The gate of the ruins of the old village of Belchite. Photo / Ella Pellegrini, News Corp
The child’s call for his mother is supposedly heard at dusk carried on the arid winds that sweep through the abandoned streets of the village of Belchite.
The cries are indistinct but according to local farmers who hear it, are filled with fear and anguish, a soul lost that for decades has been searching for closure.
“There are many voices and things you can hear sometimes at night, people hear different things, ghosts, yes of course, more sad than frightening but what do you expect really when you know what happened here?” local Antonio said.
The main street of the old village of Belchite. A child’s fearful cries can be heard calling for his mother at dusk. Photo / Ella Pellegrini, News Corp Australia
What happened in the township of Belchite in Aragon in Spain
’s north east was a modern tragedy of war
on an unimaginable scale, thousands of men, woman and children killed over just two-weeks in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War
News Corp Australia spent the day and night in the now sealed off but once thriving 12th Century township, that has now not only been deemed one of the most haunted in the world but courtesy of Arnold Schwarzenegger will have a future as a unique memorial to be preserved for future generations.Such was the brutality on both the Fascist-backed Nationalists and Communist-backed Republican sides, after the war the dictator Franco ordered the whole town be abandoned and left untouched as a “living memorial” to the dead with a new Belchite constructed by the conquered prisoners of war on its outskirts.
Belchite has long been a strategic town since it was conquered in 1118 and established as a fortress commune for knights dedicated to crusades. In 1809 it was the scene of a brutal battle between France and Spain in the Peninsula War but it was in 1937 that saw its bloodiest conflict.
The metal cross in the main square in the old village of Belchite near Zaragoza in Spain, which remains a ghost town as a memorial to the civil war. Photo / Ella Pellegrini, News Corp
Republican forces sought to capture the Aragon regional capital Zaragoza and at the height of the conflict had 80,000 infantry about with artillery and tanks prompting the Nationalists fearing a march on Madrid to move 100,000 troops to the province. On the republican side were also international fighters including the Lincoln Brigade of American, Canadian, British and a dozen Australian men.
The township’s water supply was cut, those trapped inside starved or were shelled from the hills before house-by-house battles raged in the final week of August and first week of September.
Bodies were stacked up in the town square that at one point, diaries recorded, was one storey high and burnt with doused gasoline day and night. Others were thrown down a “trujal” underground olive oil press, covered in lime and the entrance sealed where they remain entombed today.
The death toll was never accurately recorded but eyewitness accounts have it at least 5000 people, including civilians.
Author Ernest Hemingway arrived in Belchite shortly after the battle and recorded the total devastation, bodies and flies.
“Belchite was less a town than a nasty smell,” he recorded.
The water supply to Belchite was cut during the war, those trapped inside starved or were shelled from the hills. Photo / Ella Pellegrini, News Corp Australia
Antonio said his grandmother was 13 when she fled the town when the population was then about 4000 locals but returned one year later to see it as it is today, a dramatic ruin with every house and building scarred with bullets and shrapnel. Remnants and shrapnel can still be found today in the heavy timber beams and sandstone walls of the homes and buildings, some from the 1800s but slowly collapsing in the past 80 years of abandonment.
“She never liked to talk about it too much, no-one in Spain likes to speak about the civil war, too many memories, people divided and these things,” he said.
“For my grandmother no one ever asked and she never told what she thought when she returned.”
The imposing Church of San Martin de Tours still stands with frescoes still visible in the devastation as does the once impressive Church of San Agustin eerie at night as now it’s home to small bats like the Convent of San Rafael now overgrown with agave and overrun with goats. The clock tower is a central feature and was where a dozen women and children fled for refuge during the war, only to have a fire lit at the bottom forcing them to be smoked out. On the outskirts of town an 18th century monastery still stands as a roofless ruin where local children dare each other to squat for the night.
During the war bodies thrown down an underground olive oil press, covered in lime and the entrance sealed where they remain entombed today. Photo / Ella Pellegrini, News Corp Australia
Locals will point out features, like the rubble that once was the town hall, the doctor’s surgery and shops where their families would trade, buy mules and farm equipment and goods.
“We get a lot of visitors, even ghost hunters who have equipment that they say records voices like cries of babies, I don’t know … maybe goats,” said local historian Carlos Salavera. “There are many stories we do know are true and well recorded like the bodies and the gasoline, the American and British fighters here, this history was only 80 years ago although of course the town history and buildings are much older.
These days the ghost town has become popular as a movie set, for Spanish, British and American crews including the shooting of a commercial in May for a popular computer game starring action hero Schwarzenegger. Filming producers made a donation to the town for allowing filming and since then two other film houses have requested the backdrop, monies local government has now pledged is going toward shoring up the now dangerously collapsing structures with $120,000 works to begin next month on San Martin.
“We get tourists from all over the world too, they want to understand what happened here and in the war and yes for some too who believe in ghosts,” Salavera said.