What is it like to go through a painful crisis? In 2004, I was living in Madrid, Spain, where on the morning of March 11, 193 people were killed and nearly 2,000 were injured when bombs exploded on four commuter trains during rush hour. This is a blog post I wrote then about the massive public response. At the time, the incumbent government was deliberately sowing confusion over whether the bombings were the work of the Basque terrorists (ETA), which was false, or Al Qaeda, which was true and the police knew immediately.
I had studied mass transit maps, and I had a plan: After Spanish class, my husband and I would catch a number 37 bus at a stop two blocks from the academy. It would take us to Plaza de Colón — actually, probably not.
If a million people came to the protest march, and I hoped they would, the bus wouldn’t get all the way there. But it would get us closer.
The march was set to begin at 7:00 p.m., which was when the class ended, and Plaza de Colón, where the march would start, was only a kilometer and a half away, so the trip wouldn’t be long, and being a few minutes late wouldn’t hurt. Anything in Spain that involved a million people wouldn’t start on time anyway.
Through the classroom windows, we saw people heading down the street towards the protest, and I was glad. I wanted the march to be the biggest in the history of Madrid. The day before, almost two hundred people riding commuter trains had been killed by terrorist bombs on their way to work. I had heard some of the bombs. Sometimes my husband took those trains. The terrorists could have killed him, and I would have heard it happen.
Class ended. Our tutor sent us off with good wishes. She had a small child and couldn’t go herself, although she wanted to. It was raining hard outside, but the weather report said the rain was supposed to taper off as time went on. A bus came quickly and was packed with so many people that we entered by the exit door, but the buses were free anyway to allow people to get to the protest. We passed a clinic. With all the injuries from the bombing, clinics could not shut down the way other businesses had, but in front of the doorway, white-smocked doctors and nurses and other workers stood on the sidewalk under umbrellas, holding candles, briefly joining the protest as best they could.
The bus continued for about a half a kilometer, then a river of people at a cross-street stopped it. “Does anyone know if this is where we get off for the protest?” a gray-haired woman shouted, and everyone laughed. We all got out, opened our umbrellas, and joined the crowd.
A half-kilometer later, at 7:30 p.m., we entered Plaza de Alonso Martínez, a traffic circle, and we stopped moving. The rain began to fall harder. The temperature was about 45 F / 8 C. Fifteen minutes later, we made it to the far side of the circle. A man finished a conversation on his mobile phone, then announced, “The subways are filled to overflowing. The trains can’t take pick up any more people. They just have to keep waiting on the platforms.”
Maybe as a defense against the miserable weather, the protesters seemed cheerful — although, that morning, I had seen people weeping in the street on their way to work. Maybe everyone felt relieved because they were doing something in response to the bloodshed. Young people had come especially energized, with signs, decorated umbrellas, face paint, candles, and Spanish flags hung with black mourning bands. Students in Spain protested a lot. They knew what to do.
The crowd inched forward, then parted to let an ambulance through. “A drowning victim,” my husband joked. The rain diminished a bit, but my toes inside boots and two pairs of socks began to feel wet. Step by step, by 8:30 p.m. we made it to Plaza de Colón with its bright television lights and cameras for news networks from around the world, their equipment draped in plastic. The pace picked up and the twenty-somethings began chanting:
“No estámos todos. Faltan dos cientos.” We’re not all here. We’re missing two hundred.
“Damos la espalda al terrorismo.” We turn our backs on terrorism. This involved walking backwards, with a little stumbling and laughter.
“Hijos de puta.” Sons of bitches. This was directed at the terrorists and sung to a soccer cheer. The twenty-somethings especially enjoyed this chant.
“ETA y Al Qaeda, misma mierda.” Basque terrorists and Al Qaeda, the same shit.
“Ibamos todos en ese tren.” We were all riding on that train.
“No está lloviendo. Madrid está llorando.” It’s not raining. Madrid is weeping.
By 9:15 p.m. we had reached the Prado Museum, and the march spread out onto its sidewalks. The weather turned colder, the rain began falling harder, the pavement streamed with water, and my feet felt much wetter. “With all this rain, we’re going to grow like plants,” a woman said.
We finally squeezed past Atocha train station, where more than a hundred people had died the day before. The twenty-somethings stopped marching and stood, chanting, displaying signs for the banks of television cameras there. They had built a shrine on the huge fountain in the middle of the traffic circle in front of the train station, and they had decorated it with flowers and signs and candles, which they relit as fast as raindrops put them out — a shrine to peace, liberty, democracy, and the victims.
We had walked more than three kilometers in all. Now we joined the streams of people headed toward their homes, crowding the sidewalks of the neighborhood where we lived. It was 10:00 p.m. We got to our apartment, and I set the dripping umbrellas in the bathtub and put on dry socks. Then I sat down on the sofa, exhausted, and turned on the television news. The drenched twenty-somethings were still going strong, to the astonishment of the reporters at Atocha.
And they said that more than two million people had come to the protest.