The Madrid Bombing: Three years later, and ugly


What happens after a painful crisis? Maybe one pain is replaced by another, but maybe it shouldn’t have to stay painful. I wrote this in 2007 when I was living in Spain.

We weren’t allowed to get close, and we weren’t happy about it. Several hundred of us had come to see the inauguration of the monument in front of the Atocha train station. It honored the victims of the Al Qaeda terrorist train bombing that had taken place at that station three years ago to the day, March 11, 2004. But the ceremony, we discovered, was by invitation-only.

Instead, we waited for an hour behind barricades two blocks away, peering down the slightly curved street, occasionally glimpsing movement. Police officers blocked our way, gazing at us with polite impassiveness. We were people from the neighborhood, witnesses to the sights and sounds of the attack in which 191 people had died and 1,824 were injured.

As is the custom in Spain, we passed the time by chatting among ourselves. Spaniards are champion complainers and never slow to offer an opinion, and the people around me believed that we were being kept away because politicians feared we might disrupt the solemnity of the ceremony by voicing a criticism — though we disagreed over which politician or political party deserved to be confronted, and a few heated words were exchanged.

Meanwhile, two blocks away, King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofía presided at the inaugural, attended by a thousand family members of the victims. The somber, quiet ceremony was disrupted when a protest sign and an angry shout denounced officeholders in one political party, and, later, a few scattered shouts were aimed at the head of the other party as he left. After the ceremony, some of the families of the victims argued over politics even as people placed flowers at the monument.

In the three years since the bombing, Spanish politics have grown “crispada”: crisp or tense. When the bombs went off, the Popular Party (PP) was in power, but national elections were scheduled for three days later.

Al Qaeda had planned the attacks hoping to convince the government to withdraw its soldiers from Iraq. In fact, the opposition Socialist Party (PSOE) won the elections and promptly withdrew the troops, though it redeployed them to Afghanistan.

For the last three years, the PP has insisted that Basque terrorists were involved in the bombing, though there is no evidence for it. It has implied that PSOE sold out to the Basque terrorists in exchange for the election victory. The PP has organized huge protests against real or potential PSOE acts, and fascist symbols have occasionally appeared in those crowds.

PSOE has begun peace talks with the Basque terrorists, among other controversial policies. It calls the PP a hypocrite because, while it was in power, it practiced some of the same policies that it now criticizes. PSOE disdainfully accuses the PP of demagoguery, lies, and attempts to undermine democratic institutions.

Teenagers visiting the Senate were shocked by the heckling they saw during a session. “They’re like street gangs wearing designer-label suits,” one student said.

A senator from a regional political party complained, “The eye-for-an-eye strategy by PP and PSOE will wind up making everyone blind.”

Three years after the bombing, politics just keeps getting crisper. Perhaps only the presence of the King, who commands respect, kept order during the inauguration of the memorial.

After His Majesty and the politicians left, the police removed the barriers, and I and my neighbors streamed toward the monument. From the outside, it is a drab cylinder 11 meters tall made of glass blocks. We walked around it and climbed over the railing to peer inside with our noses pressed up against the glass.

The monument was made to look at from the inside. Visitors see it from beneath, and enter via the train station. First they pass a backlit panel with the names of the 191 victims. Then they go through a mechanized double doorway and enter a large room. The lighting is dim, and the walls, floor, and ceiling are cobalt blue.

In the center, a circular opening allows them to look up inside the monument, where an elongated, irregularly shaped plastic film bubble rises inside the glass cylinder. Printed on it are some of the messages that had been left as part of the shrine of candles, flowers, and hand-printed signs that sprang up spontaneously outside Atocha train station in the days immediately following the bombing. They appear in a variety of languages: the dead came from many countries, and they were mourned by people from around the world.

