Guardian 19/04/08 - After the Storm

Go down

Guardian 19/04/08 - After the Storm Empty Guardian 19/04/08 - After the Storm

Post  Andrew on Sun 05 Jun 2016, 8:52 am

After the storm - a scarred town tries to forget
Twelve months after the disappearance of the three-year-old few have emerged unscathed

Esther Addley in Praia da Luz
Saturday 19 April 2008 08.29 BST Last modified on Wednesday 30 April 2008 08.29 BST

They still pray for Madeleine McCann in the little whitewashed church in Praia da Luz, a small but faithful clutch of 15 or so locals and ex-pats who stumble down the little cobbled hill to the church every Friday evening for a "service for missing children". "We pray for those who have acted in evil or practised acts of kidnapping," they mutter quietly, week after week. "We pray that they may repent and see your light. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer."

Aside from this tiny band of faithful and the much faded photograph of Madeleine's face on the church noticeboard, now so bleached by the sun that her black pupils stare out from a face that is a sickly blue and green, there is little to suggest that this idyllic spot could have been the scene of such an act of evil.

The birds sing all day long here, and although the summertime crowds are yet to arrive there are always a few cheerful children shouting in the distance. But the overwhelming impression of Praia da Luz, aside from the dazzling light that gave it its name, is the quiet. It is almost possible to believe that one of the most overwhelming news storms of modern times happened somewhere else.

And yet all is not quite as calm as it seems in Praia da Luz. Just a few metres from the church of Our Lady of Light is the home of Sergey Malinka. One of the incidental players caught up in the maelstrom surrounding the three-year-old's disappearance last May, Malinka is a Russian web designer and business associate of Robert Murat, the first official suspect in the Madeleine case. He briefly came to public attention two weeks after she disappeared, when his computers were seized by police.

No evidence has emerged to suggest he is anything other than completely innocent. And yet as you walk up Rua 25 de Abril the tarmac changes colour abruptly outside Malinka's apartment. This is the spot on which, last month, his car was set alight as he slept, the Portuguese word "fala" ("speak") scrawled crudely in red paint on the pavement alongside.

In exactly two weeks, Kate and Gerry McCann will mark a year since their eldest child disappeared, a year that has transformed them from an anonymous couple into devastated parents, canny PR operators, mistrusted suspects and maligned media victims, sometimes all at once.

It has also soured the lives of almost everyone caught up in the story. The McCanns last month won £550,000 in an out of court settlement from Express Newspapers for "numerous grotesque and grossly defamatory allegations" published without evidence.

Their relationship with the Portuguese Polícia Judiciária, which they have been careful to pretend remained cordial even after it named them suspects, at last collapsed into open insults this week when Clarence Mitchell, their spokesman, accused the PJ of leaking extracts of the couple's witness statements to a Spanish TV station.

The leak, he said, was timed to distract from their campaigning visit to Brussels; the PJ, almost uniquely, were angered into rebutting the claim in a statement.

The seven friends with whom the couple were holidaying continued to be interviewed this week by officers from Leicestershire police, observed by Portuguese officers, the purpose of these further interviews unclear.

Robert Murat, meanwhile, the local man named the first official suspect in the case (though, again, no evidence against him has emerged) this week launched what may be Britain's biggest libel claim against 11 media organisations, after he also attracted lurid and apparently entirely unfounded allegations. His girlfriend, Michaela Walczuk, similarly traduced and similarly, now, represented by Max Clifford, may well be next.


While Madeleine's disappearance is without question a tragedy of unfathomable proportions for her family, rarely can there have been a major crime or news event which has so roundly damaged everyone associated with it. It is a sorry way to mark a terribly sad anniversary.

Despite its tranquil appearance, it is clear that Luz, too, has been corrupted by the mystery of the little blonde girl. Most obviously loathed in the town are the journalists who came in their scores from France and Germany and Scandinavia and the United States, as well as Portugal and the UK, and who stayed, in some cases, for months at a time.

"It was bloody awful when they were here. They wanted a receipt to go to the toilet," says Nancy Thompson, landlady of the Bull, an ersatz English boozer just opposite the church. "It was just a horrible feeling in our little place. You couldn't get across the square. The vans and things. It wasn't nice."

"She was hounded for months and months, and for the first few months she couldn't park her car and could barely leave the house," says Ian Fenn when asked about his mother, Pamela, who is in her 80s and lives in the apartment above the one from which Madeleine was taken. "She doesn't know anything, and she won't tell you anything, and I ask you, please, not to knock on her door."

"It was really nasty," says Haynes Hubbard, the thoughtful Anglican parish priest who often met the McCanns while they were in Luz, and whose church became the focus, in the early days, of the media's most glaring attention.

"Hard, hard, hard. We would watch the news and see the helicopters fluttering around, and turn the news off and you still hear the helicopters fluttering around. It was a very strange period when the news was ... we were the news. It wasn't edifying. It was important and necessary, but it wasn't right."

Hubbard, who is Canadian, arrived in the town to take up his post two days after Madeleine disappeared. It must have been like walking into a hurricane, I say. "I saw Heather Mills McCartney, or whatever her name is, standing on the steps of the high court the other day with all those cameras and I thought: ha! That's nothing! I've seen worse."

The missing person posters came down almost overnight, says Thompson, when the couple were named official suspects in early September. Though the continuing value of a picture of the child a year on is perhaps debatable, it is striking to see so few visible reminders of Madeleine in a village that was once overwhelmed by her image.

