“Healing wounds” – improvements in DNA sequencing help identify Civil War victims and could help trace stolen babies

THE remains of 17 victims of Franco’s repression have been handed over to families as part of an effort “to rescue them from the obscurity and anonymity to which they had been condemned.”

After being exhumed from communal graves at Paterna cemetery, the victims’ remains could be identified using DNA samples from family members. With the identification process complete, the remains of the victims were handed over to relatives at a ceremony on Saturday (28 January).

Ceremony to hand over remains of victims of Franco’s repression (GVA)

Councillor for Participation, Transparency, Cooperation and Democratic Quality, Rosa Pérez Garijo, who took part in the ceremony, said: “We are making progress in terms of identification and we have managed to identify a total of 45 victims from graves 21, 22 and 112. We are finally shedding some light after so many years of darkness and today we can hand over the remains of 17 victims murdered in July, November and December 1939.”

She added: “We are going to continue in this task because it is our obligation that the victims and their families can reconstruct a family history that has been hidden until now by institutional terror”.

She expressed the government’s commitment to “the identification of the victims of Franco’s regime in order to rescue them from the obscurity and anonymity to which they had been condemned. We are closing wounds that have been open for a long time”

Ceremony to hand over remains of victims of Franco’s repression (GVA)

The ceremony of reparation to the victims of Franco’s repression, held in San Miguel de los Reyes, was also attended by memorial organisations and a large number of relations of the victims.

At the end of the ceremony, the remains were handed over to the relatives of the three graves and the musical piece Aria from Suite No. 3 by Johann Sebastian Bach was performed.

Improved identification rates

The identification of 13 of the victims of Graves 22 and 112 in Paterna has been achieved thanks to a second process of sample analysis carried out by Fisabio, the Valencian foundation for health and biomedical research, using more advanced DNA sequencing techniques on samples that had previously been analysed without positive results. This new tool allows better results to be obtained on remains that could not be identified in the first phase using traditional techniques.

The advances in identification have also come about thanks to the coordinated work between public bodies; the project for research and improvement in the rate of identification of victims of the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship is part of a collaboration agreement between the Department of Participation, Transparency, Cooperation and Democratic Quality, Fisabio and the University of Valencia.

The project also includes a census of victims and a DNA database, tools that will allow new identifications to be made if more relatives appear or if technical improvements are developed in the future.

The work focuses on three lines of research: historical, anthropological and genetic; providing solutions from each of these areas of knowledge to the interdisciplinary obstacles that hinder identification. The line of historical and forensic research is carried out by the University of Valencia, while Fisabio is in charge of genetics.

The University of Valencia, and specifically the Faculty of Medicine, has been in charge of selecting the best-preserved parts of bone from the remains exhumed from the graves in order to extract the DNA in the best possible conditions.

The Department of Modern and Contemporary History has also interviewed family members, who have provided their DNA samples in order to obtain more information about the victims.

Identification process

In order to carry out the identifications in Paterna, Fisabio researchers collected a total of 551 biological samples from the victims’ relatives. The samples were collected in different health centres in the Valencia Region: 2 in the province of Castellón, 5 in the province of Valencia and 3 in the province of Alicante. In addition, in the case of elderly relatives or those with health and/or mobility problems, DNA sample collections were made at their homes.

The identification success rate in grave 21 was 50%. Due to the poor state of preservation of the skeletal remains, the researchers were only able to obtain sufficient genetic information from 37% of the bone samples analysed, corresponding to the remains of 6 individuals exhumed. Of these, 3 victims have been identified through samples from second and third-degree relatives. In addition, the comparison of historical, anthropological and genetic information has allowed researchers to conclude there were at least two women in this grave.

The research staff of Fisabio’s Sequencing Service carried out a second identification process of the victims of grave 22 with first, second and third-degree relatives. The results have made it possible to give names and surnames to four individuals. The researchers have faced a series of limiting factors such as the low availability of reference samples with which to contrast the genetic profiles, having family samples for only 11 of the 24 unidentified victims. Furthermore, of the 24 bone samples analysed, genetic information was obtained in only 54% of the cases for half of the markers analysed.

A second identification has also been carried out in grave 112, which has allowed the identification of 9 people. The limiting factor was the availability of family samples for only 30 of the 77 victims. Of the 9 identifications achieved, 8 were made through second and third-degree relatives; and only 1 through first-degree relatives.

“Modern mass sequencing techniques have proven to be highly effective in identifying the victims of Franco’s regime, a fact of vital importance given that more than 80 years have passed since the burial of the individuals studied,” said Llúcia Martínez, head of Fisabio’s Sequencing Service.

Stolen babies

The Department of Participation, Transparency, Cooperation and Democratic Quality, the Fisabio Foundation and the University of Valencia have begun the identification of newborns stolen during the Franco regime. To this end, biological samples have been collected from 131 people from 89 relatives of stolen babies and 42 relatives of possible stolen babies.

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