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Portugal Takes a Look at Its Own “Vietnam” in Film and Books

March 1, 1989

LISBON, Portugal (AP) _ The young man in the film looks down at his feet uncomfortably and says: ″I don’t like to mention that my brother died in the war in Africa. It makes people uncomfortable. They look at the floor.″

In the turbulent years following the April 1974 coup that ended Portugal’s 48-year dictatorship and brought independence to its five African colonies, the memory of the country’s African wars remained submerged.

But with the arrival of relative political stability, the Portuguese, who sent a generation of young men to fight in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea- Bissau, are beginning to take a look at the war years through the arts.

Joao Botelho, a 38-year-old graphic illustrator and independent filmmaker, was among the first to broach the subject in his 1985 film ″Um Adeus Portugues″ (″A Portuguese Farewell″).

Told in the present through a series of flashbacks by the brother and wife of a Portuguese soldier who died in Angola in 1975, the film is full of longing and sadness. ″To die in Africa, and then for nothing,″ says the dead man’s father.

In another scene, a soldier reads by lamplight from a geography book to a group of African children: ″the Minho, the Douro, the Tajo,″ he drones, citing the names of Portuguese rivers they will never see.

In the six months since its publication by the Circulo de Leitores and Dom Quixote Press, the two-volume ″Os Anos da Guerra″ (″The War Years″) has sold more than 50,000 copies. This is a record for a collection of essays, poetry, short stores and excerpts from novels in a country of 10 million inhabitants with the highest rate of illiteracy in western Europe.

Half a dozen publishers turned down the book, saying there was no interest in the subject in Portugal.

For editors Joao de Melo, 40, and Joaquim Viera, 38, the period covered in their book marked a time when their generation faced obligatory conscription or emigration to avoid the draft.

Melo, a novelist who spent three years as a medic in Angola, refers to Portugal’s ″own little Vietnam″ and says the generation that succeeded his doesn’t know ″how lucky they are not to have been under constant threat of mobilization.″

A Defense Ministry report, the first on the 1961-75 conflict, says 8,920 Portuguese soldiers died and another 23,233 were wounded during the wars for independence in three of Portugal’s five African colonies. The island colonies of Cape Verde and Sao Tome y Principe achieved independence peacefully.

There are no accurate figures available on the number of Africans dead and wounded in the conflicts.

″Some will say we took a long time to come out with these facts,″ wrote Gen. Manuel Freire Themuda Barata in his introduction to the report published six months ago. ″Others will say it comes much too soon.″

Retired Gen. Altino Pinto Magalhes, who served two separate stints in Angola and now heads the Portuguese War Veterans League, says it is a good thing to talk about the war.

″In the beginning the Portuguese supported the war out of a sense of solidarity and patriotism,″ Magalhes said. ″But it was long, 14 years, and then there was no victory.″

The league has 53,000 members of the estimated 800,000 Portuguese who saw service in the African wars.

Maj. Manuel Lopes Dias, a spokesman for the Association of Armed Forces Disabled (ADFA), says the organizations’s 12,000 members suffer from both physical and pyschological problems, some of them just recently manifest, and many of them aggravated by a painfully slow and complicated Portuguese bureaucracy.

Although ″war novels″ came out during the period that began Feb. 4, 1961, when African guerrillas attacked a Portuguese police station in Luanda, Angola, the theme of the effect of the colonial wars on Portuguese society is relatively recent.

Lidia Jorge, one of Portugal’s leading novelists, says she wrote ″A costa dos murmurios″ (″The Coast of Whispers″) because ″those who don’t want to confront the pain of this memory created a super-reality, a greater temporal distance that the time that has actually passed.″ The novel is set in wartime Mozambique.

Fernando da Costa’s play, ″Um jeep de segunda mao″ (″A Second-Hand Jeep″) was one of the first public presentations to deal with the wars.

Portuguese state televison (RTP) has never devoted a documentary to the subject but did air an hour-long dramatization late last year of Luis Felipe Costa’s short story, ″Era uma vez um alferez″ (″Once There Was a Corporal″) - the story of an engineer drafted into the war who steps on what he believes is a land mine, is exhorted by his captain to be courageous and dies of a heart attack from the stress. The ″mine″ turns out to be a metal clicker.

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