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Spain’s Civil War and its aftermath sparked almost 10 years of death and revenge-driven destruction. In the Almería village of Turre, the murder of a parish priest just weeks after the start of the conflict was symbolic of the madness that swept through the entire country, dividing small communities and causing wounds which have yet to heal.

By Richard Torné

Father Ejea

Father Ejea

Death came knocking on the door late that night. But it wasn’t totally unexpected. Florencio López Ejea, Turre’s much loved parish priest, had been repeatedly warned by friends to leave the country or face certain death. His response had been typical of a man in his position: “A shepherd never abandons his flock.”

Now, it was too late. The 15-strong mob, many of whom had been drinking throughout the day, were armed and in no mood to talk, knowing they were about to lynch the priest.

Father Ejea had hidden for some weeks in his sister’s house, a humble cortijo perched on the ‘Barranco del Negro’ hill just outside the village. The local head of the Revolutionary Committee (a well-intentioned man who, despite his position, did not want the priest to come to any harm) had warned Father Ejea not to open the door to anyone except him.

But that night the mob set out without the knowledge of the Revolutionary Committee’s chief. When they came knocking, Father Ejea’s brother-in-law caved in, and despite being armed he opened the door, effectively handing the priest over to his executioners.

A small commemorative stone marks the spot where the priest was murdered

A small commemorative stone marks the spot where the priest was murdered

The vicar, a small man with such poor eyesight he could barely see without his glasses, was led away to a field. One of the gang slapped him in the face, sending his glasses flying. “You won’t need them for what you are going to see,” retorted one of the thugs.

It’s impossible to know for sure whether Father Ejea knew he was about to die, but scenes like this one would be repeated in Spain throughout the Civil War. Revolutionary committees, known as ‘Consejos Municipales’, were set up in every village tasked with organising summary executions. Legitimate authority disappeared overnight and many grabbed the opportunity to settle old scores. It didn’t take much to fan the flames of hatred in villages, where old resentments and family jealousies had been simmering for generations. Mobs sympathetic to the Republic went on a rampage from July to September 1936, murdering priests and anyone suspected of having right-wing sympathies. As a symbol of the establishment, the Church became a prime target even before it threw its weight behind the rebel fascist general, Francisco Franco. Spain was, after all, a largely backward society run on feudal lines. It didn’t matter if you were a dedicated priest who did not support the far right. Wearing a dog collar in Almería was enough to seal your fate.

Father Ejea’s short march ended in a field known as La Higuera del Conejo, but historical experts cannot agree on the exact details of his death, ironically mirroring Spain’s ongoing inability to reconcile its bloody past. Eusebio Rodriguez Padilla, a writer who is currently compiling a series of booklets on the Fascist post-war repression in Almería, says Ejea’s death was mercifully quick and relatively painless.

“They shot him as he tried to flee and finished him off as he lay on the ground.” Turre’s parish priest, Francisco Martínez Botella, has a different version. “They beat and tortured him without mercy, cutting off his genitals. And they found his body riddled with bullets.” A young shepherd raised the alarm the next day after discovering Ejea’s body dumped in the field where he had been shot. The Revolutionary Committee hastily removed the body, anxious to prevent anyone from seeing the mutilated remains, and buried the priest in the local cemetery.

But why was this much-loved priest brutally murdered in what was a small close- knit community? Local historian Juan Grima believes Ejea’s death was linked more to money than religion. “Father Ejea lent money to people who were trying to emigrate to North Africa and Argentina in search of work. Some of those who owed him cash decided that by killing him they’d clear their debts.” It was simple but ruthless logic. Father Botella disagrees and insists his predecessor was killed “simply for being a vicar”.

Either way, Father Ejea’s murder opened the floodgates. Following his death, 33 priests were executed in August alone. Jose and Antonio Fuentes Ballesteros – two priests who were uncles of Jacinto Alarcon Fuentes, a future mayor of Mojacar – were murdered in October in a field in Los Gallardos. In all, some 116 bishops, priests and people connected to the Catholic Church – including two women – were put to death in the province.

Predictably, there were no immediate repercussions following Ejea’s death, and although no one else was killed in Turre the murder would hang like a dark cloud, casting shame on everyone, irrespective of whether they had been involved in Ejea’s death or not.

But Turre, like the rest of Spain, had not seen the worst of it. With the victory of the fascists came Franco’s brutal post-war repression, which was even bloodier and more ruthless. All those linked to any party associated with the left-wing Popular Front were charged with rebellion.

Anyone who had been a mayor or a councillor in Almería during the Civil War could be sent to prison for 14 years. Military courts went further and handed out summary justice to civilians, who were generally notified of the charges against them barely 15 minutes before being put on trial.

Some 373 people were eventually tried and executed in Almería, bringing the total to 1,200 non-combatants killed before, during and after the Civil War.

The climate of fear from 1939 until 1945 also swept through Turre, resulting in some odd scenes. When the Guardia Civil came to arrest one of the suspects involved in Father Ejea’s murder in the square, the priest’s brother-in-law (the same one who had blatantly failed to defend him three years earlier) lunged at the hapless youth, wailing “Let me at him!” Few, however, were taken in by the charade.

As for the arrested 16-year-old youth, he was executed by a firing squad soon afterwards, but not before he had written a note to Father Ejea’s sister, expressing his sorrow and shame at the murder.

Yet, in a typical cruel twist of fate, the three hotheads who had masterminded the priest’s murder (one of whom was reportedly a Catalan anarchist with no direct links to Turre) fled to France and were never brought to justice.

The vicar who eventually took over Father Ejea’s vacant post dished out his own brand of justice, according to Grima, and was reportedly a pederast who preyed on the children of former left-wing party members sent to prison by Franco.

On the site where the cortijo once stood in the Barranco del Negro hill, a new village school now stands, where children are taught about tolerance and respect, blissfully unaware of one of Turre’s darkest episodes. Just beyond, on a piece of scrubland close to where Father Ejea was killed, lies a modest commemorative stone marking the date and site of his death.

Amid Franco’s lust for revenge and the madness that was unleashed by the opposing side during the first few months of the war, a faint voice of humanity can still be heard. Turre resident Luisa Martínez López, who was a six-year-old girl at the time of the priest’s death, is still visibly moved at the mention of the murder, and her eyes well up with tears. “Yes, I remember Father Ejea. He was a nice man, ‘un hombre muy bueno’. It’s terrible what they did to him. I never really got over his death.”