Saturday, March 05, 2005

Time passes

One year on : a Madrid family's life after death

On 11 March 2004, the Madrid bombings left almost 200 dead. In the aftermath, Peter Popham met the Ruiz children, orphaned by the atrocity. As the anniversary approaches, he discovers how the family - and city - is coping

The Independent 05 March 2005

Juana Ruiz Martinez has something to tell me. But the words are scarcely necessary, the fact is engraved in her pale, woeful face. "There is nothing worse than losing your child," she says. "Saul was my only son. The pain is still unbearable."
I am in the cramped semi-basement living room where I met this family one year ago, when their grief was so raw they could hardly hold back their tears. There is the same big television and the ornaments in the highly polished cabinet, armchairs and a sofa squeezed around the coffee table, potted plants dotted about, a ray of anaemic daylight coming in through the tiny window.
Juana is here, the grandmother of the family, whose son Saul and daughter-in-law Laura died; also Lesly, Saul's cousin and auntie to his children. It was on the morning of Thursday 11 March 2004 that Saul and Laura, illegal Honduran immigrants, left this flat together and walked to Vallecas station and took the train to go to work. He was heading for the building site where he worked as a plasterer. She was off to clean offices. They had only ridden one station when the powerful bomb concealed in the backpack in their carriage exploded, killing them both.
They were two of nearly 200 who died that morning, as four bombs were set off simultaneously by mobile phone detonators, in Europe's biggest terrorist atrocity. Another 1,400 were injured.
The massacre meant different things to different people. For Europe's leaders it delivered the message that Islamist murderers were capable of terror attacks at the heart of western European democracies, and had the sophistication to time them for maximum political effect: the Madrid bombs went off three days before Spain's general election. Within less than a week of the bombs Spain's political landscape was transformed, the Socialists were in power, and the Spanish troops in Iraq getting ready to leave. Other Western leaders continue to brace themselves for similarly ambitious atrocities.
But for thousands of Madrilenos, the politics was beside the point, a meaningless distraction from the bitter pain of having family, marriage, livelihood, or as it felt to some like Juana, the entire meaning of their lives blown to pieces.
I went to meet this Honduran family in their tiny flat because their suffering, described in El Pais newspaper, was of the starkest. Saul and Laura, the couple who died, were the breadwinners. Between them, and often working seven days a week, never taking a holiday in all their years in Spain, they supported a large family: daughters Nixma and Kenya, 14 and 15, two boys called Saul (the oldest from Saul Snr's previous relationship) aged 13 and 20, and Saul's retired mother, Juana (her meagre pension barely paid her rent). They were also sending money back to three other children of Saul's in their pueblo in Honduras.
It was the original immigrant bootstraps operation. On their backs Saul and Laura took the weight of the great European promise, the dream of translating rustic Latin American poverty into urban European prosperity in the space of a generation, with all that that entailed: car, mortgage on a presentable flat, education, training, college degrees, a decent job at the far end of it. Annual holidays as a delicious mirage, glinting in the distance. Saul and Nixma were in school, Kenya halfway through training to be a beautician, the elder of the two Sauls at college studying to be an electrician.
But it was all incredibly vulnerable. They afforded, just barely, the mortgage on the flat at €600 (£410) per month, but could not afford the life insurance policy that would have underpinned it. They had a car but had to park it on the street in the raw suburb where they lived - and on the morning of 8 March someone broke into it and wrecked the lock, which was why they had to go to work by train, something they rarely did. To build up their tiny margin of security they worked all the hours they could, so when Laura's agency rang that morning to say her labour was required, she would not have dreamt of saying no. That was the series of accidents, driven by poverty and need, that led to them being on the train.
The bombs exploded, the railway cars were blown apart, the tightly packed commuters torn to pieces. By the end of that appalling day, burned into the flesh and the memory of this city, the family knew the worst. Saul and Laura were dead, identified by heroic Juana at the huge makeshift morgue set up in the new Ifema convention centre. The heart of the family, and the engine of their life in Spain, had been blown out. Three days later, 14 March, was Kenya's 16th birthday, but she had never experienced anything less festive. Tears rolling down her cheeks, she told me, "The only thing I wanted for my birthday was my parents back."
Time passes. That date is rolling round again. Spain has moved on, having disengaged smartly from Iraq. Now it has become the first country to endorse the new EU constitution. It is pushing hard, harder than any it appears, to get the 2012 Olympics. But the old Eta bogey is still around. In the immediate aftermath of 11 March the Basque separatists were blamed for the Madrid bombs. The error was quickly exposed: for all their wanton attacks and murders, they have never been so venomously random in their atrocities. But almost a month ago a huge Eta bomb went off outside the Ifema convention centre injuring 43 people.
