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Former colonial soldiers in Mozambique hope for pensions
by Staff Writers
Maputo (AFP) Jan 24, 2012

Paulo Salazar served on a Portuguese warship during Mozambique's long liberation war, leaving him stranded on the wrong side of history.

Now, more than four decades later, he's among the colonial-era veterans waiting patiently outside the Portuguese embassy to apply for a military pension from Lisbon, which most will never receive.

"I'll be thankful for anything they give, because I worked for them," said 64-year-old Salazar, waiting among the scores of ex-combatants who arrive at the embassy every day from across Mozambique.

The father of 15 clutches his weathered service documents under one arm. A youthful face in a black beret stares out from the yellowed photo in his military identity book, that shows he worked on a colonial warship from 1964 to 1966.

Supported by younger children or leaning on canes, the ageing men have trickled from across the southern African country -- encouraged by stories in local media that some qualify for grants from Portugal.

But most won't get anything, due to complex rules and Portugal's debt crisis, which has seen Lisbon slash pensions for vets already receiving payments.

Portugal tried to suppress independence movements in its African colonies, especially Mozambique, Angola and Guinea Bissau, from 1961 until a 1974 coup in Lisbon brought the "Overseas War" and colonialism to an end.

"With or without reason the truth is we are ashamed of the war," Defence Minister Jose Pedro Aguiar-Branco said in Portugal in December at the 50th commemoration of the start of the colonial war.

"We live with unease about what happened there and consequently with those who went there."

Nearly 30 years after the colonial wars, Portugal paid some compensation to its African veterans.

Instead of a conventional monthly pension, the defence ministry gives a yearly stipend of around 150 euros ($190), provided the soldiers made social security payments beyond their service years.

-- 'I'll have to be patient' --

Veterans' associations in Portugal have branded the stipend a disgraceful amount, but in Mozambique, it goes a long way. Most Mozambicans make do with less than the minimum salary of around 2,000 meticals ($74, 58 euros) a month.

So when local media suddenly reported on the subsidies last year, the old soldiers came from afar thinking they would finally receive pensions.

Many veterans lost their jobs at independence, when the liberation movement Frelimo took power and sacked the colonial forces. Most colonial soldiers stopped payments to Portuguese social security.

"The Frelimo government said the colonial police had to go. I had to become a painter," said Salazar, one of the lucky few who did manage to keep up social security payments.

But another veteran, 62-year-old Assane Assane, who deactivated landmines in the extreme north from 1971 to 1974, is confused about the rules and can't remember ever having made payments.

"I can't understand it all," he told AFP in the embassy foyer after journeying over 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles) from coastal Quelimane.

There were "always some, but never many" veterans who came to apply for subsidies, said the embassy's military attache Americo Prata Almeida.

In May, veterans in central Beira threatened to protest outside the consulate to demand compensation. Portugal sent more application forms.

The queues grew following media reports in October that inspired hopes for many.

"Now lots come because they believe they qualify for something they don't," Prata Almeida said.

The men are first briefed on the programme, then meet with an embassy official to determine whether they can receive the payment. Most did not make social security after demobilisation, as the rules require.

But in their hundreds they keep applying, always hoping, like Assane.

"If I don't get this I'll have to be patient. I can't do anything else."

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