Spanish Civil War ruins offer lesson on cost of conflict

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Lessons still to be learned from Spanish Civil War
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Lessons still to be learned from Spanish Civil War
Ruins of a building are seen in the old village of Belchite, in northern Spain, November 13, 2016. REUTERS/Andrea Comas SEARCH "SPANISH RUINS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
The entrance to the ruins of the old village of Belchite is seen in northern Spain, October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Andrea Comas SEARCH "SPANISH RUINS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Visitors walk past ruins in the old village of Belchite, in northern Spain, November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Andrea Comas SEARCH "SPANISH RUINS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Tomas Ortin, 94, survivor of the Belchite battle, poses for a picture at the ruins of his former home in the old village of Belchite, in northern Spain, November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Andrea Comas SEARCH "SPANISH RUINS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The sun sets over ruins in the old village of Belchite, in northern Spain, November 13, 2016. REUTERS/Andrea Comas SEARCH "SPANISH RUINS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Visitors walk past the Cross for the Fallen in the old village of Belchite, in northern Spain, November 13, 2016. REUTERS/Andrea Comas SEARCH "SPANISH RUINS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Windmills are seen behind the ruins of the old village of Belchite, in northern Spain, November 13, 2016. REUTERS/Andrea Comas SEARCH "SPANISH RUINS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The moon rises behind the San Martin de Tours church in the old village of Belchite, in northern Spain, November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Andrea Comas SEARCH "SPANISH RUINS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Sky is seen through the holes of the San Agustin church ceiling in the old village of Belchite, in northern Spain, October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Andrea Comas SEARCH "SPANISH RUINS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Bullet holes and the remains of a street sign are seen on a building in the old village of Belchite, in northern Spain, November 13, 2016. REUTERS/Andrea Comas SEARCH "SPANISH RUINS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A graffiti is seen on the entrance door of San Martin de Tours church in the old village of Belchite, in northern Spain, October 3, 2016. The graffiti reads: "Old town of Belchite, young men don't wander around you anymore. The jots (typical songs and dance of the area) that our fathers used to sing, won't be heard anymore". REUTERS/Andrea Comas SEARCH "SPANISH RUINS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A visitor looks at a monument where Spanish Civil war victims are buried, in the old village of Belchite, in northern Spain, October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Andrea Comas SEARCH "SPANISH RUINS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Remains of a building are seen in the old village of Belchite, in northern Spain, November 13, 2016. REUTERS/Andrea Comas SEARCH "SPANISH RUINS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The tower of the San Agustin church is seen in the old village of Belchite, in northern Spain, November 13, 2016. REUTERS/Andrea Comas SEARCH "SPANISH RUINS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A man dressed up as a Republican soldier looks at his mobile phone as he waits for tourists in front of the entrance to the old village of Belchite, in northern Spain, November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Andrea Comas SEARCH "SPANISH RUINS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A man looks out of a building during a guided night visit in the old village of Belchite, in northern Spain, November 13, 2016. REUTERS/Andrea Comas SEARCH "SPANISH RUINS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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BELCHITE, Spain, Nov 29 (Reuters) - Almost 80 years ago Tomas Ortin fled under the cover of night from his home in the small town of Belchite on Spain's northern plains to escape with hundreds of others from one of the bloodiest battles of the country's civil war.

At 94 years old, Ortin now lives just across the road from Belchite, which has lain in ruins since Republican forces attacked it, a symbol of the destruction caused by the 1936-1939 war in which an estimated 500,000 people died.

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Walking down its abandoned streets, Ortin points to the house where he was born, its walls still pockmarked with bullet holes, to the bar where the town's youth used to dance and to the spot where his brother was shot through the neck.

"This was our future because everybody used to get together here," Ortin said by the skeleton remains of the town's church, whose brickwork is still embedded with artillery shells.

The siege of Belchite was part of a Republican offensive in 1937 to capture Zaragoza, capital of the Aragon region, from the Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco, who went on to win the war and establish a dictatorship that lasted 40 years.

Nationalist-controlled Belchite represented a key obstacle given its strategic location in the red-brown hills south of Zaragoza. As many as 6,000 people died defending it before those left surrendered.

It became one of the civil war's most infamous battles.

Foreign journalists such as Ernest Hemingway sent back reports from the frontlines as Republican troops, among them a number of American and other international volunteers, fought to seize the town.

After the war Franco visited Belchite and ordered it to be abandoned and preserved to honor the bravery of its defenders and the brutalities they suffered.

"ONE, TWO, THREE"

Ortin and several thousand other Belchite residents endured the siege for almost two weeks, hiding in their cellars as soldiers fought hand to hand in the streets and artillery shells rained down. Bodies were piled on top of each other and burnt.

On the night of Sept. 5 about 600 of Belchite's soldiers and residents gathered in the town square, where a falling shell had killed the mayor only a few days before, and prepared to escape.

"A very brave commander got up and shouted 'one, two, three,' and we all started to run," recalled Josefina Cubel, another nonagenarian local who still lives nearby.

They barely reached Belchite's perimeter before the shooting began.

Cubel, then 11 years old, was shot in the leg below the town's gate and was left behind by her family who presumed her dead. She was captured and treated by the Republicans and was only reunited with her parents several months later.

Cubel and Ortin now live in New Belchite, built by Republican prisoners on Franco's orders. The old town has continued to disintegrate due to decades of looting and neglect.

Although the bitter divisions created by the civil war still simmer among residents, the local government has sought to use Belchite to teach later generations about the human cost on both sides and not as an example just of one side's valor.

"There was a battle. Who lost? The people did," said Domingo Serrano, a former mayor who was born in the old town.

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