April 25: Carlos and Fernando tell their story to avoid silencing their desertion to war

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Carlos and Fernando left the Portugal of the dictatorship because they refused to fight a war they disagreed with and which terrified their youth. Today they are reliving their stories to avoid silencing their defection and to show the importance it played in the conquest of democracy.

“Even today, deserters are considered traitors to their homeland. I assume my status as a traitor to the homeland, a traitor to the homeland of fascism, hunger, illiteracy, torture, lack of freedom, imprisonment, war, exploitation,” said Fernando Cardoso at a talk on the Portuguese colonial war (1961-1974) last week at the Dom Martinho Vaz de Castelo Branco Primary and Secondary School in Vila Franca de Xira.

Carlos Neves recalled that at the time the government accused them of being “chickenshits, cowards and traitors” and that, 50 years after April 25, 1974, this narrative is still valid for some.

“Today this problem still hasn’t been resolved. For many conservative people, we are still traitors to the homeland, to their homeland,” he said. For Carlos, the thousands of young people who said no to the colonial war were “troops without uniforms and weapons” whose revolt also helped the revolution.

“If a contingent in Africa was 70,000 to 80,000 soldiers, the 200,000 young deserters, refuseniks and absentees were enough to make two more contingents of soldiers for the battlefronts of the colonial war. […] These thousands of young people cannot be discarded, ignored, they have their place in the fight against fascism and colonialism, they contributed to the revolt of the career officers, saturated by the excess of commissions due to lack of personnel,” reads their testimony published in the book “Exiles 2”, edited by the Association of Portuguese Political Exiles.

At the school in Vila Franca de Xira, Carlos and Fernando spent two hours answering questions from students in grades 8 to 11.

They were asked about their lives under the dictatorship, who helped them escape, who took them in, how they contacted their families and what marked them in their countries of exile.

In response, they heard stories of censored books and films, boys terrified by the idea of having to go to war at a time when boyfriends weren’t allowed to kiss in the street, but also stories of camaraderie and the “extraordinary possibility of being free” in the host countries.

There was also spontaneous applause when asked if the lack of knowledge of the dictatorship and the war contributes to sympathy for the far right among young people.

The subject of desertion is still little talked about today. Historian Irene Flunser Pimentel considers it a “controversial and almost taboo subject in Portugal”.

Considering that silencing is forgetting, in 2015, the Association of Portuguese Political Exiles was founded with the aim of recording the memories of deserters (soldiers who left their military units), refusers (they did the military inspection but fled before incorporation) and political exiles from the colonial war.

Living in Lisbon’s Ajuda neighborhood, Carlos Neves meditated the ‘no to war’ in the Church, among progressive Catholics, and decided to leave the country for good when he visited a friend wounded in Angola, at the Estrela Military Hospital.

“What I saw in the hospital – I still shudder – were young people burnt, without legs, without arms, and I started thinking with my friends about how to solve the problem and the problem was how to get out of the country,” he said.

It was two friends who worked at TAP who suggested he go to Holland. In order to go by plane (and not by ‘jumping’) he had to apply for a passport, which led him to go to the PIDE political police headquarters to tell the lie that his family had offered him the trip because he had finished his mechanical locksmith course.

He was due to leave in September 1971, but in July his father, a worker at the Port of Lisbon, died. An only child, he thought he would stay so as not to leave his mother – a housewife with no means of subsistence and now alone.

She kept to the plan because, as the widow of a civil servant, the regime found her a job and in any case her mother would be alone: with her son either in the war or in exile.

On the plane, he sat next to a Dutchman “with clothes that needed a lot of soap” to whom he told, without knowing who he was talking to, that he was going to Holland to escape the war. It was this naivety that saved him when, at the airport, the police wouldn’t let him through because they didn’t find his story credible, given that he only had a one-way ticket and 1,200 escudos.

“When he realized it, the Dutchman came screaming from far away saying that he had been in a fascist country for three months, that he had spoken to everyone and no policeman had ever called him out on it, and there in Holland, the bastion of democracy, a social democratic country, he was putting restrictions on a young man. He signed a document in which he took responsibility for me and gave the address of his house in Rotterdam,” he recalled.

