Dressed in mourning black, Spaniards yesterday commemorated their country’s deadliest peace-time attack, a decade to the day since al-Qaeda-inspired bombers blew up four packed commuter trains and killed 191 people.
Relatives of people killed on the trains, which were carrying rush hour passengers from Madrid’s suburbs when they exploded on March 11, 2004, filled the pews in the city’s Almudena Cathedral for a solemn memorial mass.
A single bouquet of red and yellow flowers lay before the altar as 1,000 mourners took their seats, including relatives in black and members of the emergency services in their green and yellow uniforms.
Spanish King Juan Carlos and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy joined in the solemn ceremony, leading the mourning by a nation still wary of violent Islamist radicals and “lone wolves” lured to their cause.
Juan Carlos, leaning on a walking stick after recent hip surgery, and his wife, Queen Sofia, embraced leaders of victims’ associations at the door of the cathedral before entering to doleful organ music and incense smoke.
The archbishop of Madrid, Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, leading the mass, remembered the victims in a homily.
“They died and suffered, and we suffer, because there were some who with blood-curdling premeditation were willing to kill innocent people,” he said.
After the attacks, however, “love triumphed over hate and life over death,,” as Spain rallied round to help the victims, he added.
A series of shrapnel-filled bombs detonated around 7:40am on March 11, 2004, in packed trains headed to Madrid’s main Atocha station, massacring 191 people, wounding about 2,000 and leaving many mentally scarred to this day.
Antonio Gomez, a 48-year-old bank computer specialist, was in a train at Atocha when bombs detonated, leaving him with a broken left leg.
“There were mutilated people, people thrown on the ground, people in a very bad state. I was one of the better off,” he said.
These days Gomez switches the channel when he sees television reports of the attack.
“On the 11th I will probably go to the cinema or watch the Disney Channel,” he said.
Spanish courts eventually sentenced 18 people for the bomb attacks. The seven chief suspects committed suicide weeks after the attack, by blowing themselves up in an apartment near Madrid, also killing a policeman.
On the eve of the 10th anniversary, Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz said al-Qaeda members refer often in their statements to “Al Andalus,” in reference to Spain.
“Clearly Spain forms part of the strategic objectives of global jihad. We are not the only ones, but we are in their sights,” he said.
The Madrid train bombing changed the immediate course of Spanish politics.
Then-prime minister Jose Maria Aznar’s conservative government immediately blamed the armed Basque separatist group ETA.
However, al-Qaeda soon claimed responsibility, saying the attacks were punishment for Spain’s role, under Aznar, in the US-led invasion of Iraq.
In a general election three days after the bombings, voters punished Aznar, handing an unforeseen victory to Socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
Since the day of the bombings, 472 suspected Islamic extremists have been arrested in Spain, Fernandez Diaz said.
The Spanish counterterrorist service’s alert level is at its second-highest category, signifying “a likely risk of attack”, he said.