Remembering Madrid

Five years on, Spain's worst-ever terror attack continues to weigh heavily on the entire nation.

madrid train bomb 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
madrid train bomb 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
MADRID - Even though it's been five years, Pilar Manjon can clearly recall the events of March 11, 2004. Her son Daniel left home at 7:30 a.m., heading for the local university. Nine minutes later, says Manjon, he was killed by one of 10 bombs that ripped through four locations on Madrid's metro system, killing 191 people and wounding thousands. "I was at home listening to the radio when I heard what had happened," she says of Spain's worst terror attack. "In my mind, I was in denial, I didn't believe he was there," continues Manjon, who has since gone on to champion the rights of survivors of the attacks. "In these situations, people always want to deny the reality." Despite her doubts on that fateful day, Manjon woke up her other son, and the two went out together to look for Daniel. "We looked for him the whole day, that night and all of the next day," she remembers. It wasn't until the third day that officials called her to say her son might have been identified. It was another eight torturous days before forensic scientists were sure it was he. "My son was never buried, because there was no actual body," says Manjon, through her tears. Wiping them away, she adds that on the anniversary of his death each year, she joins other victims of the bombings, and together they pay tribute to those who died. "Looking into the eyes of others who feel what I feel is the only way that I was able to get through this," she says. Manjon is the president and founder of the 11-3 Terror Victims Association, which was set up in the aftermath of the attack to support victims and their families and to express an alternative reaction to already existing victims associations - some of which were calling on the government to immediately adopt harsh counter-terrorism measures and expel all foreign nationals from the country. For Manjon and the other 1,200 members of the 11-3 Terror Victims Association, the goal is to end all terrorism and violence - local and global - through dialogue and other peaceful means that would not curtail individual civil liberties or single out a particular people as a scapegoat for the attacks. "I never felt my son, Oscar, was killed by race or religion. It was simply that he had been killed," points out Jesus Abril, the group's vice-president, who has used the organization to reach out to other victims of terrorism worldwide, including in Israel, in an attempt to promote peace. "Until the day he died, Oscar was involved in demonstrating against war and violence, and it is this theme that I want to continue with my work in the association. The victory from our pain would be to create peace everywhere," he says. Maintaining a balance between this pacifist approach to terrorism and protecting its citizens from further attacks is a feat of which Spanish officials are extremely proud. They cite their 40-year experience in dealing with the Basque separatist terror group ETA, combined with painful memories of the Franco regime, as the main reasons for their successful balancing act. Many continually highlight the contrast between their "liberal" approach to combating terrorism and the stricter measures taken by other Western nations where large-scale terrorist crimes have been carried out, like the US or the UK. In Spain, say officials, "nothing has changed" since March 11, 2004. While many view this relatively peaceful response to such extreme violence as admirable - and five years without any follow-up terror attacks creates an illusion of calm - there are elements within Spain that admit it is only a matter of time before they become a target again. And all agree that with increasing unemployment, looming economic deprivation and unrest in other parts of the world, such as the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, radical elements could rise again. "The Jihad in Europe is not a fantasy, it is a reality," says Jose Maria de Irujo, a leading expert on terrorism from Spain's El Pais newspaper. "Spain continues to be a target because these terrorist elements are always looking for a way to attack." Though Maria de Irujo cites Spain's military activity in Afghanistan and Iraq as a possible trigger for the 11-3 attacks - it was this premise that was used to topple the incumbent Partido Popular political party in a general election just three days after the attacks - he admits that "even if the Spanish soldiers now in Lebanon and Afghanistan withdraw, terrorists will find new excuses. We were targets before Iraq, and we will continue to be targets after this, too." SINCE the bombings, which Spanish officials see as inspired by al-Qaida, 29 suspects of Muslim origin have been charged with masterminding the attack. Despite this obvious link between Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, many people in Spain claim that popular attitudes toward the approximately 1.5 million Muslims in the country have remained unchanged. Another member of the 11-3 Terrorism Victims Association, Isabel Casanova, whose son Jorge and husband Jaime were both killed in the attack, instead points to a snapshot of then-prime minister Jose Maria Aznar posing with US President George W. Bush as the main reason behind the bombings. "A few days after the bombings, journalists asked me if I was feeling hate toward those who killed my family, but even today, the feeling that I have in my body is not hate, but only love for the child that I lost," she says, highlighting her anger that Jorge, who had participated in a "Stop the Iraq War" protest several weeks before his death, "never understood the point of wars or violence." "My son was saying 'no' to war and no one was listening to him," continues Casanova. "I can never understand why politicians do not listen to the voice of their people." Mohammed Haidar, head of immigration and internal issues for Spain's largest trade union, the Labor Committees, says that conditions for the 10,000 immigrant members have not altered drastically as a result of the 11-3 bombings. "This does not mean that Muslim immigrants do not have more problems here than other new immigrants," he says. "Attitudes towards the Muslim immigrants [who are mainly of Moroccan origin] are reflected directly in the relationship between the two countries [regarding land disputes in Morocco]. When there is conflict, the situation for the immigrants is always worse." Although Haidar, himself a veteran immigrant from Morocco, claims the trade union has no political leanings, he does pride himself on organizing a protest against "Israel's aggressive invasion into Gaza" last month. He even points out that some 150,000 of the Labor Committees' 1.3 million members participated in the demonstration. "Any new terrorist attack will be a direct result of what is happening in Gaza," maintains Monier el-Messery, an immigrant from Egypt and imam of Madrid's largest mosque. "Most of these terrorist activities stem from what is going on in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine," continues the spiritual leader, insisting that Muslims are not the enemies of the Jews, but insinuating that it is beyond his power to keep his people totally calm or stop the disenfranchised from being recruited by radical elements. "What is going on in Gaza is a holocaust," he says. "But I have tried to tell my people that you can't correct one injustice by invoking another injustice instead." Muslim Spanish attitudes toward the Israel-Arab conflict aside, Messery says there have been efforts by the community to change perceptions that his people condone terrorism and violence. "We have to make it clear to everyone here that just like we don't think all Spanish people are ETA terrorists, not all Muslims become terrorists [either]," he says, adding that to a large extent, it is working. As for Manjon, even after five years, she, like most of the Spanish people, is still coming to terms with the tragic events of March 11, 2004. "It is difficult for me to understand the thinking of a terrorist who hates his own life so much that he is willing to take away the lives of innocent people," she says. "It is an act that is devoid of all logic." And her longing for ultimate justice, even though the perpetrators have been jailed, reflects the contradiction with which Spanish people today find themselves living. "I never felt anger about what happened and never wanted revenge. I only ever wanted justice," concludes Manjon, adding that in her eyes, that will only be achieved when members of the previous Spanish government also admit responsibility for policies she feels helped caused the attacks.