A farewell to arms — and a left leg

Basque cyclist’s freak accident reveals a secret weapons stash he assembled over decades

Alfredo Irusta shows off one of his antique shells in an image taken before his accident.
Alfredo Irusta shows off one of his antique shells in an image taken before his accident.

In room 314 of Bilbao’s Hospital de Cruces lies a man who has just lost his leg. He is 45 years old and his name is Alfredo Irusta, just like his father. He is a well-known Basque professional cyclist, also like his father. But he has spent his whole life doing something by himself, without attracting any attention, barely saying anything about it to anyone – until a few weeks ago, that is, when a shell exploded in his home and gave it all away, destroying his left leg in the process.

A small village beside the 634 National highway that unites the Basque town of Muskiz with Santander was where Irusta kept his “treasure.” “The history of Spanish artillery from the second half of the 19th century until the Civil War,” as he defines it. He collected it piece by piece, over decades: shells, hand grenades, fuses… a whole arsenal he had been accumulating ever since, as a curious little boy, he climbed up to the Montalvo bridge in the Trapaga Valley in search of bullet holes after his grandfather told him they had tested weapons there during the Civil War.

Explosives experts from the Ertzaintza Basque regional police have since found “almost 500 artifacts” in Irusta’s shed. “Approximately half of them with their explosive charge still intact,” noted a June 21 police report. “345 artillery shells, 100 mortar shells, 40 hand grenades, 5 aircraft-delivered bombs, 6 anti-aircraft missiles, fuses, rifle cartridges… The large part came from the Civil Guard, but there were also artillery shells from the Carlist Wars, whose explosives were found in a state in which they could detonate. The material is now being destroyed at the Ertzaintza’s facilities in Berrozi.”

The police report listed “345 artillery shells, 100 mortar shells, 40 hand grenades and 6 anti-aircraft missiles”

Irusta’s story is one of a man who wanted to learn about his own history and discovered the wall against which his paternal grandfather, Domingo, was shot. But it is also one of a father who will have to explain to his 14-year-old son why he is now facing a criminal charge for possessing illegal weapons. “I grew up in a battlefield called the Valley of Somorrostro, where the Carlist Wars were decided,” Irusta explains in the semi-darkness of his hospital room, looking like a wounded soldier. “It’s like living in Waterloo. How are you not going to be interested in knowing what happened?

“A simple bullet can offer up an odd story about weapons trafficking,” he adds, not wanting to go into details for fear of the legal accusations against him.

With the skill of the technical electrician that he eventually became, Irusta handled hundreds of weapons until one day one of them exploded: “Bad luck,” he says. He kept the armory he had been adding to since his youth in an old stable, ultimately ending up swapping pedals for history books about the Carlist Wars and the tales of Basque historian and former combatant Pablo de Beldarrain Olalde. “On any hillside around here there are trenches. This was a land of great battles, both in the Carlist Wars and in the Civil War, and it is full of anonymous heroes from all sides.”

Irusta gets out of bed and sits in a chair. The place where his left leg is cut off above the knee is covered in a thick white bandage. He says he has found it difficult to put on short trousers because he still feels his missing leg. Light wounds are visible on his hands, along with the intravenous routes for saline and painkillers. But there is something much more striking that would never show up in the photograph that, at any rate, he doesn’t want to have taken: his attitude. His voice never falters when he talks about his situation and of the difficulties he now faces personally and professionally: “We’ll see what kind or prosthesis they put on me.” But the tears do come when he thinks about what they have taken from him: years of research, in archives, libraries, newspaper archives, on mountainsides with metal detectors, conversations with shepherds and militia members...

A small circle of people knew about Irusta’s hobby, but not the size of his arsenal. Among them were the mayor of Muskiz, Borka Liaño, of the Basque Nationalist party; his predecessor Gonzalo Riancho of Eusko Alkartasuna; and Jimy Jiménez, a historian and anthropologist from the Aranzadi Sciences Society who, since 2003, has been collaborating with the Basque regional government on historical memory issues, as Irusta also did. He even admits that he had plans for an “arms museum” that will now never see the light.

The tears only come when he thinks about all the years of research they have taken from him

“Alfredo gave us many more clues than a ballistics report could,” says Jiménez. “When a shell appeared next to a ditch, just by looking at a photo, he told us where it came from, who used the munitions, whether it was the Falangists, Republicans, or the Civil Guard, who supplied the armament, who manufactured it, whether it was Italian or German… We were able to establish a relationship between manufacturer, supplier and user, know where it had been fired, and who the executioner and the victim were.”

Irusta began collaborating with Aranzadi after he approached them seeking information about his grandfather, Domingo, who was sentenced to death on October 1937. He had been accused of “joining the rebellion,” and was executed on December 17 alongside nearly 20 others against a cemetery wall in Derio, near Bilbao.

“Up until then I was researching on my own, I thought I was alone doing this,” he says. After that, he didn’t stop. It went family by family, photograph by photograph, copying out everything referring to Muskiz in the Bilbao archive by hand. “My research has focused on all the victims, Nationalists and Republicans,” he says.

The results of his investigation were revealed in a documentary screened in the town’s cultural center in 2003. To an astonished audience – most of them unaware of the arsenal he kept in his shed – he read out the names of the town’s 134 inhabitants who died in the Civil War. Today from his hospital bed, himself disfigured by his own history, he can recite them from memory: “Juan Alonso Landera, 22 years old, died in Barazar (06-04-1937); Domingo Alonso Zubillaga, 18 years old, died on the Asturian front (23-02-1937)…”

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