The Madrid Massacre and Its Aftermath


By Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck Mar. 11 began as any other day. Students and workers boarded commuter trains to flood into Madrid from the dormitory towns where rent is still affordable. Sunday's general elections hung in the air. The sky was patched with blue.

Then came the explosions, ripping giant holes into four trains. Bodies and twisted metal were scattered around the stations. People ran from scene, knocking each other over. Dazed survivors picked their way along railroad tracks, heading for home.

FRANTIC CALLS. Soon after, as I walked downhill toward Atocha station, people bunched around portable radios at newsstands, listening incredulously as the death toll rose. The first reports said 15 were killed, then 20, then 25, as Spain awoke to its first terrorist massacre of such large dimensions. Throughout the day, the toll grew, finally reaching 200 dead and more than 1,500 injured.

Almost immediately, everyone was calling it Spain's September 11. And last Thursday bore all the hallmarks of that fall morning in 2001.

An overwhelmed cell-phone network collapsed as millions tried to connect with kin. Exhausted emergency workers wiped blood from their jackets. Others wept. Hospitals became giant emergency wards. At Gregorio Marañon hospital, bloody stretchers piled up in a corner, and hospital beds lined the corridors.

"SO MANY DEAD." Virginia Androne, a 60-year-old Rumanian immigrant who had been on a train ripped apart by one of the bombs, clutched my hand, her face bruised and the hearing in her left ear almost gone. "There were so many dead," she said. "To the left of me and to the right, it was full of dead people. And my husband has no idea where I am."

By midmorning, one doctor could no longer say how many people he had treated. Throngs of volunteer nurses and blood donors formed long lines outside hospitals. By early afternoon, a drawn-looking Health Minister sent them home. We have enough blood and help, she said. Go home.

Relatives of the missing began to flow into the temporary morgue set up on the outskirts of town. They clutched photographs and described sisters, fathers, and sons in chilling detail. A bracelet, a ring, a birthmark -- any clue that might speed up the process of identification.

"No, I'm not looking for anyone anymore," said one man, leaning against a pillar and smoking incessantly. "Unfortunately, I've found her here."

VAST RALLIES. Pockets of silence around the city recalled the quiet that cloaked New York City in the hours and days after September 11. Antonio Araujo, a bar tender at El Madroño in Madrid's old town, where cider is on tap and the vermouth is homebrewed, could count on one hand the number of tables that filled on Thursday evening -- usually Madrid's favorite night out. On Friday, white sheets pinned or painted with black ribbons began unfurling from windows. All flags hung at half-staff.

It's not fear that has dominated in Madrid since Thursday, however. It's a resolve to face down terrorism and a rising anger at those responsible.

"This country is very resilient," says Charles Powell, senior political analyst at Royal Elcano Institute, a Spanish think tank. "They have lived with Basque terrorism for years. And they know the value of turning out in large numbers to defy terrorism."

And so, with an efficiency bordering on the ritualistic, Madrid held the biggest mass vigil it has ever seen. Two million clogged the rain-drenched city. Across the country, one in four people took to the streets.

THE BLAME GAME. Young people painted "Peace" across their faces, wrapped black scarves around their hands, and lit candles. Familiar signs appeared: outstretched palms defying terrorism and slogans of "Enough already." And a new chant: "Who did it? Who did it?"

Later, as if purged of some of their grief, Madrileños shook the rain from their hair and filed from the streets into bars and restaurants. Wherever I turned that evening, the topic of conversation: Who had done this horrifying deed?

That question mattered, especially as the finger of blame began to shift from ETA to al-Qaeda.

It mattered not only to those who mourned their dead and wanted someone to blame. It mattered not only to Basques horrified at the thought that people in their midst might have slaughtered innocent civilians. As the specter of al-Qaeda's involvement emerged, it mattered to those still furious at their government's decision to back the war in Iraq.

"The bombs you have thrown on Iraq have exploded in our trains," shouted some of the thousands of people who turned up on the doorstep of the ruling party's headquarters on Saturday. By Sunday night, when most of the votes in that day's election had been tallied, it was clear that the same anger had been expressed at the country's polling stations.

When most of the votes in that day's national election had been tallied, the conservative Popular Party of outgoing Prime Minister and staunch U.S. ally Jose Maria Aznar had been ousted by the Socialist Workers' Party, led by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Less than a week before the massacre, opinion polls were unanimous in predicting Aznar's hand-picked successor, Mariano Rajoy, would be the country's next leader.

THE SOUND OF FURY. As night fell on the eve of elections, Madrid erupted once again into a deafening outburst of rage. First, quietly on one balcony and street corner, then in ever greater numbers and spreading around the neighborhoods, Madrileños began making noise. They banged spoons on casseroles. They slammed frying pans together. They rapped their knuckles against trash cans in the street.

"We're going to make them pay for what they have done to us," 40-year-old Phares Rodero said, standing next to a man who slapped empty beer cans together. "We never wanted any war, and now the war has come to us." The wounded city banged out its fury into the morning hours of election day, as helicopters spun their blades in the black sky. Von Reppert-Bismarck writes for BusinessWeek from Madrid


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