The soldier who never forgot his friend

Matías Gimeno tells the story of comrade Juan Bautista's death, 67 years on

Ceuta, 1944. Being Valencian and a soldier in the First Auto Batallion of Morocco was a dangerous combination. General Franco could not abide Valencia. Not only had it been the capital of the Republic between November 1936 and October 1937, but it had also slowed down his own troops' advance. Capturing the city took eight more months than the strategists had predicted. Brigadier Tejido, stationed in that battalion, could not forget this and regularly took his resentment out on the group of Valencians under his orders. "You shitty reds, you sons of bitches, the trouble you gave us!" he would often yell.

Private Juan Bautista García Sales, a young man from the small Valencian village of Foios, made a mistake on September 18, 1944. He stepped out of line during a drill on the esplanade in the port of Ceuta, and paid for it with his life, after 11 days of agony at the military hospital. The army covered up the incident, telling the family that he had died from peritonitis caused by appendicitis. One of his colleagues and best friends, Matías Gimeno Orts, who came from a village near Juan Bautista's, was given 11-day leave and was told to take the dead man's belongings back to his family.

"My mother almost went blind from crying for three months straight"
Brigadier Tejido regularly took his resentment out on a group of Valencians

Batiste , as his friends and family called him, died on September 29 at 7.30pm, two days after his 22nd birthday. Almost 67 years later, Matías still can't forget it. Now 88, he is a retired farmer who is spending his last years surrounded by cages filled with songbirds. And he does not want to die without revealing the truth about the death of a young man he describes as "a truly lovely person."

"I remember it as though I were seeing it now," he says "We were conducting a drill. There were around 200 or 250 of us, in lines of three. He was in the middle, right in front of me. He made a mistake and stepped on the guy in front of him. Brigadier Tejido took him out of the line. 'Halt! You, step forward! Atten-tion!' Then he hit him in the head and [Batiste] started bleeding from his ears and mouth. He busted him up. He couldn't stand us Valencians because we came from a Republican area. The war was over and we were known as reds. He constantly insulted us."

Matías visited his friend, who lay in bed 83 at the hospital until the moment of death. That day, Matías received a message from the hospital: "If you want to see Bautista alive, come now, he's very ill." Relatives were told it was better for them not to come. His colleagues held a collection and paid for a niche at the Santa Catalina cemetery, in Ceuta's Mount Hacho, from which his body was exhumed five years later with no warning and transferred to a nearby grave.

Matías took all the things from Batiste's locker and put them in his backpack. After an arduous three-day journey, he delivered the bag to Batiste's mother. Among the items was a fountain pen with which the young man had written a dedication on the back of a photograph of him in his uniform, which he had sent to friends.

"When I walked into the house there were two women washing things in a great big basin. One of them was his mother Amparo. She asked me how it had happened and I told her about the appendicitis. I didn't tell her that the cause of death in the document she had received was a lie until after I'd finished my military service and had nothing more to do with the barracks. Then I told the truth to some of the family members," he says. But Batiste's mother kept quiet about it.

Batiste had been back in Foios on leave just one month before dying, to enjoy the local fiestas. "He was very good-looking, and had recently broken up with his girlfriend, a girl from Massalfassar," remembers his sister, Rosario García Sales, now 90. "They told us a huge amount of lies. First that he was in a very bad condition. Then, two days before he died, they told us that he had improved. They said he died of appendicitis, and that he had expelled a very long worm..." It was the local priest who came to give them the bad news, adding that he had had "a very good burial."

"My mother almost went blind from crying for three months straight. Her eyelashes fell out. We really needed [Batiste] because my father was dead. We were seven women and three men, but he was the only one who got a paycheck every month," Rosario recalls.

Batiste worked as a mechanic at the railroad company Ferrocarriles Españoles de Vía Estrecha (FEVE), and also helped his two brothers out in the fields. His father Miguel was a republican, his mother Amparo a devout Catholic. "They were like night and day," Rosario says.

Even though the atmosphere at FEVE was very politicized during the war, Batiste was not a member of any party or union. "He was very young, he wasn't involved in anything."

Rosario herself did not find out about her brother's real cause of death until her husband, a former lieutenant in the Republican army, told her. Matías and three other colleagues of Batiste had told him the truth, but every time he tried to tell his wife about it, she refused to listen: "Don't tell me about it, my brother is dead and I don't want to know," she would say over and over.

Batiste's brother Vicente, five years younger, also refused to hear the truth and used to cross the street when he saw Matías nearby. "My father rejected the truth because there was nothing he could do about it," says his son Vicent García Devís. "It was a great injustice and you couldn't do a thing. The dictatorship was like a giant wall. Spain was ruled by the military and executions were an everyday occurrence. Besides, it was a poor family that barely spoke Castilian Spanish and had no contacts... They couldn't even go to the funeral, Ceuta was too far away. You had to go by train to Alcázar de San Juan, then to Cádiz, then take a boat to Ceuta... In those days it was as if you were trying to get to Burma! The family opted to believe the official version, which was the happiest one."

But with the advent of democracy, his father told him the truth. "He conveyed that unease to me, and I felt I had to do something." So, 21 years ago, Vicent went to Ceuta City Hall, got a photocopy of the register of deceased persons and found out where his uncle was buried. "The first thing I did was bring him some flowers, the first the family could offer him after all those years."

But the family wanted something more. After years of requests they managed to get a copy of the hospital report from the military, and more recently Matías gave them a signed statement with his version of events. Now, Batiste's relatives are filing a request to have the body returned to them and obtain reparations under the Historical Memory Law. The family's advisor, Matías Alonso, of the Societat i Progrés Foundation, says this is a special case and a "very difficult" one, because it is not the usual story of a relative who was executed. "But maybe it will open a new road, since it provides a new perspective on the conditions in which the vanquished performed their military service at the time. How many more cases were there of kids who died in similar conditions as a result of political hatred?"

Matías Gimeno Orts holds a photo of himself and another of Juan Bautista García Sales (r). Surrounding him are members of Bautista's family.
Matías Gimeno Orts holds a photo of himself and another of Juan Bautista García Sales (r). Surrounding him are members of Bautista's family.JESÚS CISCAR
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