Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Country In Mourning (Still)

On Tuesday, I felt compelled to talk about the disappearance and death of Mari Luz Cortés because I couldn't erase from my mind the images of her grieving family - and over 1,000 fellow townspeople - accompanying that tiny white coffin through the streets of Huelva. I was so fixated on her that I didn't even notice the date on the calendar. It was Señor Gato Gringo who snapped me out of my stupour with this scintillating verbal exchange:

"It's March 11th"
"It's March 11th."
"It's March 11th!"
"Oh, shit - you're right!"

The United States has 9/11, this is 11/M; and of course Tuesday was the 4th anniversary of Madrid's horrific train bombings. On that spring day in 2004, 191 commuters were killed and 1800 injured when 10 bombs were successfully detonated (another 3 were not) at three train stations at rush hour. Killed simply because they were going to work. Killed because of the hatred and cowardice of their misguided murderers.

Tuesday's official ceremony - no speeches, just the laying of flowers to the accompaniment of an orchestra and choir - was held at Atocha, Madrid's busiest downtown station, the station which saw the heaviest casualties. There are now permanent monuments to the victims both within the train station (the above photo is Atocha's art deco clock) and outside, and there is also the Bosque de los Ausentes (the Forest of the Departed) - a labyrinthine hill planted with 191 olive trees & cypresses - in Madrid's Retiro Park. All three monuments, although very different, share a simplicity of line and colour and rhetoric that draws the visitor deep within to his or her own thoughts.

There has been too much this week for the country to mourn.

This year's remembrance seemed especially poignant for Madrileños as 11/M fell just days after Sunday's federal election. In 2004, a federal election was held 3 days after the bombings. During that election, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and his socialist party toppling the favoured ruling government - a government that sought to blame the bombings on the ETA rather than consider other groups (such as an al-Qaeda inspired terrorist cell) - and were swept into office in a wave of protest.

Now Madrid is not the first city that I've visited or lived in with a history of terrorist attacks. I spent time in Middle Egypt in the early 90's shortly after fundamentalist groups there began to target tourist-laden trains and cafés; Morocco too has been terrorized by extremists. Just last year, bombs went off near an English-language school in Casa. As an English teacher, this brought the possibility of being blown up into tiny bits closer to home. But just closer.

But I didn't feel particularly threatened: not in Egypt, Sudan, Morocco, not anywhere - until Madrid. And I love Madrid. Absolutely love it. But the fact is that Señor G.G. and I took the Cercanías (commuter trains) or subway pretty much very day. And as I was stuffing myself into a train during rush hour like one of a million like-minded pimentos into a single olive, my mind invariably began to entertain dark thoughts. It could happen again. What if today is the day? Did I remember to wear clean underwear?

Maybe I felt, if not nervous, then acutely aware of my own impermanence in this world every time I rode on Madrid's trains because commuting is something that you normally don't question. You just do. You get on a train with millions of other people who are just rushing to work or rushing to get home. There's no suicidal pilot. No Twin Towers. No box cutters. Riding a train is unexceptional. Something you can do in your sleep. Not out of the ordinary but in the ordinary. Perhaps that's it - perhaps because in Madrid, the ordinary was attacked, and that somehow changed things. Even for someone like me who schlepped to work every day, without having to think too much about it, on a train - just like everyone else.

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