I will try to remember and tell about facts that started to happen more than 42 years ago. As nature abhors a vacuum, so does memory, and it fills such voids with reconstructions of its other parts of. That's why I can't be sure that all I will say had happen exactly as I'm telling it. But I'll try my best.
I - In the way to the promised land
Like all the other male young people that were around twenties of age in the Portugal of 1972, I was afraid of the army conscription and of the very real possibility of being sent to the jungles of one of the colonies to fight a guerrilla war.
Apart the fear, some of us felt a deep antipathy against the political situation in the country - a more than forty years old dictatorship, with all the usual accessories: political police, censorship, etc... (more details about this background can be found here ).
Mainly in the urban áreas, - and I am a Lisbon born and bred - the main topic in the chats was the drawing of strategies to try to escape this situation. In the "cafés" where we met, a credo appears that we all began to accept (and it must be said that there were not too many alternatives):
Swedish people are not very keen about our dictatorship, they support the guerrilla movements in the colonies; so, all one has to do is to try to reach Sweden and tell them: "I don't want to fight this unfair war. I'm an anti colonialist". They will welcome and give you all the support you need.
And I also believed it.
At the beginning of 72 I already knew that in October I should present myself at the Infantry Regiment nr. 16 in the town of Leiria to "begin the accomplishment of my military duties" - as the official language said it - that would normally take four years of your life, unless it ended in the meantime.
When spring arrived, we were a group of around seven decided to fly and try to reach Sweden.
But, as we started to face the difficulties the desertions also started. The main difficulty was that, unless one was wealthy and had the right connections, to get a passport was almost impossible to males above eighteen, which meant the need to cross Europe bottom-up smuggling at least four borders.
At the end of September only two remained: me and João.
(When we returned from Sweden he went also to the army, but to barracks different of mine. I had notice that he had been sent to Mozambique when I was sent to Timor but after that we lose all contact.)
None of us had a passport, of course, and we could barely summed to 8.000 escudos -just enough to bought the train tickets and a couple of sandwiches and coffees.
João knew people in the region of the city of Guarda who knew some smugglers. This region is close to the border (with Spain, the only Portugal has) and smuggling goods was a traditional activity of some groups. It was a risky activity because the border line was patrolled in both sides by police corps (Guarda Fiscal, the Portuguese; Guardia Civil the Spanish) that didn't faltered in shooting anyone who didn't freeze when they said so. Beginning in the sixties, they add the smuggling of people -emigrants- to that of goods.
I worked at the "Room-Service" of a big Hotel and my boss was a French lady from Strasbourg. I trusted her and let she knew my intent of try to escape the army and go to Sweden. She offered to help and wrote to an aunt, who was still living in Strasbourg, asking her to put us in Germany, crossing the border in her car at the rush time to reduce the chances of any control.
We delayed the departure as far as we could because it was a tough decision. It wasn't to choose between something good and something bad, but rather between something bad - to stay and join the army - and something equally bad -to leave friends and family and fly without papers and with scarce means to a complete unknown place.
But, as October approached we had to decide and, at its beginning, I join João in Guarda City. Clandestinely we made contacts, discuss possibilities and prices and dealt with one guy that would put us in Ciudad Rodrigo, already in Spain, and give us clues to cross the border to France.
This took us some two or three days and at the end of one afternoon we were taken by one guy - different from the one with whom we dealt; it really worked according to the rules of clandestine networks - to a walk that finished in a house in the middle of nowhere. We hadn't any luggage and have been told not to leave the house or even open the door whichever the reason and that during the night someone would pick us up. The house was just four walls, a roof and a door and the intense smell showed that it was used for sheltering flocks of sheep and goats in winter.
About 4 am we heard the prearranged whistle and followed a new guy, walking about two hours. We stopped by a road and waited another hour until a car with a Spanish registration number arrived, took us, without the guide, and left us in the railway station in the outskirts of Ciudad Rodrigo.
