Wednesday 11 March 2009

March 11th 2004 We Shall Remember Them

On the morning of Thursday the 11th of March 2004, within just fifteen minutes of each other, four trains departed the station of Alcalá de Henares, a historic town some 35 kilometres northeast of Madrid. Packed with commuters coming into the city for a day’s work, this should have been just another normal journey.

At 7:37, as the first of the trains was just pulling into Madrid’s Atocha station, a bomb exploded in one of its carriages. Seconds later a further two more bombs exploded. At the same time, two bombs on a train just leaving the station of El Pozo devastated the central carriage, another at Santa Eugenia station, and four more on a train running alongside the Calle de Tellez, about 800 metres outside Atocha.

By the end of the day tragic figures began to unfold; one hundred and ninety people were dead. Sixty-seven died at El Pozo Station, sixty-four next to the Calle de Téllez. The final toll at Atocha was thirty-four with sixteen more dying at Santa Eugenia Station. And nine more died later in hospital.

This gruesome total increased by two when a Special Forces agent died as suspects of the attack blew themselves up during a raid on their apartment, and two months later a baby born to a mother critically hurt in the attack succumbed to the mother’s wounds. As well as the dead, a further 2051 people were injured, 82 critically.

As well as the 142 Spanish who died that day, there were citizens from sixteen other countries: 16 from Romania, 6 from Ecuador, 4 each from Poland and Bulgaria, 2 each from The Dominican Republic, Columbia, Morocco, Ukraine and Honduras, and 1 each from Senegal, Cuba, Chile, Brazil, France, and the Philippines.

Such horrors and the innocent victims cannot and should not be forgotten.

Today, five years later, the city remembers that day.

In the Puerta del Sol, in the city centre, on the wall of the Ayuntamiento is a plaque. It reads:

A todos los que supieron cumplir con su deber en el auxilio a las victimas de los atentados del 11 de marzo de 2004 y a todos los ciudadanos anónimos que las ayudaron. Que el recuerdo de las víctimas y el ejemplar comportamiento del pueblo de Madrid permanezcan siempre.

To all those who carried out their duty to assist the victims of the crimes of the 11th of March and to all those anonymous citizens who helped them. May the memory of the victims and the exemplary behaviour of the city of Madrid stay with us always.

A friend who still lives near Atocha remembers the loudest noise she had ever heard. Friends and families were calling each other for reassurance. Ordinary people gave of their time to aid the rescue work. Everyone was affected that day, whether they were present at the scenes of tragedy or not, but everyone knows someone who was.

The sheer number of the resources mobilised that day were unprecedented in Spain. The health authority activated its emergency plan with more than 70,000 personnel called to assist. Nearly three hundred ambulances transported the wounded to hospitals all over the city. Non-urgent medical operations were cancelled as the injured arrived. Every operating theatre was in use. At the various scenes, two hundred firefighters searched the wreckage for survivors. There was always the danger that there were more bombs and in fact, a further three were found, their detonating mechanisms fortunately faulty. Bomb disposal detonated two within the station that morning, but it was not until the early evening that they found one more hidden in a rucksack in a pile of passenger’s luggage.

It is right that the city remembers their bravery and the parts they all played.

From all over the world messages of sympathy and support poured in. That day Madrid found it was not alone. The words came from a planet that reeled in shock. Madrid has never forgotten that support.
Located in the heart of the busy terminus, the Atocha station memorial is an eleven-metre high glass tower. Inside, held aloft by air pressure alone, is a thin plastic cylindrical membrane. Inscribed on the inside of the cylinder are inscribed some of those thousands of messages of condolence that arrived in the days following. They are in all languages and all scripts. In simple words the outrage of an appalled world is made plain - and its frustration.

In one way or another, they all ask the question, why?

This is a sombre place, but it demonstrates that the world is not full of terrorists. It quite literally spells out that the majority of the world’s inhabitants are good people, caring people. It is good to remember that when evil strikes.

Not far away from Atocha is another memorial.

Cross the Paseo de Prado and take a ten minutes walk to the entrance of the Puerta del Ángel Caido of the Retiro park. Once inside veer left into the trees and follow the winding path. Eventually you will come over a rise and look down on to a small hillock, not more than ten metres high. Around the base of the mound runs a trickling stream of water. Spiralling to the summit of the mound a narrow path leads to a small open area from where you can look down on a formal garden planted with olive and cypress trees.

This is the El Bosque de los Ausentes, or the Forest of the departed.

Engraved beside the water’s edge are the words:

“En Homenaje y Agradecimiento a todos las victimas del terrorismo cuya memoria permanece viva en nuestra convivencia y la enriquece constantemente.”

“In homage and gratitude to all the victims of terrorism whose memory permanently lives within us and enriches us constantly.”

There are one hundred and ninety two trees; One for every innocent victim of that fateful day.

Surprisingly, this is a pleasant place; A place to spend an hour with a book or taking the sun. However, because of the loss that it commemorates it can never be a happy place. As I walked the spiral path to the top of the mound, surrounded by the trees that remember and celebrate the lives so cruelly taken, I used to think it felt like being among the ghosts of the departed.

But now, when I visit, although I knew none of them when they were alive, I feel they are still with us. They are as much a part of the city as they were in life. Still living.

To those families that lost a loved one, a simple tree with never replace a personality. Gone forever is the soul, the laughter, the comradeship, the love, but not their spirit. Within the trees our memory of the victims will never die. The people of Madrid are strong people, caring people, defiant people. This memorial sends out once again to a watching world the message, “No Pasarán”.

The garden of remembrance is more than just a place to recall another massacre of the innocents. It is a place to recall that more than once Spain had picked itself up, dusted off the ashes, and got on with life. Here one can contemplate, despite the only statue of Satan in the world standing just beyond the trees, that although evil may have triumphed in one small battle, it will not win the war.

There will be many families in Spain today remembering a special someone who was taken from them on that day just five years ago. We, in our turn, should remember them.