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Monday, 15 March


Iím not one for mass emails or getting emotional, but now I have a story to tell you. Itís my personal story, because I cannot tell it any other way. Itís about Spain. About the past four days. Hear me out.

At 6:45am GMT (7:45am Spanish time) on 11 March my mother rang me. She was crying hysterically. For those of you who donít know her, my mother really really is not the kind to cry hysterically. She fought underground for democracy in Spain, sheís tough as nails. My mother lives in Valencia. Every morning she wakes up at 7am, has breakfast (coffee and yogurt) listening to Radio SER, and then gets a red and white train to go to work. The red and white trains are a national network of short distance overground trains. On Thursday 11 March my mother, who fought for democracy and is tough as nails, could not bring herself to go to work on those trains. The same trains that had been blown to shreds in Madrid. All she could do was sob, and all I could do was run to my computer and find the El Pais website to make head and tail of what she was telling me.

I didnít get any work done on Thursday, and my gratitude is to those members of exec [the Executive Committee of the Oxford University Student Union -- Ed.) who held a minuteís silence at my request and who continued to feed me information. I was glued to the El Pais website. The death toll kept rising. It canít be ETA. ETA wouldnít do that. Not without a warning. The bombs exploded in the most famous working class neighborhood in Madrid, where the Communist Party of Spain was founded. ETA would never do that. Itís not like them, it canít be them. I began to count my friends in Madrid, and rang them one by one. All okay. All shocked. Most of them being volunteers and donating blood. Slowly, emails from friends in Spain started coming in Ė this is mad, I donít understand, why, why?

I didnít sleep on Thursday night. I read every newspaper available online. Is it Al Qaeda? 911 days since 9/11. The traits begin to be there. Trains early in the morning targeted at commuters. Much like planes in NY. Bombs set to go off when the emergency services arrive (thankfully, they didnít go off because of a fault in the mechanism). A chilling letter to a London paper from a Muslim fundamentalist group. ETA denies it. ETAís illegalised political branch (HB) condemns the attacks. It must be Al Qaeda. Why is no-one from the government saying anything?

Friday morning, wide awake after four hours sleep. I really want to go home now. I read El Pais in my office and cry. 200 dead. 1500 wounded. The b*stards put shrapnel next to the bombs to make sure more people were hurt. Hijos de puta. The government is still sure itís ETA, although they are looking at the Al Qaeda possibility. Campaigning for the general election has stopped, but this is quickly becoming an electoral issue. If it was ETA, the tough line right wing party (Partido Popular, PP) will have the upper hand. If it was Al Qaeda, the anti-war left wing party (Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol, PSOE) will get the advantage. Tell us the truth, for the dead and the wounded, just tell us who did this. Reports start coming in about fascists taking the streets to condemn all those who are not Spanish (Basque or "darkies", doesnít matter). Spaniards would never do this to Spaniards, they shout. My mother rings. She has gone from despair to anger. She tells me of the pride and dignity of the Spanish people, and of disgust at the fascists. She also says that there are rumours on the radio that the government is not telling the truth. The King addresses the nation Ė dignified, sad and a democrat at heart. It is good to hear him speak.

Friday, 7pm, eleven million Spaniards walk the streets in the pouring rain. Mostly in deadly silence. I sit on the Oxford Tube and wait for my mother to ring and tell me the news. Instead, a friend from Valencia rings. Sheís just come back from the demonstration. Silence, but also angry shouts occasionally. Against the war. Against ETA. Against Aznar. Against terrorism. Against lies. For the truth. She says no-one knows where to channel their anger, and the tension is palpable. I feel the tension. I am carrying a suitcase on the tube in London. I leave it on the side and sit down. Three people come over to ask whether the bag is mine. Clearly, there is tension in London too.

