By Angus Berwick and Andrea Comas
BELCHITE, Spain (Reuters) – Almost 80 years ago Tomas Ortin fled under the cover of night from his home in the small town of Belchite on Spain’s northern plains to escape with hundreds of others from one of the bloodiest battles of the country’s civil war.
At 94 years old, Ortin now lives just across the road from Belchite, which has lain in ruins since Republican forces attacked it, a symbol of the destruction caused by the 1936-1939 war in which an estimated 500,000 people died.
Walking down its abandoned streets, Ortin points to the house where he was born, its walls still pockmarked with bullet holes, to the bar where the town’s youth used to dance and to the spot where his brother was shot through the neck.
“This was our future because everybody used to get together here,” Ortin said by the skeleton remains of the town’s church, whose brickwork is still embedded with artillery shells.
The siege of Belchite was part of a Republican offensive in 1937 to capture Zaragoza, capital of the Aragon region, from the Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco, who went on to win the war and establish a dictatorship that lasted 40 years.
Nationalist-controlled Belchite represented a key obstacle given its strategic location in the red-brown hills south of Zaragoza. As many as 6,000 people died defending it before those left surrendered.
It became one of the civil war’s most infamous battles.
Foreign journalists such as Ernest Hemingway sent back reports from the frontlines as Republican troops, among them a number of American and other international volunteers, fought to seize the town.
After the war Franco visited Belchite and ordered it to be abandoned and preserved to honor the bravery of its defenders and the brutalities they suffered.
“ONE, TWO, THREE”
Ortin and several thousand other Belchite residents endured the siege for almost two weeks, hiding in their cellars as soldiers fought hand to hand in the streets and artillery shells rained down. Bodies were piled on top of each other and burnt.
On the night of Sept. 5 about 600 of Belchite’s soldiers and residents gathered in the town square, where a falling shell had killed the mayor only a few days before, and prepared to escape.
“A very brave commander got up and shouted ‘one, two, three,’ and we all started to run,” recalled Josefina Cubel, another nonagenarian local who still lives nearby.
They barely reached Belchite’s perimeter before the shooting began.
Cubel, then 11 years old, was shot in the leg below the town’s gate and was left behind by her family who presumed her dead. She was captured and treated by the Republicans and was only reunited with her parents several months later.
Cubel and Ortin now live in New Belchite, built by Republican prisoners on Franco’s orders. The old town has continued to disintegrate due to decades of looting and neglect.
Although the bitter divisions created by the civil war still simmer among residents, the local government has sought to use Belchite to teach later generations about the human cost on both sides and not as an example just of one side’s valor.
“There was a battle. Who lost? The people did,” said Domingo Serrano, a former mayor who was born in the old town.
(Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Sonya Dowsett and Gareth Jones)