By Nuno Tiago Pinto
The journalist who wrote the book ‘Days of Courage and Friendship’, about the Portuguese Colonial War, describes in this exclusive article the experiences of two men who committed atrocities that have never let them sleep peacefully again.
Recent portraits By Rafael G. Antunes
Vítor Brás looks like a 66-year-old athlete. As soon as he opened the door of his flat in Lisbon he guided me through its several rooms with the energy of a man exuding health. Before we sit at the table in the sitting room, he introduced me to his wife who, with a smile, asked me: “Are you here to interview this hunk of a man?” In her hand, she held an old black and white photograph of her husband dressed in the uniform of the Comandos, the Portuguese army’s special forces unit. The picture had been taken in the late 1960s, when Vítor Brás was really at the peak of his health. This is no longer the case: he survived the Portuguese Colonial War where he was wounded three times, one of them seriously, his body carries several fragments of shrapnel, he went through 11 operations, had two heart attacks and three strokes – the last one only two months ago.
More than the physical wounds, Vítor Brás suffers from the psychological scars he has been carrying since he was sent to Angola in 1966, to fight the guerrilla war that threatened the unity of the Portuguese Colonial Empire. His deep blue eyes seem empty when he starts talking of those years spent in the bush. He smiles while recalling his training course in the Comandos and the demanding trials he had to go through until being accepted into this elite unit. But gradually, those same blue eyes devoid of emotion start welling up with tears as he recalls the death of companions, the atrocities he witnessed, and those he was forced to commit. “War is war, and it sucks”, he told me as a way of explaining what he did.
“I couldn’t keep the prisoners alive”
The deaths started right on his first mission, in the north of Angola. On the trail, they lost a man shot from afar by a guerrilla fighter of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). It was a great shock. “It was the first friend I ever saw dying. His name was Inácio. He played football as a goalkeeper and left a wife and a child”, he recalls. Nevertheless, they carried on. That time, the guerrillas didn’t stand a chance. The Portuguese captured several arms and took six prisoners. But many of these never survived: “We were already feeling enraged on account of Inácio’s death and it was hard to put up with the animals. We couldn’t even look at that scum.”
The hatred grew as the days went by. After having been seriously wounded when trying to save a companion who had been shot and was at the mercy of the enemy, he spent several months in recuperation. After a year he felt he was losing his mind. “I couldn’t keep the prisoners alive. They were the enemy and for me they were only good when dead”, he told me. “Then we’d say they had tried to escape.”
When he returned home, after two years, his children no longer recognised the man they had grown used to seeing in photos. When he arrived in Lisbon, by boat, his daughter looked at all those soldiers in uniform and said to her mother: “So many fathers”. The youngest boy would not let him near him. But it was the wife who suffered the most. “She can tell you what happens during the night. I can’t sleep 20 minutes straight. I start punching and kicking in all directions”, he reveals. Tears pour down his face while he bemoans the abandonment to which the Portuguese state has subjected them. He feels betrayed by the homeland who let many of his comrades die in the ditches, like dogs, or become alcoholics or drug addicts for having no support to face post-traumatic stress. In those days the disorder had not yet been diagnosed. And even today, only a small percentage of war veterans knows what it is about.
The traumas of the African war
In all, between 1961 and 1974, between 800,000 and one million Portuguese were mobilised for Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique – the three territories that were fighting for their independence. More than 9,000 died in combat or in one of the many accidents which, due to negligence, lack of preparation or misfortune ended up causing victims. The estimates say that more than 15,000 returned home with physical disabilities.
A countless number bear the psychological scars of a war. I came across many while writing this book. Fully grown men, soldiers, with a family and a life, who cannot hold back their tears and their emotions when talking about the years of war. For them it is not easy to talk about the issue. They retreat into a shell of silence where not even their families can enter. Even among each other, they talk in minced words. A mere glance tells them that only among comrades are they really understood. And when they can actually verbalise the memories buried long ago, they can’t contain their tears or relive the panic they felt many years ago.
“I fought under the napalm bombs”
This is the case of António Heliodoro. He is a short, strong man who walks with a noble bearing, proud of his military past. He talks with a deep, calm voice, almost in a whisper that evokes the storytellers of ancient times. He lets you know he is not a man of many words, but captures the attention of those who listen to him with a natural authority. He was born on 5 October 1942 and at the age of 21 was sent to Guinea-Bissau, as a fuzileiro especial (special marines), the Special Forces unit in the Portuguese Navy. He was in the small African colony from 1963 to 1965, and took part in some of the biggest battles of the conflict. But his voice quivers when he recalls the 72 days and 72 nights he spent entrenched in the sludge of Como island, in what became known as Operação Tridente (Operation Trident) as it brought together, for the first time, the three branches of the armed forces.
“I fought under the napalm bombs that were dropped from our airplanes to burn the bush”, he told me. “We were down on the ground and we could feel the large limbs of the trees falling. Everything shook. It was dramatic. I even begged Our Lady of Fátima to make it stop.” But the worst came later. When he returned home he was called a liar, because the Portuguese state never admitted the use of napalm in Africa, despite the several accounts and photographs that prove it.
Nevertheless, António Heliodoro is an exception. His family know what he went through. And also what he did. Like the time, two weeks before returning home, when he was given the order to kill a native who had been captured in the area of Bigene without firing a shot. And it was with a quavering voice that he told me how he did it. “This is not easy to say… he was killed with the gunstock. He was hit so many times on his forehead that I had to wrench pieces of him off with my dagger.” This death has remained engraved on his memory ever since. “Once, I was told: ʽNever tell anyone we killed, this can never be mentioned.ʼ But we’re here to tell the true story.” I could not ask any more of him than this. Neither of him nor of any of the others.