Algeciras, a city united in grief
On any normal weekday at midday, the main square in Algeciras, La Plaza Alta in front of the city’s principal church, Nuestra Señora de la Palma, is a hive of activity and life.
On Thursday, as the bells in the church tower tolled, the square fell silent as over 1000 people gathered to honour the life of Diego Valencia, the church sacristan who was killed in a violent attack on Wednesday night that Spanish authorities are investigating as a possible act of terrorism.
A hush fell over the square, the sound of chatter and children replaced by the flapping of a pigeon’s wings, the quickfire rattle of journalists’ cameras and a cold, bitter wind rustling through the fronds of palm trees.
Under a clear blue winter sky, this cosmopolitan city where people of 129 nationalities live side by side in harmony, among them a large Moroccan community, came together in sadness and repulsion at a harrowing act of violence that has stunned residents.
A young man of Moroccan origin has been arrested in connection with the attack on the sacristan and an earlier attack in the nearby church of San Isidro, in which the parish priest sustained serious injuries.
In the square, candles and flowers marked the spot where the sacristan was knifed with a machete after he fled the church in a bid to get away from the attacker.
Rosa Balloqui, who was born in Algeciras but lived in Gibraltar for 50 years with her late husband, prays at the church where the sacristan was attacked.
“I have no words to describe how awful I feel,” she said.
“He was a good person.”
Amid the horror and pain, there was anger too among many of those gathered in the square. Diego Valencia was a well-known and much-loved person in the city.
But there was another message too that many there wanted to send publicly.
Among the people gathered in the square were politicians from the Campo de Gibraltar and beyond, and a broad cross-section of Algeciras society including many Muslims there to show solidarity with their neighbours.
Nawal Montaguikie, a Moroccan woman who has lived in Algeciras since she was a little girl, left no room for doubt.
“There’s no forgiveness for what he’s done,” she said of the attacker.
“We have lived here for years and we have always been very welcomed.”
“I couldn’t sleep last night. I hope he rots in jail.”
“We condemn this man and what he’s done.”
“He has brought shame to our flag.”
Her voice trembling with emotion, she said she had known the deceased man as a gentle person who always welcomed people from the Moroccan community.
“What did he do to deserve this,” she said.
“Why has this man done this? Why?”
As she spoke, there were some disparaging comments from some bystanders, prompting the intervention of one Spanish man, Carlos Cano, 31, from Algeciras.
“Islam doesn’t represent violence,” he said. “It represents peace and love.”
Jose Ignacio Landaluce, the Partido Popular mayor of Algeciras, echoed a similar sentiment as he spoke of a city that had always lived in “peace, harmony and respect”.
“We must ensure it continues like that and that we don’t ignite a fire that we don’t want,” he said.
Juan Jose Marina, the parish priest in Nuestra Señora de la Palma, also spoke to reporters outside the church as he waited for the midday act of remembrance to commence.
He said that before Wednesday’s attack, there had been no problems with the city’s Moroccan community, and that three quarters of the people who attended the church’s Caritas service were Muslims.
And he reflected too that perhaps, the attacker had intended to target him, much as he targeted the priest in San Isidro.
“If I’d been in the church at that moment, Diego would not have died,” he said, as he was embraced by members of his parish fraught with grief and emotion.
As the minute’s silence ended the crowd broke into applause. Then, as the mayor spoke a few words to those gathered there, a group behind him broke into prayer, first an Our Father, then a Hail Mary.
Later, a group of Muslim men and women gathered and prayed at the spot where the sacristan fell on Wednesday night.
Dris Mohamed Amar, spokesman for the Unión de Musulmanes del Campo de Gibraltar, said it was important to send a message of unity at this tragic time.
“We’re here to publicly show our pain in the face of this harrowing atrocity,” he said.
“We robustly condemn this murderous act against a man of peace, an unarmed man, a noble man.”
“We hope that this act that has been committed does not bring into question the harmony that exists between different communities in Algeciras.”
As the crowds drifted away, some stood in silent reflection, still struggling to comprehend what had unfolded just hours earlier in the heart of their city.
“How can this happen?” said one woman, who gave her name only as Angeles.
“What’s happening in the world?”