Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Noticing how the tragic death of Darren Lackie has been dragged into the McCann circus!

Mystery remains: why was she left alone?

In a town where children are always welcome, the locals just can't accept the McCanns' actions on that fateful night, writes Carol Hunt from Praia da Luz

Sunday April 27 2008

It Is almost a year since Madeleine McCann disappeared without trace from her family's apartment in the small seaside Portuguese town of Praia da Luz.

This weekend the holiday village is quiet and peaceful. The summer has arrived with warm winds and cloudless skies. The sunshine attracts visiting families and young Portuguese teenagers to the famously golden sandy beach. On the surface, things are back to normal; business as usual. However, just the mention of the name "Madeleine" leads to pursed lips, stiffened shoulders and attitudes of angry frustration from the locals.

This week the town is waiting nervously amid rumours that the Portuguese police plan to stage a re-enaction of the events of that night. The McCanns have spoken about their reservations at joining such an endeavour, natural enough for them under the circumstances as they are still official suspects in the case.

The locals, too, are undecided about the merit of such an undertaking. One tells me that the media circus which will inevitably follow such an event will drive away business. others admit that until there is some sort of resolution to the case, their small town will remain a place to be avoided by many holidaying families.

Many are suspicious of journalists and, though ready to chat, reluctant to give their names or anything else which can identify them.

Kelly's Irish Bar, three minutes' walk from the Mark Warner Complex where the McCanns stayed, is -- allegedly -- one of the places visited by Gerry and Kate McCann during their brief stay on the peninsula.

The manager, Mary, is a friendly native of Donegal who has lived in Portugal for the past 20 years. She describes how badly affected the town -- which relies on tourism -- was by Madeleine's disappearance.

"People just packed up and left. They cancelled their holidays and they will never come back. This was always considered to be a very, very safe place for children. I used to let my own boy -- now eight -- walk from here down the road to where his father worked at Chaplin's restaurant. Now, I'm terrified of letting him go anywhere on his own.

"Because there has been no conclusion, because nobody really knows what happened to Madeleine, people will continue to fear for their children. It's a dreadful situation for the town." Mary shares the incomprehension of the locals at the child-minding arrangements that the McCanns and their friends had in place.

"I bring my son everywhere," she tells me. "They could have brought their children with them to Chaplin's or wherever else they wanted to go. Or, even if they didn't want to use the complex's babysitting service, why on earth didn't they just do what you or I would do? Which is take turns minding them.

"People here just don't understand. It's a complete mystery to us."

Recently, details emerged that Madeleine had "scolded her parents" for leaving her and her siblings alone the night before she was abducted.

According to the TV station Telechino, the Portuguese police had taken a statement from Kate McCann soon after the kidnapping where she reportedly said that on the morning of May 3, Madeleine had asked, "Mummy, why didn't you come when we were crying last night?"

Kate McCann reportedly added: "Gerry and I agreed to keep a closer watch over the children."

The Portuguese locals believe that "keeping a closer watch over the children" meant that the McCanns and their friends stayed within the bounds of the complex, checking intermittently on the children -- one of whom (not a McCann) was ill -- when they met later that night, rather than heading to restaurants or bars outside.

Not just here in Luz, but everywhere, that news of the details of that night has travelled. There has been criticism of the McCanns for leaving three small children alone in a strange apartment while they socialised with friends.

"In Portugal, we absolutely adore children," said another local. "We just cannot get our heads around the fact that these small babies were on their own in a town where children are always welcome, no matter what time of night or day."

I tell her that in a documentary due to be screened this week on ITV, Kate McCann is understood to explain that they would have used a baby-listening service had one been available, but because there wasn't they decided instead to leave the children alone and make regular checks on them.

"There was a babysitting facility and an evening creche available, why didn't they use that," she asks.

I have no answer for her, being totally unable to comprehend the McCanns' actions with regard to the welfare of their children.

Some of the locals I spoke to, despite feeling frustrated with the actions of the McCanns, and the unwelcome media attention on their town, still felt sympathy with them for the terrible tragedy which had occurred.

Others are still angry at the way they feel the McCanns manipulated the media and demonised the Portuguese police and, by extension, the Portuguese people.

The collateral damage is everywhere. One Portuguese woman I meet, Mieke, is a close friend of Robert Murat, a man who remains a suspect in the case.

What she and Murat's other friends find very upsetting is the treatment meted out to Robert, whom -- they claim -- was initially asked by the Portuguese police to help them with the case.

"Robert is one of the most caring men I know," Mieke says. "His life has been ruined all because of a chance comment by a journalist. He has been treated like a criminal by the police. His business has been destroyed.

"In his job he would have had many English families as clients. What family would deal with a man who is officially suspected of kidnapping -- or worse -- a child of one of their compatriots?"

Mieke tells me that Murat has now decided to sue the Portuguese government as well as all the media outlets which ran stories against him.

"And I think he's right to do so. Unless they find Madeleine -- either dead or alive -- Robert's name will never be cleared, and there was never a shred of evidence against him in the first place."

One could also argue that both Gerry and Kate McCann -- official suspects who were subjected to intense interrogation -- are in a similar situation. And they also have the loss of a daughter to deal with.

Such a view gets little sympathy from Mieke and her friends.

They do not understand why the McCanns have not been punished for what they see as gross neglect of their children: "If you or I left a child repeatedly alone, social services would be called in."

Later that evening, I watch a fireworks display in the nearby town of Lagos. Despite the late hour -- it is past midnight -- the square is filled with young, excited children enjoying the festivities with their parents.

To the Portuguese people, the fact that the McCanns repeatedly left their much-loved Madeleine alone -- while they socialised with friends -- is just as much a mystery to them as her later disappearance.