befell so many people during and immediately after the Spanish Civil War have not yet faded, on either side of the Gibraltar/Spanish border. Nor, it could be argued, should they.