Catalonia begins DNA testing to identify Spanish Civil War victims

80 years after the Spanish Civil War broke out, there are still 4,912 missing victims and more than 5,000 families continue to search for their relatives. The Hospital Vall d'Hebron in Barcelona has started to perform genetic tests on relatives of the missing in order to identify remains buried in mass graves. In the past two weeks, specialists have taken samples of the saliva of 80 elderly people in Barcelona. Most of them are siblings or children of the victims of the Franco regime. Isabel Domènech, a 79 year-old resident of Santa Coloma de Gramenet (a municipality near Barcelona), was two years old when her father died at the end of the Civil War. She has been looking for him for many years and claims her right to know where his remains rest: “it is the minimum we ask for”. The DNA profiling programme announced by the Catalan Government last September has requested more than 1,100 people to do these tests throughout the four Catalan provinces. The genetic profiles obtained will be cross-referenced with samples from the remains found and those which are still yet to be found in mass graves.  

A nurse at the Hospital Vall d'Hebron (Barcelona) takes a sample of buccal mucosa to the daughter of a disappeared during the Spanish Civil War (by ACN)
A nurse at the Hospital Vall d'Hebron (Barcelona) takes a sample of buccal mucosa to the daughter of a disappeared during the Spanish Civil War (by ACN) / ACN


November 25, 2016 05:07 PM

Barcelona (CNA).- On Wednesday morning, at the Hospital Vall d'Hebron in Barcelona, some relatives of victims of Francoism had a saliva test done. The aim of the DNA analysis was to extract their genetic profile in a bid to identify some of the 114,000 people who disappeared during the Spanish Civil War and subsequent dictatorship. This DNA profiling project, launched by the Catalan Government last September, may help to find the remains of parents, siblings, uncles and grandparents that have been missing for more than 75 years and are probably buried in mass graves. According to the general director of Institutional Relations, Carme Garcia, currently in Catalonia there are 390 mass graves and the census of missing people totals 4,912 people. So far, the Catalan Government has already sent a letter to 1,100 families so they can take DNA samples.

Isabel Domènech, a 79-year-old resident of Santa Coloma de Gramenet (a town near Barcelona), was two years old when her father died at the end of the Civil War. That is all she knows about him. She has been looking for his remains for years and thus did not hesitate to go to Hospital Vall d'Hebron in Barcelona, where she was called to do a genetic test that consists in collecting saliva. The sample obtained can be stored at room temperature for about twenty years and will be cross-referenced with genetic tests performed on remains found in mass graves.

The aim of this profiling programme, coordinated by the Catalan Ministries for Foreign Affairs, Health and Justice, is to “urgently” respond to cases such as Isabel’s, the head of Genetics at Vall d’Hebron, Eduardo Tizzano, explained. “The large challenge is so that relatives can witness the identification process and find their missing relatives before passing away”, he said.

“We arrive late, but we arrive. 80 years after the Civil War and 40 years after the restoration of democracy this is an unresolved matter and the families have the right to find their loved ones”, claimed Carmen Garcia. “The analyses are free because we believe it is the right of the families”, she added. The tests are being conducted in Vall d'Hebron and in other medical centres in Lleida, Tarragona and Girona.

In this vein, Isabel Domènech defended her right to know where the remains of her father are: “it is the minimum we ask for”. She also said she has not lost hope of bringing light to the matter, but admits that it will be difficult to get answers: “I don’t want to die without knowing”, she exclaimed.

5,000 people searching for the remains of missing people

In Catalonia, there are more than 5,000 people searching for the remains of people who disappeared during the Civil War and the Franco regime, according to the official census created by the Catalan Government in 2003. Throughout the month of November, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, which manages the historical memory field, has offered more than a thousand families this DNA test, which will be used to sort and classify their genetic profiles and, afterwards, cross-referencing them with data from the skeletal remains already identified and those yet to be found.

Like Isabel, Joan Anton Gallardo, born in Caniles (Granada) and living in Palafolls, Catalonia, also hopes to find the remains of his father, Manuel Gallardo to give him “a decent burial”. Gallardo was sent to the front when his son was only four years old. After eleven years of searching, all Joan Anton Gallardo knows is that his father was “killed somewhere between Girona and Figueres”, north-eastern Catalonia, at the end of the Civil War.

Rosa Cirera, an 80-year-old woman born in Claravalls (Urgell), has also undergone a DNA test. She wants to know where the lay the remains of her father, Domingo Cirera. Apparently, he died in the Battle of Ebro in 1938, when she was just two years old. Cirera recalls that her relatives tried in vain to acquire information about the tragic death at that time, but to no avail.

Criteria for the genetic testing

The Government’s programme wants to extract 50 biological samples each week. Priority is given to older people, although the order of registration in the census and the dispersion over the territory is also taken into consideration. In addition, priority is given to first-degree relatives. Siblings, children and grandchildren, in that order, are the ones that provide the most “effective” genetic information for later identification.

However, tests are also performed non-first degree relatives. This is the case for Jesús Andreu Palomo, 57 years old, nephew of one of the missing in the area of ​​Mollerussa (Pla d'Urgell). As he explained, his father began ten years ago the process of finding his brother, Vicente Andreu Gallen, but died before getting the test done. Now Palomo wants to continue the process to fulfil his father’s will: “The remains have not been found, they are somewhere and I need to know where”, he said.

Opening of Civil War mass graves

In addition to the genetic testing of relatives, the programme extracts data from the remains of the people missing. So far, 110 of these bone remains have been analysed. Most of them are located in the Memorial of Camposines, in La Fatarella (near Tarragona), where the Catalan Government will continue making identifications in the coming months.

In 41 years of democracy 21 graves have been exhumed and the remains of 47 people have been located (35 have been identified and 12 are yet to be identified). To get further information it is essential to open other mass graves. Currently, there are 380 registered, of which 166 are confirmed. The Government's goal is to open the “maximum number” of mass graves during the next year, Garcia stated.

The process of identifying the disappeared, however, is long and laborious, and the result will depend on the remains which are yet to be found. The cross-referencing of the two databases will be progressive, so the results will be obtained “gradually”, Garcia lamented.