The Camino and the Spanish Civil War (part 3 – Navarra)

Pilgrim sculpture, Alto del Perdón, Pamplona (image author’s own)

Alto del Perdón, just south of Pamplona, features in almost every Camino guide thanks to a rust-coloured iron art installation of medieval pilgrims struggling into the wind, accompanied by the legend ‘Where the way of the wind meets that of the stars’ (Donde se cruza el camino del viento con el de las estrellas).  Alto del Perdón means ‘Hill of Forgiveness’, and in pre-modern times there was a pilgrim hostel located at the summit, now marked by a stone monument.  As you descend the other side, you might notice on your left a collection of standing stones that look like some sort of Stone Age construction, but which actually date from 2017.  They are the work of another artist, Peio Iraizoz, and are related to another struggle, the Civil War of 1936–9.

We might never know where Ramón Bengaray Zabalza’s body was dumped, but here — between 1936 and 1937 — 92 people were executed and buried in mass graves.  These were victims of the political cleansing that began in 1936 and continued long after the war was over.  In Navarra, which had gone substantially with the right-wing rebels from the start, there was little military resistance; these were not the victims of open warfare, but of systematic repression.  Since then, Alto del Perdón has been excavated a number of times, but it would be surprising if all of the bodies have been exhumed, and the death count is almost certainly higher than 92.  Having lived in Navarra for nearly a year, I know from the local papers that graves are still being found near Pamplona, and thanks to advances in DNA forensic science, some skeletons have even been identified for families to reclaim.  Generally these families are led by nieces/nephews or grandnieces/nephews of the dead, who do not remember them directly, but rather through the impact their disappearance had on the previous generation(s).

Mass grave memorial, Alto del Perdón (image author’s own)

The monument at Alto del Perdón consists of a large central stone, with a surrounding open spiral of 19 smaller stones, one to represent each of the 19 districts from which the known victims came.  According to an information board near the monument, a Navarrese law of 2018 has dedicated this space to ‘remembrance and the transmission of the values of liberty, peace, social justice and communal living’.  Forgiveness is a different matter.

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