The Madrid bombing, 14 months later

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Bosque de los Ausentes (Forest of the Departed)

How do you recover from a painful crisis? Perhaps you don’t, but with time the crisis changes and so does your understanding of it. This is a piece I wrote in 2005 when I was living in Madrid, Spain. A blog post I wrote the day after the bombing is here.

At 7:39 a.m. on March 11, 2004, I heard a long, scraping rumble, too loud to be a normal city noise. A few seconds later, another rumble. Then the sirens began. They wailed continuously until late afternoon, and every time I checked the news, it was worse.

Ten bombs blew up in four packed commuter trains, two of the trains at Atocha station near my home and the other trains at the Santa Eugenia and El Pozo stations. They killed 177 people at the scene, and 15 more died under medical care. Another 2,062 were injured, some horribly maimed. The trains came from poorer parts of the Madrid area, and the dead included immigrants from thirteen countries.

People wept in the streets and lined up for hours to give blood for the injured. Taxi drivers gave free rides to hospitals and to the makeshift morgue set up at the convention center near the airport. Morgue workers said the saddest thing was to hear mobile telephones ring in the handbags and backpacks of the dead, calls from people looking for their loved ones.

The next day, radio announcers were saying “saludos” (greetings) instead of “buenos días” (good day) because it wasn’t going to be a good day. Spontaneous shrines to the victims sprang up at the train stations. Black ribbons of mourning appeared in windows and on flags hung on balconies. That evening, 11,400,000 people, 28 percent of Spain’s population, took to the streets to protest in every part of the country. Madrid’s protest was the largest: two million people despite cold, pouring rain.

My husband sometimes took those commuter trains, so we had to go. It took us three hours to cover three kilometers, past Plaza de Colón to Atocha. Although the weather grew steadily worse and the pavement streamed with water, the mood remained determined and positive: we were there for peace, freedom, democracy, and the victims.

Young people came especially energized, with decorated umbrellas, face paint, and chants. At the end of the march in front of Atocha train station, they built a shrine on the huge fountain in the middle of the traffic circle with flowers, signs and candles, which they relit as fast as the raindrops put them out, though they themselves were drenched. We joined with them as they chanted: “It’s not raining. Madrid is weeping.”

But who had done it? At first the government insisted it was ETA, the Basque terrorist group. However, the evidence, including three unexploded bombs, immediately pointed to an Islamic terrorist group with ties to Al Qaeda.

The attack came three days before national elections. The incumbent Popular Party had made Spain a US ally in its war in Iraq, a move almost unanimously opposed by the Spanish population. The challenger, the Socialist Party, vowed to take Spanish troops out of Iraq. Indignation mounted as the government spin became clear. Although debate still continues about how the bombing affected the election, the turnout was unusually high, 77.2 percent, and the Socialist Party won.

Police pursued their investigations. They began to make arrests two days after the bombing, and on April 3 they moved in to arrest five suspects in an apartment in Leganés, a suburb of Madrid. The five blew themselves up rather than be taken, killing one police officer and injuring 11 others. One of the suspects was later described as the ringleader of the group. Police investigations and arrests have continued, identifying more than one hundred suspects.

Meanwhile, the shrines for the victims at train stations grew, especially at Atocha. Thousands of candles, along with bouquets of flowers, messages in many languages, photos, and remembrances, filled a floor inside the building and spilled out onto the sidewalk around the entrance. It remained there for months, and was finally replaced by a computerized gallery, Más Cercanos (Near and Dear), where visitors could leave a hand print and message.

With time, and despite additional terrorist threats, people have began to use the commuter trains again. Some, but generally little, hostility and suspicion has been expressed toward Muslims. Politicians of all parties have continued to try to use the attack and its victims for political ends, and victim groups complain that promised help for those who still need medical, legal, and social services has arrived slowly or not at all.

A monument to the victims will be built in late 2006 in front of Atocha station: an irregularly shaped glass dome 11 meters high. Visitors will be able to stand under it in a special hall and read messages inscribed on the inside and lit by sunlight, messages written in solidarity after the tragedy. At night, its designers say, it will shine like a candle flame.

On the first anniversary of the bombing, the King and Queen inaugurated a memorial near Atocha in Retiro Park: the Bosque de los Ausentes (Forest of the Departed). It is a hill surrounded by a stream, since water is the symbol of life. A spiral path up the hill takes visitors past 192 cypress and olive trees, one for each of the victims.

I visited it on Mother’s Day, May 2, almost 14 months after the attack. In one of the cypress trees, someone had threaded white and red carnations. The traditional gift in Madrid for Mother’s Day is a bouquet of white and red carnations. The victims included someone’s mother. “We were all riding on those trains,” was one of the chants at the protests. We also chanted, “We will not forget.” How can we?

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