"Nothing like this should ever happen"

A year after the train bombings, pain is still etched on the streets of Madrid.

By Duncan Campbell
Published March 11, 2005 4:10PM (EST)

A pair of spectacles, a set of keys, a student card, a watch, a few euros, a single gray trainer. Rita Betancourt removes the objects delicately from a small green box and places them on the table of the immaculate suburban home where she and her husband, Luis Tenesaca, now live alone. These are the remains of what their only child, 17-year-old Jose Luis, had with him when he set off cheerfully for college in Madrid on the morning of March 11 last year.

Like many other mothers, fathers, lovers, sisters, brothers, friends, Rita Betancourt will be finding the next few days especially painful. The anniversary of the bombing of the four rush-hour trains in Madrid that took 191 lives and left more than 1,500 injured and countless bereaved comes at a time when rival politicians have been bickering over who was to blame and amid angry calls from the victims' relatives for a new commission to take over the inquiry into "11-M."

"We came to Spain from Ecuador because my son was a very bright student and we wanted him to have a better education," said Rita, who remembers the day she arrived in the country with Jose Luis -- April 4, 2000 -- to join her engineer husband, Luis, who had come a year earlier.

"He was a very special person. He wanted to work in films as a scriptwriter. He was very interested in documentaries but he liked all kinds of films -- action films with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Latin American films, Spanish films by Pedro Almodóvar -- and he was interested in animation, too, because he liked to draw." His sketchbook is full of copies of film stills and stars.

"We haven't touched his room at all," said Luis, gesturing at the walls with their posters of Kylie Minogue and Angelina Jolie, "The Matrix" and "Spider-man" and a Bart Simpson replica propped up against the pillow. "Since we heard that he had not arrived at college that day, it has been one long nightmare."

On a shelf beside bound encyclopedias that may never be opened again, and between a model of the Incredible Hulk and a tiny picture of Jesus, are Jose Luis' ashes in a small satchel that Luis touches as he talks. They had only moved into their small apartment in the modest working-class suburb of Torrejon Ardoz 10 days before the bombs exploded.

Rita's family are still in Quito in Ecuador, and Luis is from the Ecuador-Peru border. Had they thought of returning? "My son is here, so we are staying here," he said.

The picture they paint of Jose Luis is of a studious young man, fascinated by the history of Spain and Madrid, who liked to visit the Prado, listen to U2 and hang out with a small group of friends, avoiding the big crowds because, as a nonsmoker, uninterested in football and intrigued by yoga and spirituality, he preferred a quieter life of reading and studying film, and making giant jigsaws. One is of the New York skyline with the Twin Towers still standing, which his parents have framed and hung on the wall.

One year on, the pain for his parents is as raw as ever. "For my part, I do not feel bitterness," said Rita. "There are some people who would like to see them [the bombers] dead, but I am not one of them. I see it as a problem of education. As for my son -- his dream was that everyone should be equal and that nothing like this should ever happen."

They are critical of the media for constantly showing the pictures of the aftermath of the bombs, and they have found the psychological help offered to be of little comfort. "The only people who understand what we feel are the other families," said Luis.

They meet a group of around 20 others who have lost someone every Tuesday night in Madrid, and a Bulgarian couple whose son was killed lives nearby.

As with the Sept. 11 attacks, many of those who died were immigrants. They had come to Spain from almost every Latin American country and from eastern Europe in search of a better life; 16 Romanians were among the dead.

In recognition of this, and with public support, the Spanish government granted permanent residency to those injured or bereaved, but some are still facing bureaucratic hurdles because of a lack of papers, the Bulgarian friends of Luis and Rita among them. "We are OK," said Luis, "but the government has not done everything they said they would do for them."

Pilar Manjon, the spokeswoman for the victims, whose 20-year-old son was killed, has berated the politicians for trying to score points rather than investigate how the attack might have been prevented. Last December, dressed in black, she poured scorn over the Spanish Parliament, accusing the politicians of "playground politics" and of shirking responsibility. "You are here to find out the truth; don't use our pain for political gain," said Manjon, a union leader.

The row over former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's original suggestion that ETA (the Basque separatist movement) was responsible rumbles on, with current Premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero accusing Aznar of wiping computer records about the bombings to perpetrate a "massive deceit." He also claims the police had failed to track the growth of Islamist extremism in the months before the attack, presumed to be prompted by Spain's support for the war in Iraq. Zapatero withdrew the troops after taking office.

Manjon has been seeking a fresh commission without any politicians attached and has called for the imposition of the maximum penalty of 40 years without remission for those convicted. "The victims are being given a lot of help," said Luis Portero of the Association of Victims of Terrorism. "Does that mean they can get their loved ones back? No -- but it does mean that things have changed in attitudes to victims in this country from the days when people were killed by ETA and no one wanted to talk about it.

"The pain is going to remain, but the pain can also make you take a new perspective on life; it can make you more sensitive to others and convert your suffering into a gift for others. The victims of the Holocaust and the Second World War did not get the sort of help that is being made available now, so in a way we are the lucky ones."

Although the scale of the casualties was different from Sept. 11, there were similarities in the detailed planning and in the aim to kill as many as possible.

By chance, Puerto Rican writer and academic Lisa Paravisini was present for both events. "The mood and the media coverage here were less cataclysmic," she said. "In New York, everything was paralyzed; they went into high paranoia that the whole country was under attack like a Hollywood disaster movie. Here the aim was to get back to normal as quickly as possible."

There is a memorial at the Atocha train station in central Madrid where people can leave a computerized handprint and type in a message. There are 58,000 such handprints and messages now. Some say simply, "No words are enough." Others are angry: "200 people died for an absurd religion and a God who doesn't exist." Some of those who leave messages knew the victims; for others it is almost a tourist attraction as they pose beside video images next to platforms where passengers now face airport-style security.

Part of the memorial consists of six hanging white pillar-shaped objects on which are written thousands of messages from loved ones and sympathizers. A teacher, Macarena Sarrion, from Alicante, said she had come out of solidarity with the victims but was upset at the way events had been handled. "I think the politicians are making use of the suffering of the victims for their own ends." Handwritten expressions of loss and regret spiral around the pillars. None sadder, perhaps, than one tiny scrawl that reads: "04-12-2004. Irene. Te amo. Diego."

Duncan Campbell

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