It was already day. We bought tickets to Irun where we arrived late that night.
The clue we got to cross the border to France was to go to a certain square in Irun, where there was a taxi station, ask for "Señor" something and tell him we were friends of another Spanish name. The "Señor" reply was a figure that we translated in "pesetas" and gave him (I guess around ten times the normal fare). We entered the car and, according to his instructions, took places as normal passengers, one in front aside the driver, the other in the rear. He beckoned hellos to the cops in both the Spanish and the French sides when we crossed the border, and some ten minutes later left us in front of Hendaye railway station.
We took a train in the morning to Paris, where we arrived at the end of the day and there another one to Strasbourg that we reached early next morning.
At 8 am we rang the bell at the house of my boss's aunt, who acted according to her niece instructions and left us at the Kehl - the German city in front of Strasbourg - railway station.
In our minds, the more difficult part was accomplished. We had cross Spain and France and were already in Germany. All that remained to be done was the Danish border, but that couldn't be too difficult. Maybe Danish people were not so concerned as the Swedish one about the Portuguese colonial politics, but weren't them all Scandinavians, generous-hearted and humanitarian people!? We bought tickets directly to Stockholm.
Some hours later, at the German-Denmark border, we blatantly told the Danish immigration officer that we were Portuguese guys, hadn't passports and wanted to reach Sweden to get support not to be obliged to fight an unfair war. We have been kindly invited to leave the train and handled to their German counter-part.
Only many years later, when I worked in the area of immigration and had to be in touch with its legal niceties, did I fully understood what had started to happen there.
We never uttered the word "asylum" because we had never heard about any 1956's Geneva Convention or its 1964's New York additional protocol. And we couldn't realize that the German cops have been so kind only because they wanted to get rid of us and sent us somewhere, in order to avoid a lengthy legal process, of uncertain outcome, and lots of red tape work.
But, for what we were concerned about at the time, they have been really nice. After we had told them how we have arrived there, they suggested the option Travemünde-Trelleborg to reach Sweden, help us to refund the train tickets in the part not used and, certainly, made a call to their colleagues in Travemünde explaining the situation, because we hadn't any problem entering the boat there.
We began to fear that we were wrong when we thought that we had already done the more difficult part. We had done the easiest one, and the hardest one was to come. But things seemed to rearrange. We went to Travemünde, bought the boat tickets and used the remaining money to eat a decent meal, because next morning we would reach the promised land.
And, next morning, at Trelleborg, we left the boat and, more confident than ever - we were in Sweden! - told the immigration officer that we were Portuguese guys and bla, bla, bla...
II - Back home
We stayed barely two days in Sweden. Arrived one day around 7am - the schedule the boat from Travemünde still follows - had been interviewed during this day, spent the night and next day in the jail of the local police station and when I was preparing to sleep the second night in the jail, I was called up and put in a car - where I met João - that left us in the boat the minute before its leaving.
Next morning we were in Travemünde again and have been received by German Police's people that, of course, already knew who we were and why we were there.
Very kind again, the German cops. We must have said that we intended to return home, asking for that purpose the help of a Portuguese consulate to get us papers and means. "Excellent idea", they must have said, and we traveled with one of them to Hamburg in the compartment of a train that, I presume, was reserved for the use of the Police. He left us at the Hamburg "Hauptbahnhof", after explaining how to reach the Portuguese consulate, that wasn't far.
We were defeated: our dreams about Sweden destroyed, not one single coin in the pockets, no travel documents. Being so, looking for help in the consulate was the wisest decision. But, how to explain to the people there that someone who should have been at Leiria barracks since the beginning of October, was in Hamburg at the 17th?
That’s why we didn’t go to the consulate and decided to give us another chance, trying to survive some time in Hamburg hoping that, in the meantime, we could find a solution.
We held it two days, eating what we were able to steal in the supermarkets, trying to avoid the night’s cold by walking till the subway opened, when we took a train in the longest line and traveled end to end enjoying the warm and trying to have some sleep.
