Spain weeps as she buries her dead

In cemeteries across the stricken city, it was a day of mourning for dozens of families
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The Independent Online

The Saturday before a general election in Spain is set aside as a day for reflection. But the silence in Madrid yesterday was the quiet of the tomb, as dozens of families buried loved ones killed in the terrorist attack on Thursday.

In the suburb of Polideportivo Juncal de Henares, little Marcos Gonzalez wiped tears from his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket as he stood by the coffin of his father, Felix, while relatives comforted him.

There were many more tears shed this day. This is just the start. They cried beside the coffins of José Ramon, of Maria Teresa Mora Valero, of Hector Figueroa, of Neil Astocondo, of Frederico Miguel Sierra, of Laura Laforga, and, at the vast necropolis of Almudena, out on Madrid's eastern outskirts, near the Plaza de Toros, they cried as they buried Antonio Sabelete, 32.

Antonio came from Entrevias, "Between the lines", a tough suburb notorious for its poverty before the old tenements were replaced by estates. Antonio had done well: he had a good job, working with computers for the army, though he was not a soldier.

Antonio was a normal guy, very happy in his marriage, with a son soon to turn seven. He boarded the train for the short journey into the middle of town to work, as he did every working day.

"They had so much to look forward to," a cousin recalled yesterday outside the extravagant chapel of the cemetery with its spire shaped like a mango. Family and friends stood in clumps talking quietly, waiting for Antonio's mother, widow and child.

Almudena cemetery was a busy place yesterday; the rush-hour massacre has turned into a rush hour of the dead. Antonio's funeral at midday was to be followed immediately by another, and then another. The architecture of the place seems designed to take visitors' minds off their troubles: 19th-century neo-Aztec, delicate and fanciful red brickwork, punctuated by thunderous stone columns and twiddly bits and beautiful wrought iron gates.

Here and in other cemeteries around the city, scores of victims were lining up to be buried. Forty bodies or bits of bodies remained unidentified. Relatives with emotional exhaustion etched on their faces tramped into the cemetery and into the tender care of Red Cross volunteers. They brought as requested some personal item that might help in DNA identification.

That's what it has come down to in the Spanish capital. You know your loved one died because he didn't come home and he is not to be found in any hospital. But still you need information, and something to bury, some way to drawn a line under the terrible day. So you bring your loved one's toothbrush and maybe you will get satisfaction.

Or maybe they will send you on another pilgrimage to the far end of the city. Denko turned up at the cemetery yesterday morning, a haggard young Romanian on just such a mission: his uncle Andrea and Andrea's girlfriend, he didn't say her name, were on board one of the four trains blown apart. Uncle Andrea was wounded but is recovering in a hospital. But of his girlfriend there has been no word. Now he is going from hospital to morgue to cemetery with a Spanish friend and neighbour, trying to find some trace of her. If Almudena can't help, they will send him to the far side of the city, where the Institute of Forensic Anatomy inside the huge campus of Complutense University has begun the painstaking work of DNA testing. But they are not equipped to deal with dozens of cases all arriving at once, so the remains are stacked up.

Nearly a full day passed after the explosions before Antonio's family located his body, a day in which one horror led inexorably into the next: beginning with bodies and body parts strewn across the railway tracks, mobile phones bleating within the shredded clothing of the dead and the desperately injured; many lay on the gravel where they had been flung for two hours before emergency workers took them away.

And the nightmare continued all day. For Antonio's family it finished at 5am on Friday morning, in the surreal setting of a vast new exhibition centre way out near the airport, converted into a mass mortuary after all the regular facilities had been engulfed. There he was and thank God he was fully recognisable. "He looked pretty good," said a friend at the cemetery. "He had some wounds on his face from shards of flying glass, but that was all."

At midday yesterday Antonio's mother and the other close relatives arrived in a large blue Mercedes, and after the service inside the beautiful church all the mourners piled into their cars and drove slowly through the grounds of this noble necropolis, the graves with their life-size virgins and huge images of Christ crucified arranged in concentric circles over several acres. A hundred or so came to mourn Antonio's passing; the heavy stone lid of the family crypt was hauled back on steel rollers and the coffin lowered inside, bunches of flowers piled on the lid.

It could have been any ordinary funeral on any grey Saturday in early spring. Except that there were scores more like Antonio waiting to be buried.