Madrid: 'Family was all we had'

When Kenya Ramos heard about the Madrid bombs, she never thought her parents would be among the victims. Now she and her seven siblings face a future without them
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The Independent Online

Saúl Valdés and Laura Ramos almost never went to work together. He was in the habit of driving to whichever of the building sites dotted round the Spanish capital at which he happened to be working as a self-employed tiler and plasterer. Laura would get a call from the agency that sent her off to clean banks and offices in the city. The amount she worked varied according to demand. Sometimes she worked all day and didn't get home until after 11pm. But, last week, her services had not been required in the mornings.

Then, last Thursday morning, two things happened. Laura's agency rang to say that they needed her to work that morning after all. And Saúl discovered that someone had broken into his car, smashing the lock so the door no longer closed properly. He decided to leave it at home.

And so it came about that the couple - he aged 44, she 37 - who had left their native Honduras many years previously, walked together to Vallecas station, in the poor south-eastern quarter of Madrid where they lived, and, at about 7.30am, boarded a train together heading for Atocha, in the middle of town.

The next stop was El Pozo. As the train was pulling into the station, a powerful bomb, hidden in a bag that had been dumped in their carriage, exploded: one of 10 that were set to go off almost simultaneously in trains moving towards Atocha, heralding al-Qa'ida's arrival in Europe.

The bombs blasted José Zapatero, the leader of Spain's Socialists, into power, and Spain, more than likely, out of Iraq. They reverberated awesomely around the world, from Rome to Tokyo, in every country with troops committed to Iraq. Rarely has such an obscene atrocity, which killed 200 and wounded more than 1,600, been more artfully timed.

Among the repercussions less noticed, the attack also made orphans of eight Hondurans, three of them children. At the beeping of a mobile phone's alarm (that's how the 10 bombs were detonated), the tireless, unstinting efforts of two immigrants to build a new life for themselves and their large family were blown away.

Saúl and Laura's eldest child is called Kenya. (Saúl has four other children from a previous relationship.) Last Thursday, she had no more cares than the average teenage Madrileña, three days shy of her 16th birthday. Petite and pretty, with hennaed hair dragged back into a tight bunch and earlobes studded with multiple rings, wearing at this interview a long waisted brushed-denim jacket, jeans and silver sneakers, Kenya is halfway through training to be a beautician at a Madrid college.

Thursday was a normal school day. When the class began buzzing with rumours about bombs on trains at Atocha, Madrid's biggest rail terminus, Kenya wasn't particularly perturbed. "I didn't even imagine my parents were involved," she said. "Dad always went to work by car, and Mum had stopped working in the mornings that week. I thought Thursday would be the same."

Saúl, she supposed, would be grafting away on his walls and tiled floors as ever. And Laura would be enjoying some peace and quiet at home, doing the housework.

Kenya herself got home a little before 3pm. The phone was ringing as she came through the door. It was her mother's agency. Laura had never arrived at work, the person said. Did Kenya have any news of her?

It wasn't the first call that the family had received from Laura's agency that day. Laura's cousin Lesly Martinez, and Lesly's roly-poly Spanish husband José are the closest family the couple had in Madrid. Last year, they celebrated Christmas together at the flat of Saúl's mother, Juana Elvia, in a low-rent suburb over to the west of the city. The snapshots show the family clashing glasses before a modest Christmas tree. Saúl looks a real character, a chancer, a natural joker (which is also how his children describe him): teetering backwards, broad grin exposing a mouthful of gleaming teeth, long moustache glinting on his upper lip. Nixma, their 14-year-old daughter, has never known anything funnier or more delightful, her expression says, than raising a toast to family and future while someone takes a photograph...

Lesly and José were a rung or two above Laura and Saúl in the prosperity stakes: José has a job selling and installing air conditioners, and runs a large BMW. But the extended family is tight, close, warm. "There are bad people everywhere," says Lesly, "but I've been in Spain for 13 years and I've never really felt discriminated against. But when you leave your homeland, it changes everything. Family becomes more important than everything else, because it's the only thing you have."

Lesly knows what it means to struggle as hard as Saúl and Laura struggled: back in Honduras, there was not enough money to go round, so the children could not stay on at school, and Lesly went out to work when she was only 14. Today, she still works as a seamstress in a Madrid clothes factory.

Last Thursday, Laura's boss had been calling since early in the morning. Having found no one at home - exasperation and anxiety no doubt competing for dominance in his feelings - he telephoned Lesly, who had no idea what might be wrong. That was how the appalling circumstances of Thursday 11 March 2004 got under way.

