Memories of war

1961 was a dark year for Portugal as far as our overseas colonies were concerned.

Portugal was the last country in Europe to give independence to its colonies, having lost Goa, Damão and Diu (our possessions in India) to a military operation exactly that year. The other colonies were Cape Verde and S. Tomé islands, Guinea (Guinea- Bissau), Angola and Mozambique in Africa and Macau and Timor in the Far-East.

In early 1961 war started in Angola, and from there spread like fire to the other African colonies. The autocratic right-wing Portuguese political regime should have seen it coming, after happenings in other African colonies such as Algeria and Congo, but somehow only had a rough awakening when trouble began.

It all started in the countryside – in January black workers in cotton plantations went on strike and burnt crops, bridges and Catholic missions, as well as white people’s houses and stores. They claimed for Angola’s independence. The Portuguese Armed Forces smashed the revolt with incendiary bombs dropped from planes and special troops on the ground. Internationally, there was pressure for Portugal to give independence to the colonies, namely from the US (let’s not forget some of the colonies had very rich natural resources, such as oil and diamonds in the case of Angola). But the Portuguese government reacted with a (still) famous expression “Angola is ours!” and started sending troops down there.

In March all hell broke loose near the border with Congo – groups of armed African men wielding large bush knives (“catanas”) and rifles (“canhangulos”) launched an offensive against several properties and villages in a wave of brutal tribalism: mass murders, destructions, fire, riots, rape of women and children. Among the 10.000 Portuguese settlers, 800 alone were killed in those massacres. Black workers were also killed in the most horrible ways. Retaliation followed, giving an eye for an eye and violence spread. Settlers who managed to escape fled to Portugal in terror.

These events gave rise to a conflict that lasted for 13 years, only ending with the Portuguese revolution of April 1974 and negotiations towards the independence of the colonies. Wars began also in Guinea and Mozambique, respectively in July1961 and 1964.

From 1961 Portuguese mothers lived the nightmare of seeing their sons march off to war to “defend their country” (as colonies were then considered Portuguese territory), a part of the country they had only heard about – and that seemed very exotic and distant. They would see them off at Lisbon’s docks, in the huge ships that sailed south, and they would wave goodbye in tears not knowing if they would see them again – or how, as many who came back did so handicapped, without a leg, or both or, maybe worst of all, having lost their mind. The military service was compulsory for all Portuguese males and except for a very few exceptions it would be in Africa. Even if the regime never acknowledged a state of war (calling the liberation movements “guerrillas” and “terrorists”) those who came back (for some wouldn’t) told stories of terror in the bush, a terror that would be with them for the rest of their days with the “post traumatic syndrome” that in many cases inevitably poisoned their lives. A colleague I very much appreciate and who seems a very calm, serene person, once told me about his experience of three years in the Portuguese Air Force in Angola: “Most people, even today – forty years after – have no idea what it was like. I remember once when we went to rescue a battalion that had been in the bush for six months – as we got there we could not believe our eyes: they looked like ghosts – to my mind came the images of the concentration camps with the “living dead” – such were our comrades whom we were rescuing. They seemed to be living in a different world, and I’m certain most of them never recovered. Psychologically, I mean”. He still keeps some photos of these distant days in Africa, that he showed me saying “some may be shocking”. And, in fact, I saw photos of dead men, of men with terrible wounds… I also saw photos of exotic animals such as giraffes and lions, and the most incredible of all was a photo of a large boa constrictor with the head and horns of an antelope protruding out of its belly – apparently, as my colleague told me, boas have a ferocious appetite and they cannot “measure” the animals they devour, so in some cases it may go wrong – as in this one, where the horns perforated the boa’s intestines and came out, naturally killing it. The photo is absolutely incredible, and shows us an ironic side to this horrendous situation, as men had to distract themselves with this sort of things so as not to go insane.

He also told me that once he and his battalion were surrounded by the enemy for three days in the bush, and that they all thought they were lost. Finally they were rescued by another battalion and managed to escape to a safer place. But, as he was telling me these stories, I could see there were many others he would not tell, maybe because it was simply too tough for him to remember them. Before the revolution, he said, we were not allowed to tell these stories, and afterwards nobody wanted to be reminded.

It is a fact that after the revolution the new regime hurriedly gave the independence to the colonies and did not want to be reminded of these war episodes that they considered were best forgotten. So these men, Portuguese soldiers who had left their best youthful years down there, with great personal sacrifice, now had suddenly become something uncomfortable for the country that before had asked that huge sacrifice from them! In the case of black men who were then Portuguese and also fought for their country against the liberation movements, they were simply not allowed to have Portuguese nationality after the independence, so were left to fend for themselves – and naturally the new local governments did not look kindly upon them.

There are many, many horrible stories of violence during these 13 years of conflict, one of them the relatively well known “massacre of Wiriyamu” in 1972, where around 500 Africans in villages in the north of Mozambique were first bombed, and then shot, by Portuguese soldiers allegedly because they were terrorists or harbouring terrorists. As in any war, many violent and horrendous episodes may be charged to both sides. Even after the war was over and negotiations were on for independence, there were terrible conflicts where many people were killed in the most appalling ways.

So this is the “other side” of the fairytale that some of us lived in Africa. For some others, like my colleague, it was a nightmare. What I find incredible is the fact that even with an experience such as his, I can detect a nostalgic tone in his voice when he talks of those times: after all – don’t I know it! – Africa gets into your heart and stays there – for a long time or forever. No matter the reason why you were there, or how – it just does.

As our conversation was ending, his last words to me were: “One who has never lived in a state of war has no idea – absolutely no idea – what it is. One minute we are alive and the next we may be dead – we see such horrible things, we see such pain, we see such lack of pity, all our values are turned upside down…what you are forbidden to do in “normal” society is your duty over there and what you are praised for, as well as the way to keep alive….I say we should be happy just because we are not at war, because we have peace. People don’t know what war is like but we, who have been down there, we remember. I do remember.”

For a second I had a glimpse of a different man, a man with all these tragic memories very much alive inside him; then it was gone and again he was my calm, serene, affable colleague. I thanked him for sharing his memories and photos with me and walked away.

Memories of war. This war has long ended, but unfortunately today, wherever we look, there is a war going on. New memories of war are being forged every day. How sad, how terrible. Does it mean that where mankind exists war must be there too?

What a silly, useless question. No one has answered it in thousands of years, so certainly no one will answer it now – or ever.