We have done it with no tickets, of course. So, the controllers that eventually discovered this make us alighted the next station and, because it wasn’t only lack of tickets but lack of tickets-cum-documents, handled us to the Police to whom we told our story that they checked and confirmed we were already their regular costumers.
What could they else do for us? What did we prefer: to be arrested, tried and expelled, or went to the Portuguese consulate, tell them any story we wanted, ask to be sent home and left them, at last, alone? – If not verbalized exactly this way, this was what they meant.
We threw in the towel. They took us in a car that stopped just in front of the consulate’s door, where they saw us enter and I presume they stayed there for a while to be sure we don’t return back.
In the consulate, the memories I can gather is that we had talk to someone older than us but not too old, to whom we told a story about girlfriends that we were looking for but had not been able to found and, in the meantime, had lost our luggage and that was why we were without money and documents. I am not very sure about the content of this chat, but I am sure that the guy who was listening to us wasn’t believing a single word and knew exactly, by our age and look, what problem we really had. But he has been kind enough to accept our bullshit and hadn’t add any problems to the ones we already had.
That is the idea I kept in mind during these 42 years and I have seen it confirmed a few weeks ago when I retrieved the content of the file in the archives of the Portuguese Foreign Affairs Ministry.
This is the front and the rear of the form filled in the consulate about my repatriation as indigent.
The instruction (5) - in the back of the form: second page- reads: “The accounts concerning the repatriation of indigents already called for their military service must be sent directly for refund purposes with all necessary details to the Staff Director of the Army Ministry”
In the “Military Situation” item -7th line of the front of the form: first page - our interlocutor puts: “unknown”. So, our situation has been dealt as a normal repatriation and not as the repatriation of someone that was flying the army. In fact, I can’t say that I have had any special problems when I return. Thank you, whoever you are!
We have been given a passport - with the word "Repatriated" in red capitals in the front page and reading on the third that it was valid during five days and only to the return of the holder to Portugal through Belgium, France and Spain, a train ticket to Lisbon, via Paris and 42 DM to the meals during the trip.
III- The Army
All my fears about what could happen in my return revealed to be not very sound. In the Portuguese border the guy who checked our passports only asked “and what about the army?” We answered that that was the reason why we were returning: to verify if everything was ok concerning our duties to the nation. He replies: “do it, boys, do it; don’t get yourselves any problems”.
I went to the Lisbon Recruitment Office where I have been asked why I haven’t follow the instructions given in the notices displayed in the Town Hall and presented myself , the beginning of the month, in the barracks showed in such notices. The ingresses were made quarterly; having lost the last of 72, I should present myself in Leiria next January to get the first of 73. It wasn’t even a rebuke and nothing more have been said about my “delay”. Only around August 1974, being already in Timor, have I been called to present myself to the Area Commander in Bobonaro Headquartes. There I have been told that, according to a message from Lisbon, the file concerning the fact that I haven’t present myself in due time to fulfill my military duties and had left the country, attempting to desert, have been close due to an amnesty law passed in the aftermath of the 25 April coup. A file that nobody told me a single word about.
This time I was punctually at Leiria. Two weeks later I was sent to another barracks – Santarém - where I spent the next nine months being drilled in all the disciplines of the art of anti-guerrilla war to eventually be sent to the farthest colony - East-Timor - in October. We (around 200) embarked the 9th. November in Lisbon and arrived in Dili the 1st. January 1974 after stopping half a day in Luanda and Beira and one day in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo): 50 days sailing, 21 of them crossing the Indian Ocean.
