Rambla attack survivor: “The Spanish ministry have ignored us”

Terror victims demand more government support and complain about the hurdles they face to apply for aid when suffering from PTSD

Susana used to work in a restaurant on La Rambla and on August 17 last year she was waiting for her bus when the van driven by Younes Abouyaaqoub brought terror to the centre of Barcelona city. The terrorist’s vehicle ground to a halt less than one metre from where she was standing, at Pla de l’Os. “At first I put on a brave face”, she explains. Susana was not hurt physically, but a year on she is still feeling the impact of that day and the psychological consequences of the terrorist attack have prevented her from getting back her life as it used to be before 17-A. On Saturday August 19, not even 48 hours after the incident, she went back to work. “My legs were like jelly”. I had to leave the restaurant early because I had a panic attack. From that moment she sought professional help to get over her issues. She did so all by herself because no administration ever got in touch with her, not even Spain’s Ministry of the Interior, whose job it is to take care of the victims of a terrorist attack through its Terror Victim Support Department. “We have been ignored”, Susana declares.

Just over three months ago Susana heard about the UAVAT, which stands for Unitat d’Atenció i Valoració als Afectats pel Terrorisme [Terror Victims Care and Assessment Unit], a group born out of the experience of other terror victims and professionals who have worked especially with those who were hit by the 11-M attack in Madrid. The group —led by Robert Manrique, a consultant, and a team of therapists and medical examiners— has recently signed an agreement with the City of Barcelona. At present they represent about seventy families who were struck by the attacks, about 250 people in total, and the Council has passed on the case files of another 150 victims who can either be reported by calling 900 828 717 or can come forward themselves.

The profile of the victims that the UAVAT are helping is varied, ranging from people who suffered major injuries in Barcelona and Cambrils and their families, to local workers and members of the public who happened to witness the attacks and suffer from PTSD, including the neighbours of the Alcanar villa which the terrorist cell used as a safe house [until it went up in smoke as a result of an accidental explosion]. Manrique, himself a victim of a bomb planted by ETA in a Barcelona supermarket in 1987, confirms the feeling of helplessness reported by Susana who, despite finding herself on La Rambla, was not attended to by anybody on the day of the attack. “We are doing the job that the administration ought to be doing”, explains the UAVAT consultant.

One of the unit’s tasks is to “be proactive about locating the victims, attend to those who come forward, advise them about their rights and hold their hand throughout the whole process”, explains Elisa Micciola, a UAVAT psychologist. “Practically none of the people we have helped had any information about their rights and knew where to go”, she claims. The psychologist explains that “we ask them where they were [on the day], what they experienced, what injuries they sustained, what they need and how they are feeling”. Once the professionals have formed “a picture” of their situation, they get in touch with the consultant so that he can help them out with the paperwork and red tape —in order to be recognised as a victim of a terrorist attack and receive a benefit that covers their therapy or a disability pension— and refer them to a local psychologist. The care is provided on an individual basis because “each case is different”.

The agony of re-victimisation

Susana sought professional help from therapists on her own, but she did not come forward because she just didn’t know she was meant to. “When I filed a report with the police a few months ago, I was told that it was up to me to prove that I had been on La Rambla that day”. According to Micciola, one the problems with the victims having to handle the application process by themselves is the re-victimisation they experience when they have to recall their ordeal every time they are interviewed by the administration: they must report the incident, obtain medical reports that certify their condition —if they haven’t got any—, sort out the paperwork and recount their experience.

“You can’t get it out of your head. You’re having a good day and you think it’s gone for good, but it keeps coming back”, says Susana while she is in a UAVAT waiting room. That’s why the group believed that it would have been key for Madrid to set up a permanent office for the victims in Barcelona. Manrique complains that “they had one open for less than one week and then shut it down and they’ve never been back since”. As we near the first anniversary of the attacks, following the application procedure is more of an uphill struggle these days. That’s why the UAVT advisors and specialists accompany the victims and prepare for them all the forms they need to fill in so all they need to do is attach the medical reports and tests results that they have. Susana has just met Núria in the UAVAT’s waiting room. Her eyes light up when she learns that Núria’s experience was similar to hers. They sit closer together and tell each other where they were and how they felt. Susana says that “you need to talk, listen and not be judged”. “Only those who have been through a similar experience can understand you”, Núria remarks. Being in touch with other people who have lived through the same ordeal is one of the biggest helps they have had.

Invisible after-effects

The UAVT psychologist explains that one of the main issues for the people who were not injured in the attacks but suffer from PTSD —either because they lost someone dear to them or they witnessed the incident— is that the psychological after-effects do not show immediately. That makes it even more difficult to obtain medical reports and have tests that can certify their condition.

As they start sharing their experiences, Susana and Núria realise that both of them spent three months practically home bound following the terrorist attacks. Núria used to run one of the stalls on La Rambla, next to carrer Hospital, and has lived in the area all her life. The van crashed into her shop. “I’d been back from my holidays for one day”, she explains. “My son used to say that I ought to feel well, as I was one of the lucky ones, but I couldn’t”. In Núria’s case the UAVT approached her at the end of August, after they heard about her case through a police report that she filed with the Mossos d’Esquadra after the attack and the fact that she was one of the stall owners with whom the Council was in touch. “I thought I had processed all the paperwork but now I realise that I hadn’t”. Núria was seen by her GP and began to receive therapy. “I am so glad I filed my paperwork back then”. Her case is being handled by a Madrid-based lawyer and she was under the impression that this would be enough to be recognised as a terror victim. She was wrong. In fact, she hadn’t even begun the administrative process.

Another difficulty she faces is the uncertainty about the future. Núria has not been back to her stall on La Ramble and is considering selling her flat and moving out of the city. Her sister has been living in the countryside for years and she reckons that is where she feels best these days. “I struggle if I have to spend time in crowded places”, she explains. She doesn’t know whether she’ll ever be able to get a job. “I have always worked in retail, but now I can’t see myself doing that”.

UAVT: born in the aftermath of the attacks

The UAVAT —Unitat d’Atenció i Valoració als Afectats pel Terrorisme [Terror Victims Care and Assessment Unit]— was rolled out at the beginning of 2018 to offer psychological support and guidance to the victims of the attacks, direct or otherwise. The group was born out of the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks as a joint venture with the University of Barcelona (UB) and is coordinated by psychologists Elisa Micciola and Sara Bosch, who used to lead the Catalan Association of Victims of Terrorist Organisations (ACVOT), and Robert Manrique, the former president of the ACVOT and himself a victim of ETA’s Hipercor bombing.

The organisation also works closely with other groups, such as the 11-M association, and from the start they took it upon themselves to help the victims with all the paperwork, bearing in mind the shortcomings of the administration when it comes to providing immediate, ongoing support to the victims of terror attacks.

In June the City Council and the UAVT signed an agreement for a total amount of €80,000 whereby all the people affected by the 17-A attacks will receive legal, judicial and individual assistance.