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article imageTenderness and unity at heart of wounded Barcelona

By Anna CUENCA (AFP)     Aug 25, 2017 in World

With a smile, two girls offer flowers to passers-by in Las Ramblas as the wounded heart of Barcelona forgets its divisions in the wake of a murderous van rampage.

Gone -- at least temporarily -- is the eternal bickering over whether Catalonia, where Barcelona is located, should separate from Spain or if tourists are welcome in this hugely popular Mediterranean city.

"After what happened with this attack, you just focus on what is essential," Goldy Justiniano, a 31-year-old Bolivian who works in La Boqueria market off Las Ramblas boulevard, told AFP.

It was in the covered market that the driver of the van that ploughed through crowds on the busy avenue fled on foot from an attack that left 13 people dead and more than 120 wounded on August 17.

He was shot dead by police on Monday, the last suspect to be tracked down from a jihadist cell accused of killing a total of 15 people in the Barcelona rampage and another vehicle attack in the seaside city of Cambrils further south.

- 'A city open to all' -

Passers-by on Las Ramblas have paid their respects since the attacks
Passers-by on Las Ramblas have paid their respects since the attacks

Justiniano, who has lived in Barcelona for more than 10 years, was selling fruit on the day of the attack and witnessed the panic. Since then, she said, people are more affectionate.

"People are hugging each other more, kissing more," she said.

Opinion polls from before the attack showed deep divisions among Catalans on whether they should split from the rest of Spain.

"Now it would not occur to anyone to talk about independence," Jesus Gomez, 72, said while taking photos of an improvised memorial to the victims near the Liceu opera house where the van finished its grim race.

There, in front of a display of candles, flowers, children's drawings, stuffed toys and messages of solidarity, people silently pay their respects throughout the day.

One elegantly dressed woman crouched down and grabbed a box of matches left on the ground to relight a candle that had blown out.

"More sensitive? Yes, of course we all are," said Montse Paltre, a 48-year-old administrative secretary who came to show her daughter the outpouring of affection on the street.

Pointing out that the dead and injured were from 35 different countries, she said that hostility towards tourists, who until recently were accused of invading the city and driving up rents, had "calmed down".

"It is absurd to blame visitors for mass tourism in Barcelona, which has always been a city open to all," Paltre said.

- Praise for police -

The Catalan police have also benefited from the truce, praised for their rapid response, with one agent alone shooting four of five attackers in Cambrils.

Gone is criticism of the regional police squad, whose agents came under fire when a woman lost an eye in a 2012 anti-austerity protest, and which has in the past been accused of violence in police custody.

"This had to happen for us to appreciate our security forces," said Angel Toscana, 44, who works in one of the many kiosks that dot Las Ramblas.

Near the Plaza de Catalunya, where the van departed from, an elderly lady approached a group of armed policemen and congratulated them.

They thanked her with a smile while keeping an eye on the busy square, gun in hand.

"I am Muslim. Not to be confused with jihadist," read one of the many messages written on the ground on Las Ramblas, the main boulevard in a neighbourhood that is home to many north African and Pakistani immigrants.

"We paint them all with the same brush and it's not fair," Paltre said.

"I also come from abroad," added Justiniano, who, like other traders, admitted she felt a sense of anguish.

The city is offering psychological assistance for anyone suffering post-traumatic stress, Toscana said as he pointed to a leaflet that he had been given.

"Speaking is the best thing you can do," he said. "Keeping it to yourself is bad."

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