Comrade Juan Alcaraz Saura was born in Cartagena county eighty eight years ago. That was on 5 January 1921 in a village by the name of La Aparecida, the very same village known during the civil war as Caserío Francisco Ascaso. On the outbreak of that war (“To us it was a revolutionary war”, Juan states) he was only 15 years old but his interest was piqued by libertarian ideas very early on. He started to attend CNT meetings and rallies, joining in 1937, and leading all the newspapers and books that came his way. Shortly after that he decided to form a Libertarian Youth group with some other village youngsters. Juan became its first secretary; it was the Grupo Acracia. With the aid of a schoolteacher these youngsters laid on a series of talks and classes for the adults who were almost entirely illiterate and these proved a great success and source of satisfaction.
In 1939, having turned 18, Juan was drafted into the army. His was the last of the drafts referred to as the “biberón (suckling) drafts” since the war was drawing to an end and there would be no more mobilisations for defence of the republic. On Sunday 5 March 1939, Juan cycled to the shipyard in Cartagena to which he had been posted to carry out his army service, only to hear cries of “Viva España!” as he reached the city. Fifth columnists had mobilised and armed gangs of soldiers and civilians were roaming the streets shouting their slogans and waving their flags. Juan decided to change his route and headed for the County CNT Committee where he found a sizeable number of comrades who had arrived there, as he had, to await the outcome of events.
News soon arrived that the fleet anchored in Cartagena was preparing to set sail for Algeria where it would apply to the French authorities for asylum. Without a second thought, the comrades gathered at the County Committee premises decided to quit the city right away before the fascists could pre-empt their plans. They were filing out of the building bound for the docks when by a stroke of luck they came upon the last vessel which had not yet weighed anchor. This was the cruiser Miguel de Cervantes, the navy flagship. Some 25 or 30 comrades boarded the vessel, joining the 3,800 republican servicemen and 350 civilians fleeing Cartagena that day. “Those reluctant to share our fate”, Juan recalls, “headed homewards. Later they paid the price and were arrested and jailed - two of my own brothers among them.”
The fleet reached the naval base in Bizerta, Tunisia on 7 March, the French authorities having refused it a safe haven in Oran. As Juan says, “Our calvary in exile began right there. Military officers were placed in charge of us, we were broken up into teams and had to line up every morning to receive our work assignments.” They were subject to military custody and martial law and ferried in cattle-trucks in the lousiest, filthiest conditions imaginable. They slept in ruined houses without doors or windows on dirt strewn with straw as their only bedding and were issued with the barest water and food rations. “We soon began to feel hungry and our water was rationed: that was the only drink we got. They made life hell for us to encourage us to go back to Spain. The camp authorities, with some connivance from the former officers of the fleet, posted a notice that stated more or less: Franco’s government grants a full amnesty and guarantees the freedom of those who decide to go back. A number of seamen did go back but they never made it home.”
Over the ensuing months, Juan worked on the building of a railway line linking southern Tunisia and the Mareth Line but the Second World War soon erupted and they had to be evacuated to the rear. They were transferred to La Skira, a great beach north of Gabes where the French army stored huge amounts of arms and munitions. Within a fortnight, with Italian troops closing in, they had to load all this gear on to trains standing by for that purpose. Once that job was done, they were driven out to the foothills of the Kenchela mountains in Algeria where they would be put to work felling trees and building roads and bridges with their bare hands, dragging huge boulders with nothing but their strength to help them. Later they would be moved to the Kendza mines in southern Oran and left to the tender mercies of the Kenadza Mining Company for use in the mines or on any other tasks that might arise. No matter how slight or trivial they might seem, breaches of discipline were punished most severely. Juan remembers one occasion when he refused to clean a civilian watchman’s room and was punished with seven days in ‘the hole’. This punishment consisted of remaining seated in a pit dug in the ground with just one meal a day, a crust of stale bread and a little water to which a good handful of salt was sometimes added. After seven days of this, Juan was held for three months in the Hadjerat M’Guil camp, better known as the ‘Death Valley ‘. “Thanks to my being a young man, to my will to live and determination to see my family again, I survived that hell.” The goumiers (goons) guarding the workers in the camp were under orders to shoot anyone trying to escape, something which they were happy to do on a mere nod from their officers. The clothing and footwear issued were wretched and worn and we were required to walk barefoot over stones after darkness fell. The work carried out at the camp wore people out as did the indiscriminate beatings that claimed the lives of comrades like Lewynstein, Moreno, Jaraba, Pozas, Álvarez … to name but a few. Juan is especially saddened when he recalls Comrade Moreno, also known as El Maño, who was tortured, beaten and forced to work more than he was physically equipped to do during an awful torment that dragged on for eight endless days. “They flogged him unmercifully in front of all the camp inmates. Goumiers drawn up in formation, rifles at the ready, surrounded us lest we make any move at the sight of such horrors. By night, after the exacting work he had to do, they would not let him sleep, all of the guards taking it in turns to beat him, from the commander down to the lowliest.” And so it carried on until the day when they dumped him senseless on the floor of his cell, without sustenance or the most basic medical attention and he died eight days after arrival in what was known as Death Valley.” … “I was young then and would never have believed what I was seeing there […] When they got me out of there my thoughts were of those left behind. I wondered how men wearing stripes, well fed, well dressed men, could be so vicious towards their fellow men.”
Come the Allied invasion of North Africa, Juan headed for Oran. He found work as a waiter, made new friends, married and had three children. He was happy there for some years but another war, the Algerian war in this case, forced him to emigrate again. On that occasion Juan left with his family for Avignon in France where some relatives helped him get established. He never returned to Cartagena until 37 years after his departure for exile, once “totalitarian rule had been swept away through the death of the traitor Francisco Franco”.
Juan can claim never to have defaulted in his commitment to anarcho-syndicalism. In exile and since his return home to Cartagena he had dutifully paid his union dues and attended meetings and demonstrations, He has always been there for the distribution of propaganda and stepped into whatever posts needed filling, just as he did serving for years as treasurer of the SOV (Amalgamated Trades Union) Cartagena and on the Murcian Regional Committee. At present Juan Alcaraz is still active in the Cartagena CNT, bringing the support of his experience whenever needed. As he says it himself “At the age of 88 today I may be less effective, but I still answer the call.”
Francisco García Morales (CNT Cartagena)
From: cnt, (Cáceres) No 355, April 2009. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.