This is a segment of one of the final chapters of my upcoming book, Betrayal of Fools. As with the Brussels attacks, the timing is around Easter/Passover and the method is a human-being equipped with a suicide belt. A more insidious and Machiavellian weapon of terror could not be found than this; it turns every stranger, man or woman, into a potential mass killer. Even times of celebration now hold an undertone of danger. The setting for this attack is Spain.
Juan took Amal by the hand and led her across the crowded street. The noise and clamour of the parade was becoming more distinct the closer they came to the Alameda; still the jarring sound of bells and the helicopters circling overhead predominated. Caught in glimpses through the throng were the distinctive regal colours of purple, crimson and gold that adorned the thrones of Christ and the Virgin Mary which had been made and decorated over many months by different cofradia. Even from here, the sense of excitement was tangible. One cofradia had encountered another at an intersection of the streets and their huge ‘thrones’ were raised in salute; the two teams performing a ritualised back and forward step, six times, amid cheers from the gathering.
Juan and Amal were close enough now to see some of the men packed tightly against one another, sweating no doubt under the distinctive uniform of the different areas as they slowly bore their heavy burden on their shoulders through the narrow streets. From her window above, a woman tossed flower petals onto the carved figures depicting the passion of Christ and the weeping Virgin. Youths stood precariously on the narrow ledges of the buildings and pressed back as the swaying floats threatened to pin them against the wall.
“I never thought they would be so big!” Amal exclaimed, “So many men are needed to carry them.”
“They are heavy!” Juan said with emphasis. “Some need two-hundred-and-eighty men in several rows to lift them and they are carried for hours. They pick only the young, really strong men from amongst the contenders for the job.” He grinned, “I’m told they put the best-looking at the front.”
“And they use the bells to co-ordinate their movements?”
Juan nodded. “Each of the thrones has one man who rings the bell with a hammer. That’s the signal for laying it down and for taking it up again. There have to be moments of rest. Each of the men is carrying the equivalent of about forty kilos.”
Amal stopped suddenly as a new group came into sight along an adjoining street. “Why are they wearing those tall hoods?” she asked.
Juan shrugged. “I’ve no idea. Many groups wear them. There are different colours representing different cofradia.” He laughed at her stricken expression. “Why? What’s wrong?”
She took his arm. “They’re creepy with just their eyes showing like that. Like those pictures you see in America where they burn crosses.”
“You mean the Ku Klux Klan?”
Amal nodded. “The whole thing is a little strange. It has a sort of fascination, but it makes me feel uneasy.”
“We can leave if you like,” Juan said. “The crowd is very heavy anyway and I’m not sure how close we’re likely to get to the Alameda.”
“Let’s see what we can from here,” she suggested.
They pushed their way through the crowd to gain a better vantage point and for a while, watched in silence as the pageant moved slowly by: a rich diet of flamboyance and Baroque religiosity combined, somewhat incongruously, with military marches. They were followed by women and girls dressed in black and wearing the high comb peineta in their hair.
“It’s like something out of a fantasy. Perhaps they should call it Spain’s Game of Thrones,” Amal said with a smile.
“Without the violence,” Juan returned. He took her hand. “Come on,” he said, “let’s go and get something to eat. I’m sure we’ve seen enough for today.
They had turned away and begun walking back towards the parking area when the blast occurred. Suddenly the world of pageantry switched to real-life drama. Their decision to stay away from the Alameda, they realised later, may even have saved their lives.
They were rocked by the first explosion, but even before they had managed to grasp what they had heard, it was followed by a second, and yet another.
For an instant, Malaga seemed to fall eerily silent. Around Juan and Amal people were rooted to the spot. Then came the mass awakening, mass terror. Panic, raw panic, pandemonium; women screaming, people running blind and directionless: in their terror of the unknown, running from themselves.
Within moments panic translated into action. Many men ran towards the Alameda to see if they could help; women collected themselves and gathered together in silent groups. Some, men and women alike, wept. Others took out their phones to call and reassure family members. The rise and fall of a multitude of sirens became a calming refrain in itself.
The evening papers were filled with reports of the carnage; the massive loss of life. Three suicide bombers had detonated their deadly load at the heart of the crowded avenue. Newspapers and websites across the world used one particular photograph of the many bodies strewn like garbage across the road. Raised at an angle among the fallen was a cross with the image of the suffering Christ.
The truth of course is not only much stranger than fiction, it is also far more horrific.
I wish to extend my heart-felt condolences to friends and families of the fallen, and to those who were injured and traumatised in the Brussels attacks.