Manecas dos Santos began the morning of January 21, 1973, the same way he had begun most mornings since he arrived at the military school in Crimea. The tall, thin, Cape-Verdean-born military commander walked the hallways and listened to BBC news on his transistor radio. Outside, the bitter Soviet Union winter was a stark contrast to the heat of Guinea-Bissau, where dos Santos was used to fighting in the guerilla war for independence for Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. The war, which began in 1963 to throw off Portuguese colonial rule, was officially entering a decade, but dos Santos and around 200 other fighters were in the Soviet Union to bring new hope to the struggle. They were there to train on a new anti-aircraft weapon—the Strela—that they were confident would secure them victory.
“It was Cabral who convinced the Soviets to give us that weapon,” says dos Santos, referring to the revolution’s co-founder and leader, Amilcar Cabral. Cabral had managed to secure the liberation troops, known as the PAIGC, as the first nation outside of the Soviet Union to receive the lightweight, anti-aircraft weapon. Up until then, says dos Santos, the PAIGC had control over vast swaths of land, known as the liberation zones, and the Portuguese were only able to continue their fight because of their air power. Cabral’s move to get the men trained on the Strela and then quickly get them to the front would be a turning point.
But before training that morning as dos Santos listened to the reports, he heard the news that changed everything: Cabral was dead. Their leader and the architect of the liberation struggle had been assassinated in Conakry, Guinea the evening of January 20.
Today in Guinea Bissau, when the men and women who fought and lived alongside Cabral speak about him, their voices shift. When asked what Cabral was like as a man, dos Santos lets out a soft sigh that simultaneously fills the room with happiness and melancholic nostalgia. “He was a very quiet man. Spoke always calmly. He was against all unnecessary violence. He was against the death penalty.” Many former fighters recall Cabral’s affinity to joke and play with children, even during the hardest moments of the war. Often, years seemingly fall off the faces of these men and women in their 70s and sometimes 80s as they light up with a familial-like reverence when telling stories of Cabral. Their tone belying a pity for the listener, who was not lucky enough to know him.
After dos Santos heard the news on the radio, he went directly to the head of the military school to confirm if it was true. The school commander called officials in Moscow, and shortly afterward affirmed: Cabral had been shot and killed.
As commander of the Guinean troops in Crimea, dos Santos gathered his men in an amphitheater to break the news. “It was one of the saddest scenes in my life,” he says. “Seeing adults, people that have faced death many times in their life as soldiers, were crying because Cabral was dead. Cabral meant a lot to everybody. Because all of the freedom fighters knew he was the man who was capable of changing everything. And he did it. Just imagine how Cabral could make a liberation struggle like that, with the raw materials he had? It’s amazing.”
Dos Santos says that despite their sadness, they were more eager than ever to return to the front with their new weaponry and win the war. “Even if it’s the death of a man like Cabral, we could not go back because of it. On the contrary. We were quite angry, and when we came back with the Strela, we neutralized Portuguese aviation.”
Less than two months later, the troops in Crimea returned to the frontlines of Guinea Bissau, but this time with 24 Strela installations across the liberated zones. On March 27, 1973, dos Santos commanded from nearby as a fellow soldier shot the first Strela into the sky from northern Guinea-Bissau and took down a Portuguese plane.
“We are almost liberated,” dos Santos thought in that moment. It was just two months after Cabral’s murder, but it would prove a seismic shift. In September that same year, the country declared independence. In April of 1974, that independence was finally recognized by the broader international community.
The cruel timing of Cabral’s murder, just as the troops were learning to use the very weapon that would clinch victory, lingers. “He meant a lot of things for Guinea Bissau,” says dos Santos “Not only for the liberation struggle, but for afterward. He was the real conceiver of things. It was a disgrace for Guinea Bissau because after his death, there was nobody to lead.”
Today, the image of Cabral literally looms large over the capital city—a three-story mural faces directly opposite the parliament building. In the colorful painting, the leader wears his signature black and white, knit cap. His spectacles are placed on his forehead, as if he has raised them to get a better look at what the country has become 50 years after his death. He peers toward the parliament building, currently without a governing body for almost a year.
“The people are our mountains,” Cabral once said of Guinea-Bissau, a flat, sea-level country, that lacks the traditional mountainous terrain usually needed for an advantage in guerilla warfare. Despite their lack of geographic mountains, they won the war, as Cabral insisted, thanks to the people’s efforts. And it seems today Cabral himself has been made into a mountain, his legacy providing a proud viewpoint of how the country came together to fight for independence, while also casting the shadow of a painful reminder of what could have been had he lived to see that independence himself.