Image of those protesting in Porto yesteday: Lusa

Portugal’s oldest soldiers announce hunger strike

Former Colonial War combatants highlight further ‘disgrace’ at Ministry of Defence

At a moment when politically matters could hardly be less edifying, the country’s oldest soldiers – combatants during Portugal’s Colonial War (1961-1974) – have announced a hunger strike for August 17, outside Belém Palace.

The oldest in the group of around 100 former soldiers is 86. 

Hopes are that in pre-announcing this protest, he and his slightly younger former colleagues, none of them under the age of 70, may be able to move things along without resorting to giving up eating.

But it comes on a weekend where press reports have developed last Friday’s strange newsbite (that the Council of State, convened by the President, had ended with no conclusions publicised), to explain that the meeting actually saw intense criticism of the government – and only came to a close when it did because prime minister António Costa “was called away on business”.

Conveniently perhaps, that business took him to the other side of the world; to New Zealand, to watch Portugal’s national women’s football team play a World Cup match. And from New Zealand, the PM has been described as “refusing to comment on the Council of State”.

Opposition parties however are all too ready to comment – and this latest ‘disgrace’ involving some of the country’s oldest and most patriotic citizens certainly will not help the government’s overall look.

The nuts and bolts of the old combatants’ beef is that they are not being respected

“We were fighters for the nation, and were sent to war. We deserve dignity and gratitude. Rights that are denied to us”, proclaimed banners in Porto yesterday as around 50 of these latter day warriors started publicising their predicament, and referring to plans for a hunger strike in August.

The fury centres on a Statute, in place to assure old combatants certain rights and privileges, but which, they say, is being largely ignored.

Part of the focus of the hunger strike is a demand to President Marcelo to insist the Statute is repealed, “because it is not being complied with”.

The Statute covers benefits like free access to museums, public transport, and in some cases basic health care.

On this last score, António Silva, of the Commission for the Dignity of the Old Combatant Statute, told Lusa there are “black combatants who fought alongside the Portuguese and who have serious health problems now and nobody wants to know about them”.

If it had not been for “these black men from the former colonies who had 13 years of war, the Portuguese when they got there would all have died there”, he said.

Another issue is the ‘Former Combatant cards’ – meant to afford them various benefits.

Half these have not been delivered. Many former warriors for the nation are dying before they receive the combatant card, he stressed. Yet, according to certain reports, the Ministry of Defence is ‘sitting on around 136,000 of these cards’.

Then there is the matter of ‘pensions’, many of them so miserable that former fighters – some of them with deep-seated psychological trauma as a result of service overseas – cannot afford to buy medication prescribed to calm their nerves.

There are thought to be around 2,000 homeless people, living rough every day and night in Portugal, who served in the Colonial War, explains Jornal de Notícias. 

Thus the sense of outrage and frustration; the feeling that a country that owes a debt of gratitude to these men has basically ‘moved on’ and doesn’t even remember the sacrifices they made.

Making this situation ‘even worse’ is that the ministry at the centre of this perceived neglect is none other than the Ministry of Defence, already embroiled in scandal and allegations of corruption.

Says Lusa, the old soldiers have opted to hold their hunger strike outside Belém Palace as they trust this will be the perfect venue to attract President Marcelo’s attention (Belém Palace is the president’s official residence).

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