Araceli Cambronero caught a commuter train from a suburb of Madrid into the city on March 11th, 2004, as she did every weekday morning. But her routine was horrifically broken when bombs ripped through the train as it pulled into Atocha station. The carriage next to Cambronero's was destroyed and many of those near her died. But unlike the 191 victims of the blasts on four trains that day in the Spanish capital, she survived.
Her only injury was a constant ringing in her ear, which still comes back to haunt her. Yet she has been left far from unscathed. “When you suffer a massive post-traumatic shock, it can damage you psychologically for a long time,” she says. “And that can have an effect on your family, your work and your health.”
The bombing affected her relationship with her husband and they divorced. She found it harder to do her job, which she lost soon afterwards. Cambronero was then diagnosed with breast cancer and in a further twist of bad luck she lost €15,000 in an investment scheme which turned out to be fraudulent.
Now 45, she has overcome the cancer and can even laugh at how dramatic her catalogue of personal disasters looks. The past decade has also given her a sense of perspective. "I'm not saying that day [of the bombing] is to blame for everything that's happened to me," she says, stroking her dog in the small flat she shares with her two children. "But it did seem to have an effect on a lot of the things I've been through. 'March 11' started on that day, but for me, March 11 has never ended."
Yet to heal
Cambronero and those who lost loved ones in the attack will mark its 10th anniversary this week. They will look back on a tragedy that not only turned their lives upside down, but that left a division in Spanish society that is yet to heal.
The bombings took place just three days before the general election that removed the conservative Popular Party (PP) of José María Aznar from power. Immediately after the attack, Aznar insisted they were the work of Basque group Eta, despite mounting evidence that jihadists had been responsible.
The notion that the government had not told the truth and that its support for the invasion of Iraq had provoked the bombing appeared to help Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to win a surprise victory.
Zapatero, who governed until 2011, was branded by many on the right as an illegitimate prime minister who had directly benefitted from terrorism. In addition, conspiracy theories started to circulate: that Eta had in fact been involved or even that the security forces had organised the attack. In 2007 a group of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists was jailed for carrying out the bombings.
Experts on international terrorism, such as Fernando Reinares, support that sentence. He recently published an exhaustively-researched book on the attack in which he concludes that it was a response to the Spanish state’s clampdown on jihadist activity in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
And yet, conspiracy theories are still rife: most notably on right-wing radio and TV stations. “From the very first moment, the March 11 attack seemed very strange to me, to me it smacked of being a coup d’état,” says Ignacio López Brú, a businessman who has written a book on what he claims was a massive state cover-up. “It wasn’t al-Qaeda,” he says flatly, offering the possibility that rogue elements in the security forces cooked up the plot.
López Brú blames the attack for bringing a Socialist prime minister into power and “neutralising” the PP. He subsequently attributes many of what he sees as modern Spain’s ills – the rise of Catalan nationalism or the decentralised nature of the state – to the bombings.
Given such opinions, perhaps it is not surprising that the Atocha attack is seen as one of the most divisive events in recent Spanish history. The president of the March 11th victims' association, Pilar Manjón, required a bodyguard for eight years, to protect her from extremists who were enraged by her rejection of conspiracy theories. She says she has frequently been insulted in the street and has even received taunts via email and phone about her 20-year-old son, Daniel, who was killed in the bombing.
Manjón's association has had its funding slashed by the current PP government. Meanwhile, it and another victims' group have not been able to agree on how to mark this week's anniversary.
"Why has Spain become so divided? Why was Spanish society not resilient to this kind of highly lethal al-Qaeda-related attack?" asks Prof Reinares. He contrasts the political and social fallout of the Madrid bombing with the response to the London bombings a year later.
“First of all you have to take into consideration that our political system is more polarised than, for instance, the British one,” he says, by way of explanation. “And also, Spain lacks basic consensus on key public policies concerning security, defence, foreign affairs and counter-terrorism.”
This week the victims of Spain’s worst terrorist attack will be remembered. There will be a huge amount of solidarity and sympathy, but bitterness, anger and politics will also hang over the proceedings.