Deolinda Rodrigues de Almeida

“Freedom was coming…”

Lion watermark

Dear Deolinda,

lion artwork by DeolindaThe rescue story continued to unfold, with lots of wear and tear on both the rental vehicles and their drivers. One car landed in a ditch. Another suffered a broken axle, and the seminarians had to figure out how to find a shop where they could get the repairs done. And of course, on those long drives through unfamiliar country, they ran out of gas…more than once.

The drivers were at times so tired they were hallucinating. Does that sound familiar? Like you, Deolinda, they were determined to see their mission through to the end.

Each border crossing was unpredictable. How would they be received at this checkpoint? Their lives hung in the balance. Would the guard assigned to check their papers let them through, allowing them to take one more step toward freedom?

The sheer number of students arriving at one meeting place brought a new dimension to the rescue--a busload of nineteen students. When this larger group occasionally stopped for food or a rest stop at some remote village on the route, they attracted a crowd of gawkers. The villagers had never seen black people.

One long delay was the result of roadwork. At another village they arrived during the Fiesta de San Pedro, diverting attention away from St. Peter to the curious sight of all those blacks on one bus. Perhaps they sang the crowds into ecstasy. The seminarians commented about what fine musicians they were.

Earlier in the rescue efforts, a sympathetic guard had allowed a smaller group through the border at San Sebastian. This larger group arrived at the same checkpoint and the students were rudely marched off to the customs office for a long wait while their papers were checked. They were told that the guard had been discharged for letting the first students through with false papers.

At the detention center near the governor’s office, the students were interviewed one by one. They were obviously fearful of being searched. One student ate his papers, knowing they were illegal. One boy confessed to having a pistol. Two others had deserted from the Army, and their fate seemed ominous. All were treated like criminals.

After the interrogations, they were hauled off to jail, students and drivers alike. Stripped of their documents and money, they were confined to smelly quarters and offered stale bread and miserably uncomfortable mattresses for the sleep they didn’t expect to get. The women were separated from the men, and later reported that they had fared somewhat better.

As the hours went by, the Africans sang some songs, but they were at a very low moment, fearing they might be shot. The seminarians worried about their own involvement in the operation: they might be charged with kidnapping.

The sleepless night ended with a bugle call, the bugle played badly. Breakfast consisted of bread soaked in water. The guards brought in more mattresses, predicting they would be there three or more nights. Later that day they were subjected to yet another search and more red tape.

Rounded up and sent back to the governor’s office, the officials there were suddenly cordial. No one knows for sure what happened or who intervened, but apparently Franco authorized the students’ exit from Spain.

Inexplicably, when they got to the French border checkpoint, there was no record of the authorization. A local woman sympathetic to their plight talked the guards into letting them spend the night at local hotels. First, they went back to the border station where they had left their papers and passports. Turns out, the delay was because of the one guy who ate his papers.

The next morning, the border gates swung open, and all at once they realized they were inside France and were free! No one had completely believed in that miracle of freedom. But as they sometimes sang the beloved songs of their country Ngola, accompanied by hand clapping and rhythms drummed on the car dashboard or wherever they could find expression, how could they not get swept along into the faith of their ancestors and of others who had come to share their faith?

A banquet was arranged for 41 students of the 86 who had survived the long hours of trauma and uncertainty and were ready to move on as other doors were opened for their future. The Angola freedom chant was sung spontaneously and exuberantly, the rhythms building to express the love and gratitude shared in that emotional moment.

The next day the seminarians put the students on the train to Paris and returned the rental cars—a bit dinged up, but still running. Later, the Angolans invited them to a party at the hostel where they were staying. They partied together, long and loud, with drums and voices and spirits soaring far into the night.

Ah yes, Deolinda, freedom was coming.

Angola postage stamp