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Spaniard, 90, finally finds her father, killed by Franco's forces 77 years ago

Wrapped in a fur coat against the biting wind, Ascension Mendieta steadies herself on the dirt-caked arm of an archaeologist. He guides her along a stone wall pockmarked by bullets, shuffling gingerly over gravel and frost, past chest-high piles of earth on the edge of a cemetery.

She slips beyond a barrier of red-and-white striped tape, leans forward into the sunlight, and peers down into a pit of skeletons. She begins to cry.

At 90, Mendieta has finally found her father.

She was just 13 when she last saw him alive, shaken awake by a knock on the door in the middle of the night, then marched away, hands up, by a stranger with a pistol to his head. The year was 1939.

Spain's civil war, pitting Nazi-backed fascists against Communist-backed Republicans, had just ended. Up to half a million Spaniards were dead. But the killing didn't stop. Fascist forces loyal to the war's victor, Gen. Francisco Franco, continued to execute their opponents for months and years after the war officially ended. Among them was Timoteo Mendieta, president of a local trade union in his village of Sacedon — and Ascension Mendieta's father.

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"We never forgot about him," she says. "My mother had a gravestone made, even though we didn't get to bury him ourselves."

Mendieta is one of the oldest living witnesses to those bloody reprisals after Spain's 1936-39 civil war, and the plaintiff in an international court case that's led here — to a mass grave on the edge of a municipal cemetery in Guadalajara, east of Madrid — where the bodies of her father and dozens of other victims are being exhumed.

Amnesty International estimates that 20,000 Republicans were killed after the war ended — more than all the disappeared in South America's dirty wars of the 1970s and '80s put together. Spain has about 2,300 mass graves — second only to Cambodia.

"I never thought this moment would come," Mendieta says. "I'm happy to finally find my father. I would like him to be buried with me, when I die."

Hard of hearing, she asks her 65-year-old son to shout a reporter's questions into her ear. He stoops down — Mendieta is barely 5 feet tall — and tugs his mother's fur collar up to meet her coiffed gray hair.

After the war, Franco ruled Spain as a military dictator for nearly four decades, until his death in 1975. His fascist fighters were given official memorials, but their foes never were.

"We used to toss flowers over that wall every year on All Saints Day," Mendieta says.

One of the archaeologists quietly explains: That wall is where prisoners were lined up and shot by firing squad. They fell forward into the pit, which they'd probably been forced to dig themselves. It's about 12 feet deep.

"It's really rare to see graves at this depth," says Natalie Maystorovich Chulio, a socio-legal scholar who works with Spain's Assn. for the Recuperation of Historical Memory, a nonprofit group excavating the Mendieta grave. "They [the fascists] must have known they would be killing so many people. So what they would do is put a little bit of dirt over one layer of dead bodies, and then the next lot and the next lot."

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Chulio climbs a ladder down into the tomb, where she uses paintbrushes and dentists' tools to clear dirt from around the bones, then lift them out one by one, for DNA testing. She pulls out a femur wearing a black leather boot, still intact.

In a canvas tent nearby, a historian compares forensic evidence — bones, their placement, a monogrammed button — against historical records from the Franco era.

No. 21 among the 22 skeletons in this grave is identified as that of Timoteo Mendieta, based on personal effects and his placement in the grave, which matched official records.

"The dictatorship really did our work for us, in a way," says historian Alejandro Rodriguez, paging through a cemetery logbook. "They held sham trials and kept meticulous records of the people they killed."

In elegant cursive, the log lists dozens of people in their 20s and 30s, all buried — in this and adjacent graves — on the same day as Timoteo Mendieta: Nov. 16, 1939. The list was never shared with families.

"Most of the time, their families never knew where they were. Other times, the killers actually took the children to see their parents' dead bodies — to let them know they'd better not say anything," Chulio says. "The fear continues to this day. You have to interview the families with the camera pointing at their feet, because they're still scared someone is going to come and take them. They saw what happened to their parents or uncles."

Mendieta says she hoped for justice when Spain transitioned to democracy in the late 1970s. But the new Spanish parliament passed an amnesty law, barring investigations of political crimes from the Franco era.

So instead she sought justice abroad.

Two years ago, when she was 88, Mendieta flew to Argentina to testify before a judge investigating Franco-era crimes, under the principle of universal jurisdiction — that crimes against humanity can be prosecuted in any jurisdiction. (It's a legal principle first championed by a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon, who prosecuted former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, but was barred from the bench in Spain after trying to investigate his own country's mass graves.)

The Argentine judge ordered the Mendieta grave exhumed, and for the first time, a Spanish judge allowed it.

The excavations have drawn a crowd, including a 17-year-old high school student, who wandered over with his father. He is asked why he came.

"To learn more about what happened. In school they don't teach you about this," says Sergio Lopez, kicking at the gravel with his sneakers. "It's a bit hidden."

Frayer is a special correspondent.

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