4th anniversary of Madrid terror bombings

March 11, 2008 12:08:19 PM PDT
Aurora Baeza Ramirez reached a trembling hand into her purse and pulled out an old newspaper clipping with a photo of her son, one of 191 people killed in the Madrid train bombings four years ago Tuesday. "Look. Look at my son, look how handsome he was," she said, holding the paper as if it were something sacred, then broke down sobbing.

Baeza Ramirez pointed proudly to a small pendant around her neck, also with a photo of her son Jose Maria - an earnest-looking man with dark, closely cropped hair, his life cut short at age 39. "My other children made it for me to wear," she said.

Her outpouring of grief came after a memorial ceremony at which King Juan Carlos laid a laurel wreath at a towering glass memorial to the victims of the terror attack.

He and Queen Sofia, other dignitaries and a crowd of several thousand observed two minutes of silence at the stroke of noon to remember those killed and the more than 1,800 wounded four years ago.

A choir dressed in black sang a Gregorian chant-like piece meant as a tribute to peace. There were no speeches.

The ceremony took place outside Atocha station, the destination of each of four commuter trains that were ripped apart by backpack bombs on March 11, 2004.

Like many commuters that day, Baeza Ramirez's son was on his way to work - in his case as a doorman in Madrid.

"They took away my son," she said. "He never bothered anybody."

The king and queen were flanked by guards with 18th-century uniforms and plumed helmets as they stepped up to the monument: a three-story tower of opaque bricks. Inside, a transparent roof bears messages of condolence that Spaniards and others wrote on computers set up at Atocha after the bombings.

"Tomorrow I will leave home just like you did, in order to continue your journey," one inscription reads.

Other memorials were held elsewhere in and around Madrid on Tuesday. The ceremonies seem to draw less attention as the years go by, paling in comparison to how Spain came to a standstill on the first anniversary. Then, traffic stopped, workers put down their tools and people poured out of office buildings to observe five minutes of silence.

This time the run-up to the anniversary was overshadowed by an election that produced a win for Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the Socialist first elected three days after the train bombings.

In 2004, many voters turned against the ruling conservatives after they blamed the attacks on the armed Basque group ETA, despite mounting evidence that Islamic militants carried them out in retaliation for Spain's support of the war in Iraq.

Pilar Manjon, who lost her 20-year-old son Daniel in the attacks and serves as president of an association of March 11 victims, said this anniversary was harder than others: the new election brought back old memories, and a suspected ETA gunman killed a politician last week.

"It was hard to make it to today in one piece," Manjon told Cadena Ser radio.

Later, at a ceremony outside town, she spoke of the process of healing. "What we need to do is not forget, but rather to remember in peace," Manjon said.

A court in October convicted 21 defendants who stood trial in connection with the bombings. They were found guilty on charges ranging from weapons possession to mass murder.

The verdict said the cell acted to wage holy war. It did not mention the previous government's support for the Iraq war as a reason for the attack - an assertion militants claiming to act on behalf of al-Qaida had made in a video found just after the bombings.

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