I dedicate this text to the memory of all those who suffered in Tarrafal.

 In the north of the Cape Verde island of Santiago, about 60 km from the beach, the Tarrafal is found. It is an arid zone that reaches the sea and where we find the best white sand beach on the island. Not far from this beach, we see Monte Graciosa and, a little further away, Serra Malagueta, with its stunning escarpments. This is a majestic landscape that, somehow, emphasizes even more the feeling of hopelessness and loneliness that it is impossible not to sense at this place.

Tarrafal beach, Santiago island, Cape Verde
Tarrafal beach

When I arrived there in a Hiace (a collective taxi) from the bustling city of Praia, I felt a detachment “of the world” much bigger than the two-hour ride allowed me to. It was as if I had just arrived at an abandoned land.

My main goal in Tarrafal was to go to the former Concentration Camp and so I stopped in Chão Bom. This is one of the region’s poorest regions and where a third of the population of the Tarrafal lives. Here the population has a hard time subsisting with what the land and the sea provides, there is virtually no cultural offer, nor even a religious temple for believers.

I imagine the desolation that the prisoners felt when they came to this place…

1st phase: 1936 to 1954

Political Prisoners in Portugal

It was in 1936.

Portugal was experiencing the full-fledged dictatorial regime of Estado Novo and Cape Verde was a Portuguese colony. Oliveira Salazar, the Portuguese dictator, wanted to achieve political stability and therefore outlined several repression instruments. In this context, emerged the willingness to imprison all those who, somehow, were opposed the regime, akin to what happened in other countries of the world.

The choice of Tarrafal

Tarrafal appeared as the perfect place to send political and social prisoners. It was like a prison within another. At the time of the construction of the Camp, it was a very isolated area (without means of communication), with serious water supply issues, with several periods of hunger, without means of subsistence and, for several centuries, it had been completely abandoned even by the state itself. Salazar wanted the region’s bleakness to cause a feeling of discouragement and despair.

With a Nazi inspiration, Salazar pondered to create a special prison for individuals who had to serve sentences considered “special”. And, thus, in 1936, the Penal Camp, as it was known at the time, received the first individuals sentenced to a penalty of banishment for the practice of political crimes, and also common crime prisoners who, in, Portugal proved to be undisciplined. With Tarrafal being so isolated at that time, the international community was basically unaware of the wrongdoing committed in the place.

Initially, the barracks were made of canvas (the only exception was the kitchen built with bricks) and there was no electricity. The stone buildings were edified later, and one should be emphasized, nicknamed frying pan. It was hell.

The pan

The frying pan was a small building, with ceiling and floor made of cement and a heavy iron gate. All those who were punished were sent to this place. It was totally exposed to the sun, therefore, in its interior, the temperature was quite high… The Criminal Camp had a doctor who even admitted, “I’m not here to heal, but to issue death certificates”.

The Penal Colony became known as the Slow Death Camp, given the dreadful conditions that the prisoners had to endure and the inevitability that awaited them. The prisoners were deprived of medicines and drinking water, were many times forced to eat already deteriorated meat and were subjected to permanent mistreatment and, at certain times of the year, the malaria mosquito hovered around. It was a slow death…

Of the 340 Portuguese who were there, 34 died. The international pressure forced Salazar to close the Penal Camp in 1954.

2nd phase: 1962 to 1974

Working Camp of Chão Bom

The Penal Colony was reopened in 1961, named Working Camp of Chão Bom. It lodged 230 nationalists of Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. In this 2nd phase of the Camp, the frying pan was replaced by holandinha, which can still be visited. It was a cell with very tiny size, located inside another structure.

With the Carnation Revolution in Portugal (25 April 1974), Salazar’s dictatorial regime was deposed and the gates of the Working Camp of Chão Bom were opened. All the prisoners were released.

Eight months later, the prison started to receive prisoners yet again, only Cape Verdeans this time around. On 19 July 1975, the camp was completely extinguished, having registered other uses until 2009, when it opened as the Museum of the Resistance.

Museum of the Resistance

When I arrived, nobody was there. As I walked towards the door, passing by houses that looked abandoned, several small children approached me. I was walking with a baby stroller, with my daughter, and the curiosity was enormous. During the eight days that I was on the island of Santiago no other stroller was seen.

After all, the houses that initially looked abandoned were not. The former houses of the ex-guards who worked in the Concentration Camp were occupied by families who lived on the street.

Old guards houses, Santiago island, Cape Verde
Old guards houses

My visit

When I arrived at the Camp’s main gate, the first thing that catches my attention is the end of the train line, which lends to this place a weight with a brutal reality. According to what I was able to perceive, there was once a train line there, from the Camp to the vegetable garden, which was a few kilometers away. A convoy carried the food.

Entrance of the Tarrafal Concentration Camp, Santiago island, Cape Verde
Entrance of the Tarrafal Concentration Camp

Inside, there was still no trace of tourists whatsoever. I silently visited eall structures and their memories. There are signs to indicate the purpose but, within the structures, there is nothing. They are completely empty.

I passed by the several cells, the ones of the common political prisoners, the ones of the Cape Verdean and the ones of the Angolans and Guineans. They did not want prisoners of different origins to have contact with each other. I also walked inside the reading room, the disciplinary cell, where there are inscriptions from those who occupied it, which makes everything so real, the workshop, the first-aid post, the canteen, the laundry and the kitchen.

Cell of Angolan political prisoners, Santaigo island, Cape Verde
Cell of Angolan political prisoners
Building where the workshop, the cafeteria, the cells and the disciplinary cells were located, Santiago island, Cape Verde
Building where the workshop, the cafeteria, the cells and the disciplinary cells were located
Unidentified structure, Santiago island, Cape Verde
Unidentified structure
Barbed wire all around the Field, Santiago island, Cape Verde
Barbed wire all around the field
Kitchen, Santiago island, Cape Verde
Clinic, Santiago island, Cape Verde
Holandinha, Santiago island, Cape Verde

Traveling, for me, is also this. And for that, in my opinion, when visiting the island of Santiago, it is mandatory to visit the Tarrafal and know a little more of its history and the history of the Camp that made this town famous. It is the memory of a dark time in the history of mankind.

May mankind never forget what has already been done and may never repeat it.