When they left the airport, they never saw each other again. Carlos went to look for him later in Rotterdam. The street didn’t even exist.

Fernando still went into the army, which he did in the Algarve with a commander who boasted that in Africa he drove around with African skulls on the front of his jeep, before deserting in 1970. He left Portugal ‘on the run’ through the Marvão area, on a road trip with friends to Paris. However, the ‘no to war’ was born much earlier.

“From the age of 14, I realized that sooner or later I was going to hit the army. Every young person talked about the war day and night. This war is not mine, this war is people fighting for their freedom and liberation. First, it was awareness of the war and then it was how to wage war on the war, which meant exile,” he said.

They left Portugal without knowing when or if they would return, admitting that it could be for life.

Carlos, in the Netherlands, and Fernando, in France, stayed with people they met until they found accommodation they could afford. They worked in the jobs given to illegal immigrants, in cleaners, factories and hotels. Carlos recalled that in the cleaners he would stand for hours between shifts and, to escape the freezing cold of his room, he would stay in the churches because they were heated.

The social differences that existed in Portugal were also noticeable among the exiles, between those whose families’ means allowed them to study and the majority who worked to survive. “They were two worlds that didn’t mix in exile, some in the Latin Quarter and others on strike in the factory where they worked,” said Fernando Cardoso.

It was in the midst of a hard life, Carlos and Fernando told us, that they discovered freedom, politics, denounced the colonial war, the Portuguese dictatorship, from the outset in refugee, exile and emigrant committees, and from a distance became enthusiastic about April 25.

They both heard the first news of the coup on the radio and, in different countries and without knowing each other, they were suspicious of the military men in sunglasses who they later saw on television and who reminded them of the military juntas in Latin America, fearing that the revolt would be taken over by the ultra-right.

But fears were soon allayed and Carlos was part of the group of 30 exiles who left Amsterdam in vans for the big May 1st demonstration in Paris.

Fernando also took part, but, he told Lusa, with his face covered because he was still afraid of how a military regime would deal with deserters (an amnesty for deserters from the colonial war would later be approved).

Their return to Portugal, with a “suitcase full of dreams and hope”, surprised them. They had left a gray, backward, repressive country and were returning to a party.

“Portugal exploded with affection, creativity and love. I arrived in Lisbon and I was amazed, it was a city in effervescence. Paris became an old city. Portugal was a laboratory of creativity for two years,” Fernando recalled.

The colonial war lasted 13 years (1961-1974) and mobilized 800,000 Portuguese soldiers to Africa and 500,000 Africans incorporated into Portuguese troops to fight the liberation movements.

The discussion of desertion was a topic of debate among opponents of the dictatorship from an early stage.

The Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) argued that militants should not desert, using their incorporation to enlighten soldiers and organize the rejection of the war, including on the battlefields.

Progressive Catholics and the so-called extreme left defended the legitimacy of desertion, including as a political gesture.

Researchers Miguel Cardina and Susana Martins point to the existence of around 9,000 deserters, a figure which they admit has gaps in certain years and military sectors, to which are added between 10,000 and 20,000 refusers and 200,000 young people who failed inspection. Many of the young deserters joined family members who had emigrated to Europe to escape poverty.

Hervé Hubert
Hervé Hubert
Hervé Hubert is a 55-year-old writer and journalist based in Porto, Portugal. Born in France, he brings a unique blend of French and Portuguese perspectives to his work. Education Hervé studied Journalism and Literature at the University of Lyon in France. After completing his studies, he gained valuable experience working with various French media outlets (Portugal France also). Career He worked for several years as a journalist in France before making the move to Portugal. In Porto, he joined the Portugal Pulse team as a staff writer. Skills Hervé specializes in storytelling, investigative journalism, and cultural commentary. He has a flair for capturing complex issues in a relatable way. Personal Life He currently resides in Porto and enjoys the city's rich culture, from Fado music to Francesinha cuisine. Hervé continues to maintain strong ties to his French heritage, often traveling back to France for family visits and cultural exploration. With his unique background and diverse skill set, Hervé Hubert adds a layered, multicultural lens to every story he covers.

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