Scarred town tries to forget

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 kid-napping,” they mutter quietly. “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, 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 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. 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.

Next week 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.

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 Policia Judiciaria, which they have been careful to pretend remained cordial even after it named them suspects, at last collapsed into open insults last week when Clarence Mitchell, their spokesperson, 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 were angered into rebutting the claim in a statement.

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

Murat, meanwhile, the local man named the first official suspect in the case (though, again, no evidence against him has emerged) last week launched what may be Britain’s biggest libel claim against 11 media organisations, after he also attracted apparently entirely unfounded allegations.

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 United Kingdom.

“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 pub just opposite the church. “You couldn’t get across the square. It wasn’t nice.”

The missing person posters came down almost overnight, says Thompson, when the couple were named official suspects in 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, but he is almost alone. What do people in the town now think about what happened that night? “Nobody talks about it now,” he says.

Not everything has abated, however. While the Portuguese and ex-pat English congregations of the small church have been brought together by the tragedy, the same is not true of the town itself, says Haynes Hubbard, the Anglican parish priest who often met the McCanns while they were in Luz. Exactly what was behind the attack on Malinka’s car is unclear, but he is not the only victim of whispering and suspicion.

Thompson 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.”

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.

“You see the tour buses driving past the house [where she went missing], 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.” — Â

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Esther Addley
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