Franco, doctors, nurses and nuns and the three decades of broken-hearts.
The experience of becoming a mother is probably the most-defining, life-altering, mind-blowing experience a woman can face. Most would agree that from the early stages of pregnancy to the very moment in which you meet your child’s eyes, your heart fills with an ungovernable love and a soul-crashing fear that your offspring will suffer in any degree. These feelings are common to mothers in the most predictable of circumstances.
Franco babies scandal: 300,000 babies snatched at birth
Trying to assimilate the idea of 300,000 babies being snatched from their parents at birth is of course appalling. But the real magnitude of what it means is much more palpable when you go into the particular. When you hear a mother telling you about the blow of losing your baby within hours of it being born, funeral, decades of mourning a child that didn’t get to be, trying to come to terms with the arbitrary loss of your son or daughter, well, it does not take much of an effort to start feeling the heaviness in your own heart.
What happens if we try to understand that during de Spanish dictatorship of Franco there was organised institution that systematically robbed parents of their babies? It did happen, it happened 300,000 times to 300,000 families. It happened to Ruth Appleby’s daughter, Rebecca.
Ruth and her husband Howard were two Britons happily living in the Coruna area of the north of Spain when they found that they were expecting. One can safely imagine that they were thrilled to be starting a family and together enjoyed, endured and rejoiced in the 9 months of pregnancy that brought them to the Hospital Materno Infantil Teresa Herrera on a winter day back in 1992.
Dictator perpetrating the human rights
And perhaps this is one of the most notorious aspects of this horrible story because nobody struggles to understand the idea of a dictator perpetrating the human rights of civilians. Like many times in history and in different parts of the world, the dictatorship decided that some families were ideologically unfit to bring up a child and so they took their babies and gave them to more ‘suitable’ families. But note that Franco dies in 1975. These practices carried out by doctors, nurses and even nuns continued well beyond his passing, proving without a doubt that evil dies hard.
Ruth recalls the events that she must have seen in a loop in her mind for years now and it is all too obvious but at the time, a first-time mother, in a foreign country, she could not argue with what people in her care were doing. So she did not question that her caesarean section was delayed beyond the safe margins or being injected morphine which can be harmful to babies, nor did she take into account the dismissing comments of a nurse who in the presumed safety of her own language (which Ruth also spoke fluently) openly said to another patient in the room that Ruth’s baby was dead already even before the C-section, she did not question that when waking up from the general anaesthetic she was not allowed to meet her baby, she was happy to hear at 7.30am that Rebecca was doing ok. Howard, on the other hand did see her new-born daughter at the crèche at 1.20am and was happy to see her well, he was sleeping at home when at 4.30am someone from the hospital called him to tell him that Rebecca had passed due to heart complications. They did not question the discrepancy of a baby being both dead and alive at the same time and maybe they should have but only in light of what heinous acts these ‘carers’ were capable off. That, they did not know until 2012.
When the news of the babies’ disappearances in Spain hit the media, both Ruth and Howard, who live in the UK now but are no longer together, started to wonder. It took them a few days to speak to each other about the harrowing possibility of Rebecca being alive. How do you deal with this?
Ruth remembers the dreaded moment when her daughter’s coffin was opened in order to get her rests cremated and brought to the UK; she got a glimpse of the contents before her and was confused to find a fully formed skeleton, much larger than a baby’s body and certainly much more preserved than what a baby’s soft bone structure would have been in this circumstances.
Police in Britain and Madrid are investigating and Foreign Secretary William Hague is supporting her case. Ruth is the only foreigner claiming, together with more than 1,000 Spanish families, for a national inquiry that would bring the truth to all these bereaved parents. There is hope for the prosecution of those responsible of these crimes, in fact, last year the first formal charges were filed against a nun, Sister Maria Gomez Valbuena (even though she recently died aged 87).
However, further to the pain of your baby dying, Ruth, as many other families, will have to leave with the perhaps more challenging reality of not knowing whether Rebecca is dead, whether she was placed with another family or what happened to her. Now, multiply that concept by 600,000 parents potentially in the same situation. It truly deeply hurts.