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The voices of the silenced

  • 22 May 2006

There has never been a time like this in Madrid.   Throughout Thursday 11 March, a silence reigned over the Spanish capital, long renowned as the most vibrant city in Europe. In part because of the devastating bombings which had caused it, but also because this is a city with a joyous disregard for noise, the quietness of this day was profoundly unsettling. Only in Madrid could silence be a violation.

Prior to the war in Iraq, daily street marches of up to a million people took place long after they had dwindled elsewhere in the world. On a cold March night in 2003, we joined almost the entire population of Madrid, banging our pots and pans in protest. It was a typically noisy Spanish way of saying that other people’s freedom was as important as their own.

But on Thursday 11 March, the silence was broken only by the sirens of emergency vehicles and the sound of circling helicopters. As they laid out the bodies alongside the tracks at Madrid’s Atocha station, emergency workers stood in anguish, trying to decide whether to answer the ringing mobile phones of the dead. At the makeshift morgue on the outskirts of the city, an emotion-filled voice read out over a loudspeaker the names, one by one, of those who had died, whereupon waiting families, finally knowing the worst, shuffled up the stairs and into the nightmare of identifying the body parts of their loved ones.

And then there was the sound of a million mobile phones, as Madrileños overloaded mobile networks trying frantically to track down family and friends. After a desperate hour or more spent trying to reach my wife’s family—we knew that her father and sister had been close-by when the bombings took place—I finally got through. Suddenly, I found myself unable to speak.

Leonardo, a Madrileño friend, told me simply: ‘I have never seen Madrid like this. This is a very special silence.’

By Friday 12 March, the silence had given way to the sounds of a defiant city. At midday, the demonstrations in support of the victims and against terrorism had already begun, despite not being scheduled to commence until 7pm. By early evening, central Madrid was filled with close to 2.3 million people (around 75 per cent of the city’s population). Across Spain, some 11 million people (more than a quarter of the entire country) marched in solidarity. The crowds on