NADOR, Morocco (Reuters) - Slimane Betmaki smiles at the memory of the terror he inflicted on Spanish villagers on behalf of former dictator Francisco Franco.
He and many of his comrades recruited to Franco’s cause still cling to a belief in the rightness of the fight against suspected sympathizers of Spanish communist “Rojos” (Reds), whom Moroccan conscripts saw as the enemies of religion.
Now 98, he recalls children, women and the elderly fleeing at the sound of the Islamic prayers he and his fellow soldiers chanted while attacking and destroying their settlements.
“We spared nothing and no one. We uprooted everything and killed everyone we encountered,” Betmaki said with pride.
“We chanted an Islamic prayer to praise the Prophet Mohammed before launching raids. Horrified Spaniards attempted to flee as soon as they heard the words of our prayer.”
Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards were killed in the 1936-39 conflict that Franco began after raising a rebel army in Spanish Morocco, and which saw the forces of the elected Republican government in Madrid defeated.
The war was a precursor to the ideological battles that dominated the 20th century and left deep wounds in Spanish society that are visible today.
Those wounds have been reopened, say conservatives, by Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who has championed a new law forcing Spain to examine its murky past for the first time since Franco died 33 years ago.
Councils are removing symbols of the dictatorship and up to half a million descendants of Franco’s opponents forced to flee Spain are expected to apply for citizenship.
Local governments are having to help activists exhume some of the thousands of civil war mass graves still lying unmarked across the country.
Among them, forgotten by European history, are tens of thousands of Moroccan fighters, their burials unrecorded and their fate unacknowledged.
About 136,000 fought for the Generalissimo’s “Army of Africa,” the feared vanguard of a force that, ironically, Franco portrayed as a Christian crusade against godless communists.
The Civil War ended with the victory of Franco’s rebels, armed and heavily backed by fascist Italy and Germany, over the Republican government which received some support from the Soviet Union and Mexico.
The Moroccans’ role has further complicated uneasy ties with Spain, lying just across the Strait of Gibraltar.
Moorish sultans ruled in Spain for almost 800 years until Granada’s fall in 1492, an occupation that engendered a fear and suspicion of the “moro” that more than 600,000 Moroccans now living in Spain have to contend with.
Diplomatically, Spain’s possession of the north African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla continues to rile Rabat, and there are other sources of tension between Morocco and its much wealthier former colonial master.
Twelve of the 21 men convicted of carrying out the al Qaeda-inspired train bombings, which killed 191 people in Madrid in 2004, were Moroccans. This deepened suspicions about Islam in sectors of the Spanish political right.
But Moroccan intellectuals and rights activists say the time has come to address the past to help expand cooperation with Spain, which ruled Morocco’s mountainous northern Rif region until 1956.
Some former “moro” fighters say poverty drove them to war.
“I was orphaned at 15. I lost both my father and mother because of grinding poverty and social misery. We suffered hunger and joblessness in the Rif,” Ahmed al Fisouni, 87, said referring to the northern region where many were recruited.
“I was among the lucky men to be accepted into Spain’s army. Spain gave us meat, fish, bread and fruits as good food on top of 50 Moroccan dirhams ($5.95) as a family aid alongside a monthly salary of 250 dirhams,” he added.
Asked whether he and other fellow soldiers were to be blamed for their killing of civilians suspected by Franco’s forces of sympathy with their opponents, Fisouni replied:
”We were like any other army soldiers across the world. We followed orders from our top commanders.
“For us, being in the army then was a chance to save ourselves and our relatives from starvation and misery.”
Moroccan rights activists in November set up the non-governmental Center for Common Memory and the Future to try to reach out to Spanish civic groups to change attitudes to the past and focus on cooperation.
“There is no doubt that Morocco had a role in Spain’s history and in a gloomy sense Morocco had links to Spain’s tragedy,” Laura Lorca, a niece of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, told the Moroccan newspaper Al Massae. Lorca was killed by Franco sympathizers and buried in a mass grave.
Mohamed Larbi Messari, a former ambassador to Spain, said: “Memories of this war are still alive. These emotional things are difficult to erase. So the participation of Moroccans in the war is a negative factor in ties between the two countries.”
The Center of Memory has written to Moroccan and Spanish judicial and political authorities seeking information on the fate of “dozens of thousands” of Moroccans who took part in the war, including 10,000 children no older than 12.
“Franco’s supporters managed to convince Moroccan soldiers the rojos were enemies of both faithful Muslims and Christians. They told Moroccans they had a common cause,” said Messari.
“Their argument was not truthful to the reality of things, which would have been dismissed by smart people but Moroccan soldiers were poor, ignorant and simple-minded,” he added.
Moroccan intellectuals and writers argue that a “bitter taste” left by memories of Muslim-Christian friction in previous centuries was rekindled by Morocco’s role in the Spanish war.
The Spanish city of Cordoba was the center of Islamic civilization in the Iberian peninsula for nearly eight centuries of Moorish rule over much of what is now Spain and Portugal.
“The accumulation of all these elements forged an image of the Moroccan in some sectors of the Spanish that the Moroccan is backward, savage and cruel,” said historian Mohamed Nechnech.
“The Spanish have bad memories of Moroccans because Spaniards saw them as the ones who fought a legitimate and constitutional government and sided with dictator Franco.”
Additional reporting by Ben Harding in Madrid; Editing by Lamine Ghanmi and William Maclean