Manuel Silva, owner of an electrical store in the area, says he will keep his posters up until she is found - "I have grandchildren who live here" - but he is almost alone. Why does he think the other businesses removed theirs? "I don't know. That is their concern."

What do people in the town now think about what happened that night? "Nobody talks about this. Nobody talks about it now." What changed? "I'm not inclined to say."

Only as an afterthought, almost, do people talk about the impact of the crime itself. Fatima Sousa, presiding over her beachside sun hat stall, says it badly affected business last summer. "At least until the end of the summer, things felt very different here. We had many fewer tourists. The beach was almost empty.

"Normally we have lots of children who come in here on their own to buy things, but after it happened the parents were afraid. You saw mothers taking lots more care with their children, they wouldn't let them play alone. Now it's changed a lot, of course. They've forgotten."

Hubbard, newly arrived into a crime scene with his three young children, recalls the terrible anxiety felt by his wife. "It was really awful. I mean, I didn't feel it, but she did, she would go to bed every night crying, locking the doors, double locking the windows. Just really frightening.


"But people carry on, life carries on. That intensity, you can't hold on to it. It's too hard. And she will now let our children run around, whereas eight months ago she wouldn't let them out of her sight. Your fear abates. Thank goodness. Because nobody could live in that intensity."

Not everything has abated, however. While the Portuguese and ex-pat English congregations of the small church have been brought together by the tragedy, says Hubbard, the same is not necessarily true of the town itself. Exactly what was behind the attack on Malinka's car is unclear, but he is not the only victim of whispering and suspicion.

"The English say disparaging things about the Portuguese," he says, "and the Portuguese say disparaging things about the English. This is a gross generalisation, but that is the impression one has. The Portuguese think, how could those awful parents do this? The English think, the Portuguese didn't do anything right."

"I do think the PJ will find the truth of this," says Thompson. "In the old days, before the revolution, when you had to have a licence for a lighter, the PJ was everywhere and people were always: 'don't say that'. That was Portugal. That was their regime. It's only 1974. And they are still a bit afraid and secretive."

She says she cannot understand how anyone could get away with abduction. "They are so nosy, people in Portugal, and especially in this village. You can't go for a piss in this town without somebody watching. That night I was back and forwards between my two bars all night. You notice these things, we have nothing else to do in this place, and I never saw a man carrying a child in a blanket."

But Luz is also a holiday town, with a rapidly shifting population, and life goes on. Spend an evening in one of the resort's bars and ask about Madeleine, and you are as likely to be told a sick joke about the toddler as you are to meet someone who was genuinely affected by her apparent kidnap. Praia da Luz will probably always be associated with Madeleine McCann, but for many it has already become no more than a subject of idle curiosity.

Claire Hughes's sister-in-law lives in Luz; she has visited several times from her home in Bournemouth since Madeleine disappeared. "Obviously I was curious to see the [Ocean Club] resort when we first came here. I was interested to see where she'd been taken from, so we went for a drive around. And we always have a look whenever we are here."

In fact, according to Antonio Pino of the Algarve tourist board, after a few cancellations immediately after the abduction, tourism has risen in this part of the coast.

"You see the tour buses driving past the house, the tour guides are now using it as a tourist attraction," says Hubbard, drily. "I don't think Praia da Luz has suffered a grievous blow because of an evil that was perpetrated in our midst."

"A little old couple came in the other day," says Thompson, "Portuguese. I said: 'Where are you from' and they said: 'Setubal' - that's near Lisbon. They said: 'We're on a day trip to see the church where Madeleine disappeared.'

"And we get that quite a lot now. English as well. 'We're just going over to the church to light a candle, say a prayer,' or whatever. It's, like, famous, isn't it?"

Where are they now?
The parents
Kate and Gerry McCann have been campaigning on two fronts since being named suspects on September 7: to find Madeleine, and to clear their names of suspicion. Last month they won a sizeable out of court settlement from four British newspapers for defamation; they recently visited Brussels to campaign for a Europe-wide alert system for missing children. Their own privately funded investigators continue to hunt for the missing toddler alongside the police investigation.


The other suspect
The record-breaking libel claim by Robert Murat against 11 British media outlets follows similar action against a number of Portuguese newspapers and broadcasters. His seized computer equipment was recently returned to him, but his expectation that he would formally be cleared shortly afterwards has so far failed to materialise.

The police investigators
Goncalo Amaral, the first officer in charge, was removed from the case and demoted on October 2; he is facing trial on charges of concealing evidence relating to the torture of the mother of another missing child. Olegario Sousa, who initially acted as spokesman for the police, dramatically quit the role in September in protest at continued leaks. Paulo Rebelo, one of Portugal's most senior detectives, now has personal charge; under his regime almost no information about the state of the inquiry has been forthcoming.

The spokespeople
At one point during the summer the couple's then spokesperson, Justine McGuinness, found herself being contacted at a rate of two phone calls a minute. After stepping down in September she ran Nick Clegg's Lib Dem leadership campaign, and she will shortly contest the European elections for the party. Clarence Mitchell continues as the McCanns' official spokesman, having been enticed away from the Foreign Office after McGuinness's departure.

Posts : 13082
Join date : 2014-08-29

Back to top Go down

Back to top

Permissions in this forum:
You cannot reply to topics in this forum