And now the anniversary of the massacre is coming round, and the good news coming out of the family that lost its two central pillars is that they are still alive and kicking; they haven't got over the pain and perhaps they never will, but life of a sort has got under way again.
The Spanish government came to the rescue with proposals to help the families of the victims. The trains targeted by the bombers were coming from poor suburbs and many of the victims were working-class people on their way to menial jobs in the city centre. A huge number were, like Saul and Laura, illegal immigrants from Latin America. And when Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government realised that many of the bereaved were failing to come forward to identify their relatives because they were living in Spain outside the law, it hastily offered Spanish citizenship to all of them. Saul and Laura's family were among those who benefited.
"They offered nationality quite quickly," says Lesly. And the reason they are not now on the street is because the government followed it up with an emergency pension scheme for those bereaved by the bomb. Kenya, Nixma and the younger Saul, having lost both parents, receive €580 per month each; the older Saul, whose mother is still in Honduras, gets only €165 because he only lost one parent "which is not fair," he says, "because my hurt was just as bad," and the death of the two left him in just as much difficulty as the rest.
Juana the grandmother, who was as dependent on her son as anyone else in the family, failed to persuade the authorities that she was a deserving case too. "They said maybe they will give me some later," she says. The amount they get is "barely enough to make do," they say, a total of just over €1,900 for all of them. The three younger children will continue to get the money until they are 24, Saul the elder until he is 22. "We expected more help from the government," says Juana, "because there were so many of us, and we lost two people."
The offer of nationality came quickly, but the reality of getting the documents processed was a different matter. "The bureaucracy was terrible," says Lesly, who took charge of making sure all the forms were filled in and that the children got everything they were entitled to. "I was asking for time off to work on getting the nationality papers for the children, and I was working so hard on that that they fired me." She was a seamstress in a garment factory, the profession she had embarked on back in Honduras when she was 14. The family's last remaining breadwinner has been jobless ever since.
She is, however, pretty busy looking after the three younger children. You feel that without Lesly the family would be in much more trouble. A comfortable, plump, serene figure, the daughter of Juana's brother, she is the one who has begun the process of integrating the family into Spain, being married to a local man, Jose, who has his own business selling and installing air conditioners. "We have no children of our own, so these are my children, this is my family," she says simply.
Saul and Laura were the only Hondurans killed in the massacre which has made the family somewhat isolated among the victims' relatives but also made them special. The Honduran government went to great lengths to help them get over their loss, flying the whole clan back home for a week for the funeral, which was the first time any of them had been back in many years. "The funeral was hard," says Juana. "It was like having two funerals, going through it all twice. It was nice to see the family again, but because of the circumstances it wasn't the same thing."
And in Madrid, Juana has struggled to get over her sense that the most important thing in her life has been torn away. And so far she hasn't succeeded. "I never went back to my flat," she says. "Only once, to collect my things. Saul used to come to my house to see me. It was a rented place. I only went back to collect my things. Because I was needed here with the children.
"In the day time it's all right, I can get on with what I have to do. But I suffer a lot during the night. It suddenly comes to me, what happened." She couldn't sleep for more than short periods at night. Now the doctor has put her on medication to help her rest.
Now in the gloomy little living room they open the highly polished cabinet and take out some albums of photographs. A year ago there was a picture propped up from their last Christmas party showing Saul at the centre of attention, roaring with laughter, clashing glasses with Nixma to toast the holiday and the family's future, Laura looking on in the background. Today we leaf through the stiff vellum of the daughter's first communion album, parents and children staring out, all properly pious and solemn in their dresses and suits. The picture with Saul the joker has disappeared from view.
Then another picture drops out, of a small baby in a babygro. "Who's this?" I ask. "This is Stefania," says Lesly. When Saul and Laura were killed, it turns out that Saul had yet another child on the way, this time by a woman called Lourdes. "Yes, Laura knew all about it," says Lesly. "She had accepted it." And on 19 April, a month and a half after the bombing, little Stefania came into the world.
I say something banal about death and life always somehow keeping each other company. Lesly and Juana nod, smiling. "We weren't sure how it was going to work out," Lesly admits, "but as it happens we all get on very well. Little Stefania comes over here at the weekends." Life goes on.