News of the bombs was everywhere now, and the couple's friends and colleagues began calling in, too, ringing to check that the couple were safe. "We began to be anxious," said José. Lesly: "We knew she often caught a train at about the time that the bombs went off." José: "We began calling emergency services and hospitals, but none of them could tell us anything, they had no record of them."

José went on: "It was about 3.30pm that we started going round to the different hospitals, trying to find them. Nobody knew anything." Finally, at 8pm, they went out to Ifema, the huge new trade-fair centre near the airport, which had been pressed into service, with all the city's regular facilities overwhelmed, as a huge makeshift morgue. "We found them both there," he said. "Then we phoned the emergency number, 112, and they confirmed that their names were on the list of those who had been killed."

It was Juana Elvia, the children's doughty grandmother, host of that Christmas party, who identified the bodies.

With Juana Elvia, the couple's Spanish story ended, and it was with her that it had begun. It was she who, in the late 1970s, was the first of the family to make the flying leap to the Old World in search of a better life. It had never been easy for her, any more than it was easy later for Saúl and Laura: doing menial work all day every day, scraping and saving, renting a flat then subletting most of the rooms, sending a little cash home every month to Honduras.

It was Juana Elvia's brother who taught Saúl his trade as a tiler, plasterer and all round building-site odd-job man. And it was Juana who persuaded Saúl to come over to try his luck in Madrid. Saúl slaved and saved, brought Laura over, and then the children one by one, all camping in granny's flat (they paid her rent), and it was the beginning of a family saga of determination and endeavour and aspiration: a small story, a microcosmic story of no importance at all, no doubt, put up against such weighty themes as the War on Terror, let alone Islam's Revenge on the West. But in its own way, the story of our times, more than any other. "He worked seven days a week," Kenya said yesterday of her dead father. "We never went on holiday. There was never the money to spare. Sometimes we went to the swimming-pool..."

And there he is in the Christmas snaps, Jack the Lad with the brimming glass, Mr Big for Choloma, the Honduran town where he and Laura first met: the man who went east and struck lucky, and put all the children through school, and even (wonder of wonders) finally bought his own home, yet still put money by to send to his other family every month. (Sometimes, the family say, it was at the expense of the monthly mortgage payments.) "He was a lot of fun to be around, he liked joking, he liked to make other people happy," said Lesly. More than that, he was a man of substance.

And now, this is a family of eight orphans and no breadwinners. All four children in Spain are still in school: Saúl junior, the father's 20-year-old by his previous partner, is studying to be an electrician. Laura's cleaning work - she'd been doing the job for nine years - brought in €500 per month. Saúl's earnings fluctuated wildly from month to month. But last Thursday, al-Qa'ida blew away the pillars that kept this family alive and kicking. Even Juana Elvia will be in trouble: 69 now and retired, her tiny pension is certainly not enough even to support her, let alone anyone else.

What is to be done? They haven't got a clue. And the events are still far too close for any practical problems to be addressed. Now it a time for tears, when everything is filtered through the miasma of confusion, misery and desperation. It's a strange time: the family has lost the two people whose toil held it together, they are staring into a black abyss. But, despite this, rumours of their salvation are reaching them as well.

The Spanish authorities, appalled when they learnt that some immigrant families were failing to come forward to identify their dead, announced that Spanish nationality would be available to all families of non-Spanish victims, and no awkward questions asked. Spain will fly the bodies of Saúl and Laura to Honduras tomorrow, along with the immediate family, for burial there. The Honduran Embassy in Madrid - Saúl and Laura were the only Hondurans to die - has also been enormously supportive. The wife of the President of Honduras, a Spanish woman from Seville, keeps ringing up "every five minutes" to offer comfort and promise support, and paid for the tickets to Honduras for the rest of the family out of her own pocket. Return tickets, the family say firmly: they will be back "home" in Honduras for only a week, they insist. This is home now, thanks to their parent's efforts. "The only thing we can do," says Lesly, "is face the future and go ahead."

So, perhaps it's not a black abyss that they are staring into. The Spanish government has also offered financial relief for victims, without so far being drawn on the particulars. Perhaps it will all be all right.

But this week it remains all bitterly wrong. Kenya's 16th birthday came on Sunday. Nothing, she says, felt less like a birthday. "The only thing I wanted for my birthday," she said at the end of our interview, "was my parents back."

Anybody wishing to make a donation to the children of Saúl and Laura can remit cheques or cash to the following account: Caja Madrid Bank in Madrid, Spain, account number 2038297805 3000124894, account name Lesly Martinez Motino. This arrangement has been approved by the Honduran Embassy in Madrid