Timor wasn’t a dangerous place, from a military point of view, at the time. Only a very poor and deeply backward one, although against a scenario of outstanding natural beauty. Tar roads length wasn’t more than 5 kms – the main streets in the capital: Dili. The idea of distances wasn’t even achieved through kilometers, but, instead, by the use of units such as days walking, days riding a horse, or days in a truck- And they were different depending of the season: wet or dry. Tough times, yes, but, apart from the last months, only because of the isolation, the climate, the malaria…
I have been sent to the mountainous region of the border with the half Indonesian part of the Island, where I stayed in different places - Atabae, Balibó, Tilomar and Bobonaro - till May 1975.
In the meantime Portugal went through dramatic changes. The 25 th. April 1974 a military coup overthrew the regime and one of the main consequences has been the recognition of the right to the colonies to become independent states.
In Timor, due to the poor development conditions, the independence would be delayed for five years in order to allow the creation of a minimum of basic infrastructures –physical and political ones. I have been called to the main Headquarters in Dili to join the team that would build the necessary conditions for the exercise of the democracy by the Timorese people. But I haven’t work there for long. The situation deteriorates with the antagonism of the three main local political forces. UDT wanted that Timor remains a Portuguese colony with the idea of independence putted in the long term, FRETILIN was for immediate independence and APODETI for the integration in Indonesia. At the end of August, after two weeks of fierce combats, the small Portuguese military contingent that remained – around 250, from the Governor and Military Commander to the last private - lose control of the situation. A small part of this contingent stayed in the island of Ataúro, in sight of Dili, and the rest, where I was, went to Darwin, in north Australia, and from there to Portugal.
In October 1975, three years after my frustrated Swedish adventure, I resume my condition of civilian and understood the saying “it’s easier to militarize a civilian than to civilize a military man”
IV - A Cop's Career
Life in Portugal at the end of 1975 wasn't easy either. As it always happens in revolutions and theirs near aftermaths, unrest was the rule.
I resume my job at the Hotel, that wasn't a glamorous place anymore but, instead, and like the majority of all other hotels in the country, a place where returnees from the colonies, that were just becoming former, dwelt. I looked at this job as an interim occupation that would allow me to look in to something more suitable to my aspirations. The problem was that I didn't know what could I aspire, being 24 years old, with barely nine of school and no particular skills.
One day, when lunching, I complained to a colleague about this, saying that I had to find something different to do. He replied that he had seen somewhere in a newspaper an ad calling for new recruits to the criminal investigation police (Polícia Judiciária - PJ) and this could be an idea. My reply was a categorical refusal: nor only wasn´t I keen on dealt again with matters concerning guns, violence and uniforms, after three years in the army, neither could I said that I liked cops; on the contrary!
This colleague worked at the hotel’s office but his working days were mainly spent in errands all around Lisbon. Some days later he putted in front of me the form to answer the PJ calling, already filled in my name, and said: “just sign at the bottom; I’ll take care of the rest.”
I still hadn’t found anything else; there were few chances that I could be called, and in case I was I could always said no. It wasn’t a big risk. I signed.
A few months later I received a letter asking to present myself at the PJ’s Head Office in order to undergo the first of a set of examinations. At this time I already knew that PJ, differently from the other three police corps – Polícia de Segurança Pública :PSP, Guarda Nacional Republicana: GNR and Guarda Fiscal:GF; DGS, the “political police”, had been dismantled after the 25th April coup - was solely a criminal investigation police working with the Public Prosecutor and... its members wore plain clothes.
I learned later that the process in which I was involved was one of the first recruitments after the revolution, made with strict criteria of selection and with the intention to give a sound instruction to the recruits in order to “build” the new democratic era cop. There were around 2.000 candidates (unemployment rates were in two big digits) for 45 vacancies.
After the cultural knowledge examination, I had been successively called to be examined psychologically, physically and medically and the selection process ended with an interview.
The theoretical part of the training started in October in a full time regime and lasted six months. In May 1977 we started the one year in job training and in June 1978 around 40 of us became “3d class agents”.
I spent the first 3 or 4 years in a team of the 6th Section, one of the two sections that dealt with the violent crimes against property. And there were a lot at the time and rather violent.
