The stranger enters the room where I already find myself sitting at a table, a triangular cubicle without windows in a shopping center in Costa da Caparica. Here several veterans from the Overseas War will gather, friends of a veteran of mine, who today plays the role of host. His name is Marco Mané, the manager of this shopping center, a former African commander from Guinea-Bissau. This is how I have been doing for several years. I talk to a veteran, who in turn meets others, who in turn meets others. I’m looking for new war stories, new details, I’m looking for voices to join the choir in my head, to compose a choral symphony, the choral symphony of our African war. To understand what can be understood and keep the rest, which I will understand later, when a new voice mysteriously illuminates the shadows of a previous voice.
The unknown enters, Marco enters with him and says, “Here is the first comrade,” and comes out again.
The newcomer’s body language is one of reluctance, of distrust. He says his name is Adriano Oliveira and adds:
– I’m not even sure what you want…
And he sits on the chair in front of mine, leaning against the wall and offering me the profile.
– Marco did not explain me well.
I start the explanatory preamble that I prepared for these occasions. I am the son of an overseas veteran who died in 2013. I spoke with many comrades from my father’s unit after he died. The living memory of the Overseas War will be lost, and I want to preserve it to the extent of my modest possibilities. I want to write about it, although I will not write the memories of others, but my memories of the memories of others.
He won’t look at me, he’ll tape the wall in front of him, where an old panel advertising a superhero movie is leaning against him. His coldness disconcerts me, I end up saying, a little abruptly, that I have published novels and even texts in newspapers and other media. I shut up. Adriano finally turns to me and tells me:
– Too bad Marco didn’t explain it to me, otherwise I wouldn’t even have come.
His body language becomes colder, like someone in the presence of an annoying beggar who begs for alms or a police officer who asks for an account.
– They say we made colonial war, but I didn’t make any war. I was forced to go to war, which is very different, while so many fled abroad, all happy.
I refrain from opposing, from rebelling. The tone of voice in crescendo gives the impression that any spark could start a fire.
– When I talk about the colonial war, I immediately feel like breaking everything, so know this. I was in Guinea, I participated in Operation Mar Verde, with Alpoim Calvão, I saw a lot of things. And I don’t admit judgements from those who didn’t make the war, do you hear?
Take a break, as if to challenge me to say anything. An interview comes to mind that I saw recently from Lissette Orozco, director of Adriana’s El Pacto, the magnificent film in which she scalpel her process of discovering the hidden past of her aunt, Adriana Rivas, dina’s agent, Pinochet’s political police. The words of Lissette Orozco that come to mind are: “I make no moral judgments about my nineteen-year-old aunt, who joined the dina and became a torturer. But I make moral judgments about my aunt of sixty-five years, who keeps saying that those were the best years of her life. I think, but I don’t say it out loud, that I’m not interested in compiling an almanac of neutral narratives from the colonial war. There are no neutral narratives. The light I seek in these testimonies comes at times when veterans are morally positioned, making explicit or implicit value judgments about the war they participated in and the acts they committed there. A war that was the prolongation and natural corollary of our colonial enterprise, of which they were more or less passive actors. I don’t feel entitled to judge them as young men in their twenties, forced to embark on the war, like my father.
But I can’t help but judge the words they use today to talk about the war and its miseries fifty years later. Adriano told me that he would not admit value judgments, but to refrain from value judgments would amount to giving up my humanity. Each generation, I think, more than the law, has the obligation to make moral judgments about the discourse that previous generations produce about their actions.
What I seek in these encounters with overseas veterans is something I am unable to translate into a simple, telegraphic formula. Among these veterans there is a very strong sense of community, an almost familiar, almost tribal communion, which at certain times seems to me incompatible with a broader sense of community. It is a communion that tends to exclude me and all those who have not shared the same experience. What I seek in these conversations are the moments, similar to epiphanies, when veterans express belonging to a larger, more comprehensive human community, necessarily organized around moral values. A community that includes, on an equal footing, the men against whom they have fought, plus the children of these men, the us and them.
– So I’m in the go – shoots Adriano. – But it’s nothing against you.
Gets up and leave. I’ve seen situations like this several times. There’s an angry veteran, who’s loud, but says it’s nothing against me. It’s nothing against the person who is physically there. What he refuses, it seems to me, is the word of a non-veteran about the colonial war. Because every word is, to a certain extent, the bearer of a moral judgment, and the veteran senses it diffusely. There are no neutral words.
I don’t understand what he was waiting for, who he thought he was meeting. A sentence he left hanging suggests to me that he might take me for someone in charge of collecting data to compile some database of overseas veterans in order to provide them with access to health care.
The other veterans that Marco invited come in, one by one. They introduce themselves. Guinea, Angola. We talked for three hours. One of them, a veteran from Guinea, talks at a certain point about the electric chair that was in Bula to torture the paigc prisoners.
MEMOIRS is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research & Innovation Framework Programme (No. 648624) and is based at the Centre for Social Studies (CES) of the University of Coimbra.