Constraints and fear revived memories of the colonial war

The pandemic revived memories of Colonial War combatants and increased the use of psychological support services, despite the difficulty in holding face-to-face sessions, when “the solidarity of peers is essential”.

For Manuel Diogo, a former Colonial War fighter residing in Guarda, the pandemic brought a rekindling of memories in very specific situations, such as when he started seeing people in the street wearing masks, watching a an atmosphere of mistrust and fear that he also felt in Angola, in war.

“In Africa, during the war, we used to go for a walk in Luanda and we were looking from one side to the other to see who was chasing us. Here, now, the same thing happens,” he told Lusa.

The president of the Association for the Disabled of the Armed Forces (ADFA), Manuel Lopes Dias, said that the isolation that the pandemic had forced has revived memories of times of war, which aggravated the difficulties already felt by the disabled military.

“The pandemic brought us experiences of war, such as loneliness and remoteness of our families, society and friends, who we passed as young people in the Colonial War. Many of us are psychologically affected because no one comes back like that from war. Every human being who is subjected to a war situation has serious psychological consequences, there are always traumatic effects. And this we live again,” he said, in an interview with Lusa.

According to ADFA data provided to Lusa agency, in a year of pandemic there was an increase in requests for help from disabled military personnel and in the psychological support provided. In 2020, the association supported 82 people at a psychological level, by telephone or in person, when necessary, at the Lisbon and Porto hubs, 8 more than in 2019, when 74 disabled military personnel were accompanied.

“We have cases already referenced by our multidisciplinary teams, of psychologists and psychiatrists, because the pandemic, in fact, is affecting quite a few of our military disabled people affected by the stress of war and more affected by psychological problems. They have resorted and called more”, said Colonel Lopes Dias.

Although important, psychological support did not solve the problem of lack of contact between the disabled military who suffered the marks of the Colonial War and who were forced to isolate themselves from each other, he said.

“The solidarity of peers is essential, in addition to technical support and support from families”, explained Manuel Lopes Dias. “And at this moment, the pandemic has cut, in some cases almost completely, this possibility for the disabled in the Armed Forces to participate, collaborate, meet together. This has been a serious situation that we are witnessing.”

According to Dr. Luísa Sales, a psychiatrist who is part of the Scientific Committee of the Center for Stress Resources in Military Context (CRSCM), in general, “the populations reacted with a increased expressions of stress, from adaptation or trauma processes” to the pandemic. Former combatants who were in the Colonial War between 1961 and 1974, and in particular those who developed pathologies as a result of this experience, were no exception.

Among these is post-traumatic stress, but also “depression, anxiety, phobic and somatization, loss of contact with reality and addictive behaviors that are extremely frequent in these contexts of rupture” and that make former combatants a vulnerable population, explains the psychiatrist, also responsible for the Psychiatry Service of the Hospital Militar de Coimbra and coordinator of the Observatório do Trauma/CES.

“The frailty of people over 70 was extremely marked and all ex-combatants of the Colonial War are generally over 70 years old, so that was reasonably disturbing. And the fact that they were more imprisoned – for example, in my therapeutic groups we had to take periods off – it doesn’t make things easier”, said the professional, in an interview with Lusa.

Contacted by Lusa, Anabela Oliveira, member of the Board of the Association for Support to Ex-Combatants Victims of War Stress (APOIAR) said that the association received more requests for assistance in 2020 and that psychologists provided support by telephone, existing twice per month face-to-face psychiatry consultation.

According to Luísa Sales, the group therapy is the most indicated in the treatment of ex-combatants, since the existence of a “social support network is very important in the prevention of traumatic conditions and the development of post-trauma disease”, he explains.

But despite the fact that group consultations were interrupted during the confinement, the ex-combatants he accompanies maintained telephone contact with each other almost daily. For the psychiatrist, it was this mutual support that allowed them to overcome the constraints posed by the pandemic.

Luísa Sales admitted that she initially hoped that the pandemic, a situation she classified as “very violent”, would constitute a “kind of trauma activation”. However, in his clinical practice this has not been the case, he said.

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