One evening a week ago I was entering the chapel at home at the end of the day when Alfonso, another occupant of the residence I live in and who’s taking up morals (that is, Moral Theology) in the same Faculty that I study, took me aside to tell me that he was planning an excursion that weekend. He had already talked about it with Ricardo, another housemate from Peru. There were no concrete plans yet as to where the destination would be. I readily said yes and some days later, as I was passing by the two in the corridor in between classes, Alfonso told me that the plan was to go to Belchite, a town located some kilometers south of Zaragoza, about an hour and a half drive from Pamplona. The town was known for being the site of a siege during the civil war between Spanish republican and nationalist forces, which left great part of it in ruins. Months after the siege, when the town was back in nationalist hands, Francisco Franco while promising to rebuild the town immediately next to where the old town stood, decreed that the site of the siege not be rebuilt, as a memorial of what had taken place during those days between the last days of August and the first days of September 1937. The passage of time and the added pilferage of the townsfolk, who recycled building materials, made for the steady deterioration of the buildings. The old town gradually became abandoned and derelict, though people would come to visit the sight, be they tourists or sympathizers of either republican or nationalist ideologies.
Due to the bloody history of the place, it had become the mecca of some occult practitioners and experts in psychic phenomena. The town had emerged from obscurity at one time because of the audio recordings of bombs and planes, as well as recognizable and distinct human voices that seem to come from the actual siege, done sixty or seventy years after the event.
The prospect made me look forward to going there. We went, the five of us, Alfonso, Ricardo, Francis from India, Eugene (Philippines), and I, leaving Pamplona at nine in the morning and arriving at the place by eleven or so. I could observe the barren terrain that stretched for miles around the place as soon as we left Zaragoza. I surmised that it would’ve been very difficult to escape, seeing that there was nowhere to hide in, since the town was settled in a barren expanse of brush, sand and rocky hills, everything was so dry. As we neared the place I could see that nothing much was left of the old town. What the war had spared, time and the elements had shown no mercy. A few structures barely stood, such as the original entrance to the town, another arch at the other end, a handful of what used to be the important buildings of the town, and the three church buildings, their towers still standing, pointing to the heavens like accusing fingers, from where the most of the destructive bombs had come.
We had a guide, who told us about the history of the siege and began to point out certain key locations as we began to make our way through the ruins. The main streets of the town where still well marked.
I’m not psychic, but I fancied having a very feeling while I made my way through the streets. Belchite in its heyday was the second most important town after Zaragoza; its location made it an ideal setting for the republicans to prove to the international community that it had an army capable of carrying out an offensive. The attack was actually against the nationalist forces that were entrenched in the town.
When the siege began on the 24th of August 1937, there scarcely 3,000 defenders in the town, against 30,000 republican soldiers who tried to penetrate and attack the town. For more than a week, with the death toll rising rapidly on both sides, the defenders tried to keep the invaders at bay, the latter trying to advance one house at a time. The town was practically cut of from the outside world, making the situation horrendous for the unarmed civilians within—men women and children, whom by the end of the siege would be dead by the hundreds. We came upon the town square where the guide told us that soon after the siege the survivors were faced with the grisly task of collecting the hundreds of corpses of the fallen, pile them up in the center and burn them. what had remained imprinted in the collective memory of the people who witnessed the spectacle were the streams of blood that ran down the street below the plaza. As the fire gradually consumed the cadavers, the blood began to be mixed with the streams of sizzling human fat that came from the burning pyre. It was would be an understatement that the stench could’ve been horrible. I was looking at the street were the blood and the liquids ran that day, and I shuddered.
We went through every place in the old town. It reminded me of pictures of Sarajevo (or Warsaw, as a Polish housemate commented after having seen the pictures). Eugene, a Scripture scholar, murmured something about the book of Lamentations.
Walking among the ruins of what was once a bustling human settlement was eerie, especially after knowing that a lot of lives were lost in this place, a lot of blood was shed, a lot of hate and violence unleashed. Like the blood that had stained its streets, whose stench is difficult remove, to the years had not erased the foreboding that still hung in the air, or at least it seemed to me. It appears that the place had been doomed forever to disintegrate slowly. I could imagine that the people who had lived through all of the hell of those days—which this blog entry had poorly tried to convey—had just tried to forget and move on, something which I think is virtually impossible.
The visit had struck us all, undoubtedly. Speaking for myself, it was an unforgettable experience, and I had gotten many things from it.