Esten tots amb vosaltres, aquesta vida es aix sort. Gogoan zaituztegu. Desde aquel día la luz se me ha apagado. Wir deuken an Euch! Vittime piu’ di tutti, di que’sta follia. ببﻫ ر ﻼﻟ ﻻ. No fear, no revenge, just peace. No te conozco, pero te amo. No he compartido tus recuerdos, pero te recuerdo. ώς χαρίεν εστ ανθρωπος, άν ανθρωπος ή. No estamos todos. Mach weiter so Madrid. To all that suffer their loss. Pacat de vietile pierdute!

Beneath the monument, visitors stare up at the words printed on the plastic bubble inside. The words are meant to fly toward the heavens like a shout of hope from inside the train station. The room is isolated from the always-busy train station by a wall of thick, wavy glass. It is silent.

I remember the noise of the day of the bombing. I heard the bombs, and soon after, sirens that wailed non-stop all day. Three years later, during the inaugural, as we waited behind the barricades, my neighbors spoke of seeing the bloodied dead and injured transported through the streets. Those who live in the high-rise apartment buildings next to the tracks saw the survivors stumble away from the wreck of the train cars, their clothes blown to tatters.

We were hurt, too — not physically, but pained enough to feel drawn to the monument, hoping it would ease our memories.

In the first week following the inaugural, more than 40,000 people visited the monument. Not everyone liked it. Some called it cold, distant, unartistic. The plastic bubble inside looks flimsy. At night, lit up from inside, it glows bluish inside the glass block cylinder, and the whole thing looks a little like a giant lava lamp.

Meanwhile, the trial of 29 people accused of being involved with the March 11 bombing continues, and if convicted, their sentences could total 38,654 years in jail.

Portions of the trial are televised, the first courtroom proceeding shown live in Spain, and viewers have discovered that real life does not resemble television. Real lawyers do not act like Perry Mason or Ally McBeal. On the witness stand, the accused offer up selective amnesia and flimsy excuses rather than dramatic admissions of guilt. The police investigators are not as efficient as those on the series CSI. But Judge Javier Gómez Bermúdez has earned the nickname of “Judge House” because his irony and toughness remind viewers of a fictional television doctor.

At the courthouse, during recesses, smokers all crowd into the same smoking patio: police, lawyers, people injured in the bombings, and some of the accused terrorists, all within touching distance of each other.

The trial should be finished in July, if all goes as expected, and a verdict should be delivered in October.

Meanwhile, Spain remains an important target for Al Qaeda. In videos, terrorist leaders have threatened Spain because it has troops in Afghanistan and it maintains the cities of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco. Bin Laden’s lieutenant Ayman al Zawahiri has spoken of recovering Al-Andalus, the Muslim califate that controlled much of Spain from 711 to 1492 CE.

Spanish intelligence agents say that Al Qaeda members have returned from terrorist training in Iraq with orders to attack.

This whole nightmare could happen again.

The Madrid bombing, 14 months later


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?

The Day after the Bombing in Madrid, Spain

Plaza de Colon 640x426

The Plaza de Colón, filled with umbrellas in the rain. Photo by El País newspaper.

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.

My choice for the 2019 Nebula Novelette Award

A novelette is, by the rules for the Nebula Awards, a story of at least 7,500 words but fewer than 17,500 words. As a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, I’ve read all six finalists and ranked them from my least favorite to the one that got my vote for the 2019 Nebula Award.

Although every novelette was competently written and received enough votes to become a finalist, I’m a little disappointed with this year’s selection. Good, yes, but great? I don’t think so. Some of the stories seemed formulaic: the characters worked themselves into a situation with a problem, which they solved, and the story ended without further ado. No wisdom was wrested at great price, no storytelling technique pushed the genre or displayed exceptional skill, big ideas and wrenching changes weren’t explored, and the plot moved along well enough but without gripping urgency — the story did not become greater than the sum of its words.

Of course, your opinions may vary.

“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye” by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 7-8/19)
A mystery writer finds a man dead, apparently in an accident, and learns the truth. The story never develops much tension, and it’s resolved too easily.

