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A "For sale" sign is seen on an abandoned house in the village of La Estrella, Spain, June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Susana Vera

(reuters_tickers)

By Susana Vera

LA ESTRELLA, Spain (Reuters) - For more than 30 years, Juan Martin Colomer and his wife Sinforosa Sancho have lived alone in a village in Spain's eastern highlands that once had more than 200 inhabitants.

"Everyone has gone, we are the fools who have stayed," laughed Sinforosa, who turned 85 this month, sitting on the steps of a pink-fronted building that was once the local boys' school.

"We have always lived like this. When it's cold, we make a fire. We sleep under blankets. You are here, you have chickens, rabbits, the land, and you manage," she said.

Nestled in a valley in the northeastern Aragon region, where pollen drifts over pine trees that have gradually spread across the formerly arable land, the village is at the centre of a creeping population desert.

Residents began abandoning these rural towns and villages to seek work in cities when the civil war ended in 1939, leaving behind an area twice the size of Belgium that is set to become the least populated in the European Union.

There are fewer than eight inhabitants for every square kilometre, and those who remain are ageing, a drastic sample of a society where across Spain deaths outpaced births last year at the fastest rate since records began in 1941.

Juan Martin and Sinforosa's son Vicente was the last child to live there, and he had to go to school in a nearby village after the local teacher left and his school closed.

"If there are no children, there is no life," said Juan Martin, 84.

The pair live on a pension of around 1,200 euros ($1,400) a month between them. They keep rabbits and hens for meat and eggs, and drive to a nearby town to buy other food which they cook on a butane stove or their open fire.

Until 10 years ago they relied on oil lamps for the rare occasions they needed artificial light, but now they have solar panels to provide electricity.

"We have never had a telephone line, and there is only a mobile signal in the cemetery," Sinforosa said.

Neither misses society, and despite owning a house in nearby Villafranca, they only go there to visit Vicente and his family.

"We have grown up in solitude and we like it," said Juan Martin, but he does not expect anyone will want to live as they do in the future. "La Estrella will die out with us."

For the Reuters Wider Image picture essay, click on: https://reut.rs/2LHNbqJ

(Writing by Isla Binnie; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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