Elizabeth Nash: Lingering pain of a scarred and traumatised nation


The bombs that shattered the lives of commuters hurrying to work that crisp spring morning fell like a hatchet upon Spain, gouging a wound that traumatised the nation.

To those used to Madrid's high-decibel society, it was like living with the volume turned to mute. And even when it seemed life had returned to normal, that terrible day kept swinging back to strike another blow: the state funeral was a frigid mockery of protocol, redeemed only by Queen Sofia who embraced the weeping families one by one.

A parliamentary inquiry ended up as a point-scoring slanging match. Pilar Manjon, the spokeswoman for victims' families, something of a Madonna figure in her grief for her son, told politicians: "You are acting like children in a playground. You should be ashamed." They were, for a time.

Anniversaries came round, charged with reminiscences; people kept leaving candles, flowers and notes in gigantic improvised shrines at the affected railway stations. Eventually, authorities cleared them away, saying station employees found the relics emotionally overpowering.

Permanent memorials were established, a garden of remembrance in the Retiro Park, a glass monument in Atocha station, each moment reviving the trauma, while trying to salve it.

When London was shaken by similar terrorist blasts in July 2005, Spaniards mourned anew. A neighbour, never particularly friendly before, grasped my hands and said she understood my compatriots' feelings and shared my grief, as if I had lost a family member. Spaniards cannot forget the attack on their city but not just because of its emotional impact. In this politically attuned society, many believe the conservative government's alliance with George Bush in the unpopular war in Iraq provoked the attack.

Many insist equally intensely that the war had nothing to do with it. The Madrid bombings, three days before general elections on 14 March had a huge political fallout. In those three tumultuous days, when it became clear that Islamist radicals and not – as the government insisted – Eta separatists were to blame, popular opinion shifted dramatically. Jose Luis Rodrigo Zapatero's Socialists defeated the conservative government of Jose Maria Aznar and the new government's first act was to withdraw troops from Iraq.

Aznar's People's Party felt cheated of victory, and many Spaniards reckon it has yet to adjust to opposition. The political atmosphere was poisoned, with the investigation of the bombings tainted by accusations of party bias. As a result, victims and many ordinary people felt their emotions and their desire for justice manipulated by a divided political class and noisy media. Socialist sympathisers felt the conservatives blamed Zapatero for robbing them of victory that should have been theirs. In extreme cases, resentment twisted into a suspicion that Zapatero was somehow responsible for the bombings, that he must have known about it in advance.

The PP has not stopped bashing Zapatero from the moment he took office, even refusing to co-operate on anti-terrorism, a policy which previous governments always tried to settle by consensus. They berated him for approaching Eta for a deal, then blamed him when talks broke down.

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