“His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light” by Mimi Mondal ( 1/23/19)
A kind-hearted circus performer rescues a slave and angers a goddess. This turns out to be a simple, straightforward, sentimental story of loyalty, responsibility, and love, but nothing more.

“For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll ( 7/10/19)
A cat battles Satan for the soul of a poet. Light and humorous, this is the most stylish of the stories on the ballot, and perfect for cat lovers.

“The Archronology of Love” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed 4/19)
Everyone in a colony on a distant planet died while investigating strange alien technology, and researchers have come to find out why. Some of the dead were loved ones. In a way, the story is one long, slow goodbye — or rather, the search for a way to say goodbye.

“A Strange Uncertain Light” by G.V. Anderson (F&SF 7-8/19)
This classic ghost story is set in rural England in 1938 and a century earlier. To say more might be a spoiler. Every trope seems to be touched, but with subtle twists, and a strong sense of characters and place with plenty of suspense. It’s a close second to the story that won my vote.

MY VOTE: Carpe Glitter by Cat Rambo (Meerkat)
A young woman inherits her grandmother’s homes, knowing that her grandmother was both a magician and a hoarder. She hopes to find treasure in the rooms packed with old stuff, and she finds the unexpected. The first half explores the fractured family relationships without haste, and the second half speeds to a climax as the pieces fit together.

My vote for the 2019 Nebula Short Story Award

Usually the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America presents its annual Nebula Awards at a gala ceremony during its annual Nebula Conference. This year, for obvious reasons, the award presentation will be live-streamed at 8 p.m. EDT on May 30 without a ballroom full of people. The awards honor the best novel, novella, novelette, short story, young adult book, game writing, and dramatic presentation of the previous year.

As a SFWA member, I get to vote on the nominees, and I’ve read all six of the finalist short stories. Overall, I think they’re all worth reading. Unlike the Hugo Awards, there’s no ranked voting; I only get to vote for one, but I’ve ranked them here anyway from my least favorite (as I said, they’re all good) to the one I’ll vote for. Of course, my ranking is subjective and even a bit arbitrary, and your opinions may vary.

“Give the Family My Love” by A.T. Greenblatt (Clarkesworld 2/19)
In a series of letters to her family back home, an explorer searches in an alien library for information that would help Earth. The voice is compelling, but the overall story reveals no big surprises, and the tale ends on a defeatist and depressing note.

“A Catalog of Storms” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny 1-2/19)
As storms become sentient, a small town’s children fight back. The writing evokes a timeless dreamlike quality and creates sharp characters: pathos abounds. The point of view character is a child, however, which traps us in a limited horizon that is both claustrophobic and kind of a cheat, since the larger picture can go unexplained. In the end, nothing in the story transcends narrow personal interests.

“And Now His Lordship Is Laughing” by Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons 9/9/19)
This classic-style horror story involves a dollmaker in India during the British Raj — so classic that the ending can be guessed less than halfway through the story. Cultural anger animates the story, but the conventional plot weakens it.

“How the Trick Is Done” by A.C. Wise (Uncanny 7-8/19)
Jilted lovers get revenge through magic. The narration and characters show self-awareness and self-reflection, which gives the story a sober, solemn, literary strength. No one winds up happy, but they do wind up wiser.

“The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power” by Karen Osborne (Uncanny 3-4/19)
Mutiny, death, and blood on a generation ship. The savage story manages to find a happy ending. For me, it had the intensity and velocity of a television show, and since we live in a golden age of television, that’s a good thing indeed.

MY VOTE: “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” by Nibedita Sen (Nightmare 5/19)
In 1891, something tragic happened, and we’re still living with the consequences. This very short story smacks the reader upside the head with nuance, ambiguity, and pitiless social criticism. Its densely packed details make it hard to read and irresistible to re-read: very much a story of our moment, and I mean that as high praise. I also value the unconventional storytelling style: I think the Nebula should reward attempts to expand the genre in one way or another.