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“Portugal is my home”

On the porch of the house from where she’s watched life pass by, Helena takes three steps forward and stops, gazing expectantly. The question, “Paulo died?” hangs heavy in the air. Unsteady on her feet, she asks us to come back later—she has been waiting for her heart medication prescription for days and her years weigh heavier in the morning. “I only see him, I only speak to him, on my son’s phone now. When I was younger, I thought life would be easier, but I’ve never got a break. I still sell doughnuts, cakes, fish sandwiches, to make money… I only ask God to help Paulo get his pension”, she tells us.

Paulo Rodrigues hasn’t died, but the “throat complaint” he has suffered for years has taken his voice and silenced him forever. Silenced him, and the indignation he’s accumulated over more than forty years. “Portugal is my country”, he repeated while he still could; as his voice grew increasingly hoarse, and slowly faded away.

“I want to go to Portugal firstly to sort out my health; secondly, to get my pension. That’s all that matters to me now. I am sorting out the trip, the documents… I want to go and then return to Guinea Bissau—I have my house here, I want to be close to my family.” This was his plan in October 2017, when he didn’t know yet the tricks that life would play on him. At the time, Paulo slept with his military logbook under his pillow, the only document that proved what he was: a ranked sergeant in the Commandos division of the Portuguese Army.

He married Helena in a civil ceremony so that, if anything happened to him, his wife would be entitled to a pension as the widow of a former combatant. He asked his niece in Lisbon to help him buy a plane ticket. He saved the money he needed to get himself a Bissau-Guinean passport (43,500 CFA francs—around 66 euros, in a country where the minimum wage is 76 euros). And, when he had everything he needed, he went to the Portuguese Embassy in Bissau to apply for a visa.

He waited, and waited, and waited… time passed by and Paulo continued waiting for a response; meanwhile, his health deteriorated.