Recently, I attended the funeral of my neighbour, Sr. Augusto, who was one of the many victims of the fires that ravaged the Serra da Caldeirão on July 28, 2004.
For Sr. Augusto, and many of his generation of simple people, who had spent their entire existence living off their land, life effectively ended that terrible day, when he and his wife had to flee for their lives as Serra Morena was engulfed by flames.
The diminutive Sr. Augusto was an amazing man. At the age of 80, he worked tirelessly on his land from dawn till dusk, tending his ‘hortas’ (vegetable patch), caring for his mules and could still find the time during the day for me, regaling me with tales of life in the good old days, when Serra Morena was home to his entire family and everyone worked and played together in this beautiful place – wonderful stories of idyllic times.
July 28 reduced our breathtakingly beautiful Serra to what now resembles a lunar landscape – black earth, lifeless black skeletons of trees, no wildlife – or like the set of some post-holocaust movie.
My neighbours had spent the previous two weeks harvesting the cork from their Sobreiros and painstakingly building the huge rectangular pile, which, they proudly informed me, was worth around 25,000 euros and that a buyer was coming in the next week to collect.
When I arrived home late on the night of July 28, after the fires had abated, the cork had vanished without a trace, their income for the next five years swallowed by the flames.
The effect on Sr. Augusto was devastating. With no land, horta or animals to tend, he was a lost soul, his reasons for living snatched away from him by a total stranger, a malevolent woman with a grudge against her landlord.
Each day that passed saw him lose a little more of his zest for life, his sense of purpose. His mind began to wander and then he suffered a stroke, which left him paralysed and unable to speak. He died in Beja hospital a week later. The people of São Barnabé turned out in force to pay their last respects to their much-loved friend and many tears were shed as they reminded each other of the futility of the last few months of his life – a very sad day indeed for Serra Morena.
Sr. Augusto is not the only elderly person to pass away as a result of having his way of life destroyed. The bells of the little churches throughout Serra da Caldeirão have been tolling for the last year for the many victims of this atrocious crime.
The perpetrators languish in prison convicted of arson and will be free long before the floresta begins to recover. They should be put in court again, charged with crimes against humanity, or manslaughter, or maybe even murder, and be convicted and sentenced accordingly.
Also, there should be investigation as to the whereabouts of the State Fund set up to compensate victims of this crime. Sr. Augusto and his widow received not one cent from the Fund and, as far as I am aware, nor has anyone else. No one at our Câmara is volunteering any information and it is beginning to look as though the compensation we were promised is never going to materialise, unless the victims unite and take their case to Brussels.
Editor: The Resident will bring its readers more information on the State Fund to help victims of fire as soon as it becomes available.