Satruday morning I fly to Spain. I buy El Pais at the first available opportunity and read it all the way through. The personal stories: a little girl in a pink coat looking for her mother, a seven month old baby found alive but dies later, a lad who would be eighteen today and was excited about voting, a nurse whose boyfriend was amongst the wounded. I am quite visibly emotional, and the woman next to me puts her hand on my arm. We are all Madrilenos, she says. Her friendís friend is amongst the wounded. My friendís brotherís girlfriend is amongst the wounded too. If there are six degrees of separation from anyone in the world, how many degrees of separation are there within a country? Not many, it would appear. I read the Guardian as well Ė the Spanish government is still not confirming whether it is Al Qaeda or ETA, but the balance of evidence points to Al Qaeda according to most foreign intelligence services.

The British tourists on a hen night trip to Barcelona really irritate me. They are all wearing red and drinking gin and tonics, and seem oblivious to the sombre atmosphere of most Spaniards on this flight.

In Barcelona, my motherís best friend is waiting for me. Sheís asked whether Iíll take a later train and talk to her for a bit. She lives alone, and has felt very lonely and scared in the past few days. We sit in a cafeteria in Barcelona train station. The bustle of Spain is there, but it seems subdued. Like weíre all dumbed, numbed. We talk about what is happening. She is another fighter of democracy, and another who is comparing the tension and fear and lies with the dictatorship. I cannot understand why that is the reaction of so many of my motherís contemporaries, but I hold her hands and hug her.

Train to Valencia. Itís packed. Good to see none of us are scared of trains. I sit next to a young man listening to the news on the radio. I am re-reading El Pais. He turns to me and tells me that Radio SER has just announced that three Moroccans and two Indians have been arrested, but the government is not saying anything. We both glue our ears to the radio. The rest of the carriage realises what is going on and hushes. We relay the news, and soon enough arguments break out. ETA could be working with Al Qaeda. ETA is trying to confuse us. No, no, this is clearly Al Qaeda. The consensus is clear Ė the government has got to say something. Finally, the Home Secretary speaks Ė yes they have arrested them in connection with the bombing, yes they are Muslim fundamentalists, but it is still not clear whether it was ETA or Al Qaeda. Like one, the passengers shout in anger. Itís a cover up.

Arrive in Valencia. My mother hugs me tight and we go home. On the way I see a group of people beginning to congregate in the main square, in front of the PPís offices. It smells like direct action to me. I drop my bag at home and run back to the square. Immediately bump into friends. The plan is to block the road. And so we do, about three hundred of us. Other people start arriving soon. Mostly young, but not all. I bump into a teacher from school, and also into the ex-director of a bank who is a friend of my motherís. There are now about fifteen hundred people. Silent, hands up in the air, placards reading "Tell us the truth, murderers, tell us the truth". And then we begin shouting: "Weíre not all here, weíre missing two hundred", "no to war, no to war", "this is what we get from a fascist government", and, louder than all the others, "Tomorrow we vote! Tomorrow we vote". A child in a push chair is sleepy, but looks amused at the chanting. His mother teaches him the chant and he joins in, clumsily. The police donít know what to do. They just kind of stand around. And then the news comes Ė the government is accusing the PSOE of calling the demonstrations, they are thinking of declaring an emergency and stopping the election. One step to make this crowd angrier. The angrier we get, the more tense the police get. It takes one violent shove from a policeman to make people run away, and then come back relentless. We spend most of the night like that. More news comes in Ė Radio SER has talked to the Spanish intelligence services. They have known it was Al-Qaeda for a while, but the Spanish Home Secretary is refusing to talk to them. A leaked memo shows that the Spanish Foreign Minister instructed every Spanish ambassador on Friday to say it was definitely ETA. Donít trust the TV. (After all, the director of the Spanish national TV has been found guilty of twisting the truth by an EU court.) Tune in to the French radios. The older members of the crowd again talk about remembering fascist times. By about 2am more news starts coming through Ė the Home Secretary has finally acknowledge that they do know it is Al Qaeda. The electoral commission has thrown out their complaint that the demonstrations were called by the PSOE and that the election is illegitimate.

