Barcelona Terror Attack Eyewitnesses Talk About What They Saw
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Barcelona Terror Attack Eyewitnesses Talk About What They Saw

"Seeing all those bodies lying on Las Ramblas is an image I will never be able to erase from my mind."
21 August 2017, 7:24am

This article appeared on VICE Spain

At 4:50PM on the 17th of August, a white van ran down pedestrians on Barcelona's popular Las Ramblas boulevard, resulting in the deaths of at least 13 people and leaving more than 100 people wounded. In a terror attack similar to recent tragedies in Nice and London, the vehicle plowed through an area in the heart of the city, for nearly 500 metres, before coming to a stop. The Islamic State has taken credit for the act via its news agency, Amaq.

Catalan police, Los Mossos d'Esquadra, confirmed they have detained two men who were "directly implicated" in the attack – but haven't yet arrested the driver of the van. Authorities issued a call for people in Barcelona to stay in their homes, though hundreds of people showed up at hospitals to donate blood. Because train and Metro stations were closed, taxi drivers gave free rides and hotels offered up their beds to people who couldn't get home or to their hotels.

Las Ramblas cordoned off by the police.

One of the two men arrested was caught in the town of Alcanar in southern Catalonia, about 135 miles from Barcelona. Catalan police believe the attack could have been carried out by a terrorist cell in the area. Authorities are working on a theory that what happened in Barcelona could be connected to an explosion in a house in Alcanar on Wednesday, where a large number of butane canisters were stored. One person was killed in the fire and seven were injured. A third incident occurred hours after the assault on Las Ramblas, in the town of Cambrils – 70 miles from Barcelona. Catalan police shot five men who ran over a number of pedestrians in a car, killing one woman and injuring six others. The five men in the car died in the shoot-out, while one officer was wounded.

The Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, chaired a crisis meeting with the cabinet of the Catalan government in Barcelona. In a press conference, he called for a "global response" to the threat of terrorism, while also declaring three days of national mourning. Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau took to Twitter to reaffirm that "Barcelona is a city of peace. Terror won't succeed in preventing us from being who we are: a city that's open to the world, brave, and united."

The attack in Barcelona is the second jihadist attack in Spain after a series of bombings on trains in Madrid on the 11th of March, 2004, in which 192 people died and more than 2,000 people were injured. According to data from the Ministry of the Interior, since 2004 more than 220 police operations have resulted in the arrest of 723 suspected jihadi terrorists. Some of them intended to leave for conflict zones like Syria or Iraq, while others were planning attacks on Spanish soil.

A few hours after yesterday's crash, I went to the Raval neighbourhood of Barcelona – near Las Ramblas. The scene had cleared, but people were still being evacuated from the hotels and restaurants where they had been ordered to stay. Walking around, the seeming normality of a few kids skating in front of the the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art was in stark contrast to what had happened just a few hours earlier.

I spoke with a number of people in the area who had witnessed it all – some had been forced to hide in shops on Las Ramblas, while others had rushed to the scene to help.

Pere, 23, Hotel Worker from Girona

I met Pere when he was leaving through the back door of a hotel on Las Ramblas, along with his girlfriend and a dozen other people who were finally being evacuated. "We were locked in the hotel for almost four hours," he said. "Seeing all those bodies lying on Las Ramblas is an image I will never be able to erase from my mind."

Pere had witnessed the attack up close. "The van was white, and the driver was wearing a hat and glasses," he added. "About 50 of us hid in a nearby Starbucks before we were moved to the hotel. It was total chaos and everyone was screaming – one girl had an anxiety attack. They treated us really well, they gave us food and drinks."

Idris, 36, Unemployed, Lives in Raval

When he first heard about the attack, Idris was terrified that his son, who was at home in the neighbourhood at the time, could have wandered out on to Las Ramblas.

I asked him what he thought the effect of the attacks would be, and he told me he was convinced it would strengthen prejudice and aggression towards Islam. "Muslims all over the world [will] have to pay for what these motherfuckers did," he said. "What they do has nothing to do with religion, nor with Islam."

He told me he was also concerned that the ideology behind the attacks might get to the people he loves. "My six-year-old son studies Arabic at a neighbourhood mosque," he told me, "and I'm worried that someone there might try to brainwash him and fill him up with bad ideas."

Banndua, 38, Green Beret in the Spanish Army

Shortly after the attack, the Ministry of Interior issued a call to all service members in the area to assist police. "I heard the news and I decided to come to the neighbourhood to see if I could help out," Banndua explained to me. He's not from Barcelona, but was in the city to visit his partner.

According to Banndua, several army veteran groups had mobilised via WhatsApp groups. However, service members who weren't in uniform – like him – could do little beyond telling civilians which streets they could and couldn't access. "But anyone who's received training knows what to do in a situation like this," he added.

Andrea, 23, Works at Barcelona's Museum of Ham

Like Pere, Andrea will never forget what she saw as the attack unfolded. She works in the city's Museum of Ham, which is located right on Las Ramblas. "I was at work and my colleagues had asked me if I could go buy some coffee at Starbucks on Las Ramblas," she remembered. "I was coming up this way when everything happened."

She paused for a moment, struggling to get her words out. "When I was just outside Starbucks, I saw this avalanche of people running toward me, and I could hear the sounds of the van just plowing down everything in its path – people and objects. My instincts told me to run into the shop, and I locked myself in the bathroom with four other girls."

Melinda, 35, From San Diego, Works in Marketing and Events

"My hotel is on Las Ramblas, but I was away today, taking a tour in Andorra," Melinda told me. "When we got back to the city, we saw that the roads were completely blocked and were under police control."

I asked Melinda how she felt about this terror attack compared to the ones the United States have had to deal with. "It's the shock that's so difficult to get over," she said. "I never thought something like 9/11 could happen in the United States, and after the bombings in Madrid in 2004 I never thought it would happen again in Spain. But now I realise that it can happen anywhere in the world at any time."