A nation in mourning: 'We are shocked. We can't understand what has happened to us'

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Impassioned crowds filled the streets of cities across Spain last night, millions of people of all ages and classes marching to express their indignation at Thursday's massive terrorist atrocity in Madrid and chanting defiance and solidarity against the bombers.

Impassioned crowds filled the streets of cities across Spain last night, millions of people of all ages and classes marching to express their indignation at Thursday's massive terrorist atrocity in Madrid and chanting defiance and solidarity against the bombers.

Police estimated that more than two million were on the move in central Madrid, more than half the city's population, waving their hands in rhythm as they chanted "Cowards", "Killers", "Assassins", millions of umbrellas filling the capital's mighty boulevards under teeming rain.

The Prime Minister, José Maria Aznar, had called for the protest against terrorism, and he, the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, and the Queen and Crown Prince of Spain made up a bedraggled group at the front of the march, bound for the station near which the bombs exploded. But in no way did this feel like a government initiative: if Mr Aznar had not proposed it one feels it would have happened anyway.

And it was matched by other gigantic gatherings across the country: in Seville, Barcelona, Valencia, Santander, Zaragoza, Bilbao and elsewhere crowds of historic dimensions braved often filthy weather to demonstrate for life. "Why?" read one huge banner. "The Doctors of Madrid say Yes to Life," another. "We Were All On That Train", another.

"This is one of the worst days in our history," said Juan Echanove, an actor marching last night with other colleagues behind the banner of the Actors' Union. "I am marching today to be against terrorism and to be with the victims. I only have my voice and my words. It is very important to be here."

Dolores Ripoll, a research worker in central Madrid, carried a piece of paper with the name Patricia Rzack printed on it in large letters. Patricia was on the train blown up at Atocha station, and when she succumbed to her injuries yesterday afternoon she became the 199th person to die. A little Polish girl, she was only six months old.

"I live near Atocha station, where the blasts happened," said Ms Ripoll. "It was incredible to think of something so horrible happening so close."

She was carrying Patricia's name, she said, "because today the city is deeply upset. We can't understand the dimension of what happened. That's why I decided to write the names of some victims, to remind us that there were real people who died."

Spain remains a nation in deep shock. Commuters coming in from the Madrid suburbs yesterday morning stared woodenly out through the drizzle.

The blown-out trains were still sitting on the tracks outside Atocha station.

And when those burnt-out hulks came into view, the train slowing as it approached the buffers, passengers got to their feet and crowded to the windows and stared, some crying, some clasping their hands to their mouths, some merely shaking their heads, some looking away and catching their breath. None spoke. It happened only 24 hours before. It could just as easily have been them, their children, their wives and husbands in those nightmare wrecks.

Loops of black ribbon, the sign of mourning in Spain for victims of terror, hung in the cab of every train arriving at the terminal.

"I came with a lot of fear," said Isabel Galen, 32, arriving at Atocha from the suburb of Fuenlabrada. "I saw the trains and I burst into tears. I felt so helpless. I felt such anger." As she spoke tears and make-up ran down her face.

It was not only Spain's worst terrorist attack in history, it was Europe's worst since Lockerbie. Ten separate bombs hidden in backpacks shattered three trains in and approaching Atocha station, exploding almost simultaneously on Thursday morning.

The death toll in the atrocity rose overnight to 198, with 1,400 wounded, many with horrific injuries. Eighty-four of the dead remained unidentified. The government said that foreigners from at least 10 countries were among the dead. Many foreigners were also among the injured.

Atocha and the other stations near the sites of the explosions were transformed into makeshift shrines to the dead. Under the red brick dome of a new annex to the 19th-century station, people lit candles, spread bunches of flowers on the ground or put them in vases and left written messages of sorrow, anger and commiseration. "For the victims and for world peace," read one. "No more deaths." " Ya Basta," read one simply: "Enough!"

Spain has been repeatedly struck by terrorist violence in the past, with the movement for Basque independence, Eta, killing more than 800 people in a long series of bomb blasts and assassinations, in the course of a 40-year campaign. But Spain has seen nothing like this: with no warning given beforehand, no pretence of targeting the high and mighty, aiming instead at masses of the harmless and innocent: working-class commuters heading in for work from the anonymous red-brick housing estates in Madrid's bleak south-eastern suburbs.

Whoever was behind the blasts, Spain yesterday appeared united in grief and pain. Flags everywhere hung at half-mast, the city's museums closed for the first of three days of mourning, impromptu commemorative vigils were held in villages, towns and cities across the country.

Then at midday yesterday people all over Spain stopped what they were doing and went out into the street to remember the dead and injured. Workers downed tools, motorists stopped in the middle of traffic, turned off their engines and got out of their cars. Everywhere people stood in silent mourning, not for a bare minute but for five, 10 or even 15 minutes. Cafés and bars emptied out and a good proportion of the Spanish population stood bareheaded, expressing their solidarity with the sufferers. At the end of it they clapped, a Spanish way to show respect and say goodbye.

But here at Atocha it was a noisy kind of silence, with police sirens wailing around the station and a helicopter hovering - and then suddenly travellers approaching the station intending to go down to the booking office and the tracks were forcibly thrust away by dozens of police who appeared from nowhere. "Bomb alarm!" they shouted, manhandling passers-by, screaming at drivers to get out of the station precincts.

It turned out to be a false alarm: within 20 minutes the shutters of the shops inside the station were being raised again, trains were on the move, more people were arriving to add their candles, flowers and messages to the shrines both outside and inside the building which continued to grow by the minute.

But the bomb scare was a revealing moment in a city numb with shock and grief and jittery at the same time, living on its nerves. Europe's young, sleek, dynamic democracy was moving at a stately pace towards a general election in which the ruling conservative Popular Party was expected to gain a third successive mandate, and after which little was expected to change. Then these brutal and so far unknown enemies mugged the entire nation.

It was not lost on many that the day of the bombing was precisely two and a half years after 11 September 2001. The cartoon in one Madrid newspaper yesterday showed a hijacked airliner smashing into a ballot box resembling a skyscraper.


A NEW gesture was added to the vocabulary of popular Spanish protest last night: a raised hand, palm outward. Daubed white or marked with 'el lazo del luto' (the black ribbon of mourning), it has become a symbol of Spain's refusal to give in to violence.

The gesture was first adopted following Eta's killing of Miguel Angel Blanco, a 29-year-old Popular Party councillor from the Basque town of Ermua in 1997.

Until last night, the white hands have been raised only in protest at Eta. But since Thursday's bombings it has become a symbol of Spain's grief and its people's repudiation of terrorism.