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Madrid Bombing Survivors Nursing Wounds

March 10, 2005

MADRID, Spain (AP) _ The checklist of Jesus Ramirez’s injuries is gruesome: horribly burned legs and shrapnel in his lungs and back. He feels guilty to be alive and dreams about missing the train that blew up around him.

Ramirez had just boarded a Madrid commuter train on the overcast morning of March 11, 2004, and was looking for a seat on which to settle down with his newspaper when 10 backpack bombs allegedly planted by Muslim extremists blew up, killing 191 people and wounding more than 1,500.

A year later, ``11-M″ has become Spanish shorthand for a national tragedy, much like 9/11 is in the United States.

For 15 days Ramirez hovered between life and death, riddled with metal and glass. He still sees doctors and a therapist and cringes at the very sight of himself, haggard, wounded and aged beyond his years.

``It has been a dramatic year, a lost year, one of hospitals, of looking at the mirror and seeing yourself covered with scars. It is a year to forget,″ said Ramirez, 50, a graphic designer.

As Spain marks the anniversary, Ramirez is one of many survivors overwhelmed by post-traumatic stress syndrome, illness, disfigurement, and disabilities.

Fewer than half the injured have come to terms with their tragedy and moved on with their lives, said Marisa Perles, a psychologist who works closely with the victims. The rest just relive their brush with death.

Ramirez says that in his dreams, he deliberately delays boarding the train at Atocha station and waits for the next one.

``You think it’s unfair that you have survived. You feel guilty to be alive, and I often ask myself what happened to the person who was traveling next to me,″ he said.

Over the past year, Perles has worked with a group of 15 survivors and their families to keep them thinking positive. They mounted a photo exhibit of things they hold precious _ a pet, a wristwatch, the sky. They’ve dabbled in ceramics and painting, exchanged visits with other mourning families and even ridden a train to simulate their relatives’ doomed journey.

Patients have improved but Perles said she expects anniversary relapses.

``The first year the pain is extremely intense,″ Perles said.

The Association of Victims of March 11, of which Ramirez is vice president, says it will mourn privately rather than participate in any big anniversary ceremony. Honoring that sentiment, the government has promised low-key observances and five minutes of silence starting at noon Friday.

But Juan Antonio Diaz, who survived the blast as he waited for a train, said he will watch and record any March 11 memorial programs on TV. For him, March 11 will provide a reminder of life’s fragility.

``I’m lucky compared to those who were killed or are disabled,″ said Diaz, 49.

The stocky, bearded Spaniard knew nothing of the bombings until he regained consciousness in the hospital five days later and watched TV.

He had internal damage in his skull, suffered amnesia and lost more than 70 percent of his sight. He didn’t remember that his father had been dead for two years.

He suffered months of depression while on sick leave from work. He took long, aimless walks just to tire himself out.

``I felt useless, empty. I was looking for a reason to live,″ said Diaz.

Through patience and support from his wife Almudena and their two children, he has gained weight and gone back to work at an industrial machinery import firm, feeling almost normal again. He has also regained most of his memory _ although he can’t recall the bombing.

He has also tried not to let it affect his family life, although he knows it has.

``He’s more introverted, more vehement and more sensitive,″ said his wife. ``His eyes fill with tears at the first hint of any emotion. He’s not the same anymore. He has changed after the bombings.″

Still, after a year of darkness, both Diaz and Ramirez are convinced that life is worth living.

``An attack can happen everywhere, in a cinema, in a market, in a soccer stadium,″ Ramirez says. ``You can’t withdraw into yourself. Life is to be lived with its risks.″

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