The next 3 or 4 years I have been in the “Identification Department” working with fingerprints – at a pre-AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System) era. In the meantime I resume studying and achieved a degree in Law at Lisbon University in 1985.
My last placement was in Homicide where I stayed till I swapped the PJ for SEF (Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras – Immigration and Border Service) in 1990.
This swap happened at a time when Portugal was restructuring this area of internal security to fulfil its obligations with the then EEC (European Economic Community) and the looming Schengen Agreements. Before 25th April 1974 borders and migration were dealt by DGS. With its extinction, GF took charge of this area. But these new obligations led to the extinction of the GF and its replacement by a new body: SEF.
Working here gave me the occasion to dive deeply in the illegal immigration's world, both from a legal point of view, when working in the answers, at national and European levels, to its increasing pressure, but also from the close contact with the dirty work of nets trafficking people that we investigated there.
And this is, until now, the biggest irony of my life: having been an illegal immigrant (and emigrant) and a frustrate (and ignorant of the status) asylum seeker, twenty years later I was acting at an high level in the “other side”.
One of the first cases we investigated in SEF concerned two poor young Chinese guys caught at Terceira Airport, in Azores, trying to board a flight to the States with forged passports. The investigation established that their families, in Jiãngxï Province, gathered part of the money needed to pay the trip – the rest would be paid with work once in the States. They have been smuggled to Macao and given forged passports with which they travelled to Equatorial Guinea, where they stayed some weeks with local support. From there they embark to somewhere in South America, via Frankfurt. Here, in the international area, someone exchange their tickets and put them in a flight to Bilbao from where they were taken by car to Madrid. Here they stayed for two weeks in an apartment –an ”hub” where others were also waiting the following of their trips- before being putted in a train to Lisbon where a Chinese resident - professor of Chinese at Lisbon University and translator of the main Portuguese classical writers, like Camöens, to mandarin Chinese- waited them and putted them in the domestic flight Lisbon-Terceira and gave them the tickets to embark there to USA.
This, and many other details, was, at the time, the deeper any Police in Europe has been able to go in the world of Chinese triads acting as people traffickers. Anyone having worked in this kind of investigation knows how hard it is to get information from the victims, that fear for what can happen to their families staying in China. In this case we have been able to gain their confidence and, in exchange, we gave them all the official and unofficial support we could.
Mutatis mutandis, I couldn’t help thinking of myself and João 20 years before, and, even though no one in the investigation team knew (and knows) about my past, I felt that, even through translators, a special understanding had been established between me and these Chinese fellows.
I left SEF at the end of 1995 but kept working as civil servant. At the beginning of 2001, approaching 50 of age and near 30 at the service of Portuguese State, I decided it was enough and retired.
V - The After Cop’s Life
I return to Timor at the end of 2001, as migration issues adviser at UNTAET (United Nations Transitional Administration of East Timor), that was ultimately preparing East Timor independence after 25 years of Indonesian annexation.
I left after independence (May 2002- although I returned later working in projects from Portuguese Aid) and, as I hadn’t the opportunity to have done “Inter Rail” when I was young, I started to travel: all the Australia and then back home (Portugal) by land during several months.
Apart small interventions in Aid Programs or as expert in different institutions, I keep travelling a lot. In one of these travels I had the idea to retrieve the file concerning my stay in Sweden. I have done it in July this year (2014) having done the last leg in exactly the same way I have done it 42 years ago: by boat from Travemunde to Trolleborg.
Here, at the Police Station, Anders Mohlin was asked help by his young colleague that, understandably, wasn’t understanding what my story was about: an asylum seeker from forty-two years ago!?.
He gave me all the details needed to found the file at the Archives in Lund where I get it with the also kind help of Jan-Eric Bruun
Me and Anders kept in touch and I wrote this abridge account of my life to meet his curiosity and also to try to give some order to my memories.
José A. M. Lopes