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7 March 2005updated 24 Sep 2015 11:46am

’’Parte’’, said the frontier guard

Bert Lodge recalls the curious outcome of a mission he undertook for the late Peter Benenson, Amnest

By Bert Lodge

I said: “Does this include Portugal?” “Oh, yes,” he replied, nodding his head gently to add emphasis but at the same time giving away that he knew the gravity of what he was asking of me.

Only nine months earlier, in summer 1962 when I was teaching English at Lisbon University, I had been beaten up by riot police, seized at dawn, interrogated until dusk by the secret police and bundled on to a train running out of the country the following day. Now I was being asked by Peter Benenson, the lawyer who had just founded Amnesty International, to slip back in.

The trip was part of a “mission to the Spanish peninsula”. “The purpose,” Benenson told me in a letter, “is to set up centres throughout the peninsula for the collection of information and the distribution of money to political prisoners’ families.”

For this ambitious shopping list, which I was to complete in one week, Benenson added: “We’ll give you £50.” Because I was hoping to work full-time for Amnesty, I did not say anything. Benenson twice asked me how I would be going and I assured him it would be by train.

That way, I hoped, I would have a better chance of getting in undetected.

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In those days, passports of passengers bound for Portugal were collected and examined on the train as it was passing through northern Spain. Both dictatorships, Portugal under Salazar and Spain under Franco, were paranoid about subversives, especially those from abroad.

The train came to a halt at the Spanish border post, then trundled across to the Portuguese side. It was then I noticed a man in plain clothes advancing down the train with just one navy-blue passport open in his hand. He was stopping at each compartment, glancing at the passport, and letting his gaze travel over the faces.

Drawing level with me, he stared, looked at the passport photograph, looked back at me and wrenched open the door. “Senhor Lodge?” “Sim,” I nodded. “Venha comigo,” he ordered, and gestured me to precede him along the corridor.

I was escorted into the frontier post, told to sit down, then ignored while phone calls were made to Lisbon, most of them seeking to confirm where I was born and my mother’s maiden name (which seems to matter a lot in some countries). Meanwhile, I braced myself and hoped the interrogation to follow wouldn’t get physical.

There was none. Instead, another “Venha comigo“, and I was led back on foot to the control post on the Spanish side of the border. There, after hearing that Portugal was rejecting me, the frontier guard, corpulent and shirt-sleeved with sweat rings under his armpits, shouted “Parte“, pointing towards the open door and the rest of Europe.

I walked through the tiny village, wondering at the vigilance of the Portuguese secret police, and why they hadn’t questioned me about why I was trying to re-enter. Reaching the main road, I soon thumbed a lift – it was still easy in those days – and was in Salamanca that evening.

On my return to England, Benenson listened to my account of what had happened. His response was a nod and a non-committal grunt. He clearly didn’t believe me, assuming, I supposed, that anybody who had experienced hands-on attention from the Portuguese police a few months earlier would hardly have risked the same and quite possibly worse again. But in that case, why did he ask me to go? After all, I could have achieved very little of such a grandiose project in the day or two I would have been there.

Shortly afterwards, I did begin to work full-time for Amnesty. Gradually, I became aware of Benenson’s capacity for deviousness and his readiness to abandon scruples for expediency. I began to reflect again on his reaction to my tale.

Could the real reason for his disbelief have been quite different? Was it that he was confident that if I had made the attempt at all to re-enter Portugal, the authorities would have behaved differently; would have let me in without appearing to notice; shadowed me for a day or two to discover my contacts, and then pounced? Had events turned out like that, there would have followed a fair amount of publicity. The duffing-up and expulsion the previous year had been extensively reported in the media. To be deported a second time could have generated just as much publicity – only this time the spotlight would have focused equally on Amnesty International, then an unknown organisation desperate to become well enough known to attract support. But in order for this scenario to arise, it was imperative that the Portuguese be alerted that I was planning to re-enter the country, and how.

Somebody had to tip them off. Who did?

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