The Sunday morning papers are an odd mix of indignation and tragedy. Still more stories of the dead and wounded in the bombings. But also the tragic story of a policeman who shot a baker in the Basque Country because the baker would not put a sign condemning ETA for the terrorist attack on Madrid. The indignation comes mostly from foreign journalists, notably someone from the BBC saying that in thirty years in journalism he had never been put under so much pressure by a government to twist the truth. I take my mother to vote, and then get a call from a friend. She and her brother told their parents (PP voters) that they were voting PSOE. Her father called them both terrorists and they are locked out of home for the day. The two Spains, again, reminding us of our past. I go to vote with brother and sister and then my mother gives us all lunch. I then have to take my grandmother to vote (sheís allowed out of bed for this, she was quite insistent). She walks very slowly and has forgotten her glasses, she asks whether I can pick out the right voting card for her. I ask her, with some trepidation, which one she wants. The PSOE one, if you please. !!!!!!! Eighty two years old, fifty five years a fascist and she's refused to vote for the past twenty five years because she doesnít believe in democracy, and now she is voting Socialist. Either she is senile (a possibility, mind you) or things are changing.

No-one has had any sleep and by 8pm, as polls close, my motherís house is packed with socialist activists. We are all buzzing, arguing. Each time Aznar comes on the TV, we boo. Each time Zapatero comes on telly, we clap and shout. We go quiet when Blair comes on. Silent. And then one of my motherís friends rather precisely spits on his face. I am afraid Mr Blair has lost any respect he had in this country. If the rumours are true, he helped Aznarís cover up of who the terrorists were. And that is a disgrace. The polls begin to come in, and we are winning. By a lot. I wonít bore you with a minute by minute account of the count (Iíve gone on for a while already). Just to say, there are 350 members in the Spanish congress. In 2000 Ė PP: 183 (absolute majority), PSOE: 125. In 2004 Ė PP: 148, PSOE: 164 (simple majority). Thank God, the Virgin Mary and the Holy Grail, says our next door neighbor.

At about midnight we are outside the PSOEís offices in Valencia. As we wait, we jump and shout "youíre from the PP if you are not jumping!" All ages jumping for joy. Zapatero comes out to declare his victory and asks for a minuteís silence for the victims. Hands up in the air again, we fall silent. When the PSOEís candidate for Valencia comes out to speak, she is greeted with three chants: "no to war", "weíre not all here, weíre missing two hundred" and "Life without Aznar, what joy!" Not sure any of that translates too well. It was an odd mixture of exhilaration and sorrow. Dignity, respect, anger, joy. Weíve cried many seas, shouted till we lost our voices and smiled to wash it all away.

This morning the news was hopeful. Esperanza is the word in Spanish. The PSOE is already talking a language I recognise. Liberty and equality. A welfare state to be proud of. A law against gender violence. A new approach to terrorism. And the Spanish troops in Iraq to come home in July unless the UN takes charge. Someone was looking after Spain yesterday. Spain is different.

I am absolutely drained from the last few days, and I have no idea how much sense any of this makes. I needed to write it, and thank you for indulging me and reading it. I have no doubt that this has been the coming of age of my generation in Spain. Something was going very seriously wrong for a while Ė and the massive demonstrations against the war and against educational reform were a symptom of discontent. The tragedy is that there is no denying that the massacre in Madrid on 11-M made all this accumulated anger surface at just the right time. In the face of the dignity of the Spanish people was the disgraceful attitude to tragedy of the leaders of the PP. Has Al Qaeda won the elections? I donít know. Perhaps. What I do know is that hundreds of thousands of young people voted for the first time on Sunday, myself included. And that we did so with feeling. Today, I heard a lot of people talking of their government as if it were really, truly theirs. Collective responsibility. Tragedy and democracy have brought the Spanish people together.

So please tell your family and friends about this. About what has been happening in Spain beyond the respectful minuteís silence you all held today. Tell them.

Viva la democracia.





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