In rail stations, city streets and in the “Forest of the Absent” — a grove of olive and cypress trees planted to remember the dead — Spaniards fell silent for a five-minute vigil Friday on the anniversary of the Madrid train bombings, a paroxysm of violence that killed 191 people as suspected al-Qaida militants devastated a country that had been their haven.
King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia led government leaders and visiting dignitaries at the main memorial event — a vigil inaugurating the 192 trees, one for each person killed on the rush-hour commuter trains and a policeman who died when suspects seeking to avoid arrest blew themselves up.
“Who will give me back my will to live, which died here a year ago?” read a letter stuck to a wall at El Pozo, hardest-hit of the four rail stations targeted by backpack bombs filled with dynamite and shrapnel. It was signed by a woman who identified herself as Susana, among those wounded in Spain’s worst terrorist attack.
The monarchs placed a wreath of white and purple chrysanthemums in Madrid’s main park at the edge of the grove. They bowed their heads and listened to the mournful strains of a cello piece composed by Pablo Casals.
Around the country, Spaniards stopped what they were doing and poured into the streets for five minutes of quiet remembrance. Earlier, as dawn broke, hundreds of church bells in Madrid rang out at 7:37 a.m. — one year to the minute after the first of the 10 rapid-fire blasts.
Shock has political reverberations
The attack, which wounded more than 1,500 people, shocked Spain into rethinking the way it deals with Islamic extremism and prompted Muslims in Spain to issue a fatwa, or Islamic edict, declaring Osama bin Laden an apostate unworthy of his faith.
At El Pozo, an emergency medical worker who had collected bodies and attended to the dying returned Friday wearing his yellow jumpsuit uniform to pay his respects.
“I will never forget the image of what happened here,” said the 42-year-old worker, who identified himself only as Paco. “I still remember the smell of gunpowder. Finding pieces of bodies on the platform. The image of a boy’s head on a bench.”
Another man tossed red and white carnations and roses onto the railroad tracks.
The blasts were claimed by militants who said they had acted on al-Qaida’s behalf over the presence of Spanish troops in U.S.-occupied Iraq. Conservatives were voted out of power three days after the bombings, with many voters accusing the prime minister at the time, Jose Maria Aznar, of making Spain a target. Aznar was in Mexico on Friday and did not attend the memorial events.
Spanish security officials and academics now say the Madrid bombings were probably less about Iraq than revenge for Spanish raids in November 2001 that broke up an al-Qaida cell accused of helping prepare the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
After the election, victorious socialists inherited a counter-terror system woefully unequipped to tackle Muslim militants who had operated freely here for more than a decade. Police had their guard down because they focused on the armed Basque separatist group ETA.
Unlike the unity that Sept. 11 triggered among Americans, March 11 — 2½ years to the day after the attacks on New York and Washington — caused deep, bitter divisions among Spain’s parties and their supporters.
Aznar’s Popular Party says the Socialists won only because of what it calls a surgical strike against his pro-U.S. government, and dismissed the new administration as all but lacking a mandate. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has repeatedly accused Aznar and company of lying to save the election by accusing ETA of the attack even as evidence of an Islamic link mounted.
As part of a security overhaul to prevent another attack, the government has dispersed Muslim militant prisoners in jails throughout the country to keep them from plotting together behind bars. The police unit specializing in Muslim extremism saw its staff quadrupled to 400.
Muslims speak out
Spain’s Muslims say they have suffered no backlash, but felt compelled to speak out against other Muslims who punished their adopted homeland so severely. The March 11 cell was made up largely of North African immigrants who had lived here for years.
The main organization representing Spain’s million-member Muslim community, largely Sunni, condemned the train bombing and on Thursday issued what it said was the world’s first fatwa, or Islamic edict, against bin Laden.
Organizers of the tree-planting ceremony, however, did not invite a representative of the group to participate. Mansur Escudero, leader of the Islamic Commission of Spain and author of the fatwa, said this did not make sense but that he was only “surprised, not offended.”
The fatwa called bin Laden unworthy of considering himself or being treated as a Muslim, and claimed support from Muslim leaders in Morocco — home to most of the 22 jailed suspects in the Madrid attack — as well as Algeria and Libya.
“We felt now we had the responsibility and obligation to make this declaration,” Escudero said. Outside Madrid’s main mosque — where many March 11 suspects prayed — about 50 people gathered Friday with banners in Spanish and Arabic denouncing terrorism.
The 22 people jailed over the bombings face preliminary charges of terrorism or mass murder. Fifty-two detainees have been released but are still considered suspects. A trial is not expected until late this year at the earliest.
A painful anniversary
Across the city, it was a painful day for many.
Candles were placed on benches along a platform at Atocha, another bombed station. A crowd of at least 1,000 people broke into applause after observing the five minutes of silence. Clapping after a funeral is a common Spanish way of paying one’s respects.
Attached to a railing overlooking the platform that was bombed was a single red rose with a sign that said, “For you, my love, who are no longer with me.”
Juana Leal, who lost her husband in the El Pozo blast, said she got up early Friday to ride a train at the same time he did a year ago.
“He never came back. I am bringing him flowers,” she said. Leal placed a bouquet of carnations and daisies at an isolated spot on the platform. Tucked into it was a small photo of her husband.