The Big Sigh
Updated: Nov 12, 2018
Christodoulos E.G. Moisa
Copyright 2000 ©
At the beginning of July of this year, I visited Cyprus, the birthplace of my mother, father and ancestors. This sun-bleached, fire-raveged and drought-stricken 9251 sq. km piece of real estate (roughly the area of the Wellington region) has been eulogised among others by: Homer, Shakespeare and Nobel Laureate George Seferis.
Cyprus was popularised in the 1960s by Lawrence Durrell's ambivalent travel journal Bitter Lemons and misrepresented by several second-rate TV dramas. But despite the changes brought on the world by the post-colonialist winds of the twentieth century it is still at the mercy and whim of the super-powers.
New Zealand has played its part in the history of modern Cyprus. In 1952 the RNZAF No.14 squadron of De Havill and Vampire jet fighters was stationed in Cyprus. Two years later, in one of its early attempts to strike an independent foreign policy, New Zealand voted to first bring the Cyprus issue onto the international stage at the United Nations. In 1964, New Zealand was invited by the U.N. to contribute to a peacekeeping force, and it sent 20 policemen. Two years ago The New Zealand and Australian Post-Graduate Association was launched for Cypriots who studied in Kiwi and Australian universities. Most recently Dame Ann Hercus had a short tenure as U.N. representative on the island and New Zealand expatriate Seamus MacHugh published his best-selling account of an insightful personal journey: Cyprus an Island Apart . About 100 New Zealanders live in Cyprus.
Although I was born in Lower Hutt I have very strong links with the island. I lived there as a child between 1954 and 1960 and for 18 months in the early 1970s, before the 1974 Turkish invasion that almost split the island in half. Since the villages of my mother and father were taken by the Turkish military, all of my immediate and extended families have lived as refugees and are scattered throughout the island.
I have visited Cyprus almost yearly for the last six years and my previous and most recent visit was Christmas and New Year of 1998-99. During those visits I have rekindled childhood friendships and established and strengthened new ones. I have sat on my sister's rooftop, in a suburb they now call the “North Pole” (the northernmost point of the Greek-occupied south), executing several series of pen and ink and watercolour drawings. My main theme has been the mountain range to the north and its craggy mountain peak, Pentadactylos (five-fingered) that gives the range its name. Those works meditate on the significance of Mt Pentadactylos to my mother's and father's villages.
I, like all Cypriot children, grew up with the story of Digenis Akritas. According to the myth this superhuman medieval Byzantine, the hero of many a folk ballad, leaned over to steady himself when throwing a huge rock at some pirates pillaging the plain of Messaoria and left his hand print on the mountain range. I also remember my mother once pointing out the large rock to me and my incredulity when I couldn't reconcile the size of the rock with the size of the hand that would have been needed to make the hand-print.
What is really significant about Mt Pentadactylos, though is the water that gushes out of its base at the village of Kythrea. This water was once thought to come all the way from Anatolia. However just a smattering of geological knowledge reveals that the limestone strata that underlies the mountain range is responsible for the artesian fountain which was the lifeblood of an area prone to savage droughts.
My mother's village was connected to Kephalovrisos in the late fifties 1950s. I still remember the trenches dug for the pipes and the fanfare of the opening of the first fountain, which was then duplicated in all the quarters of the village. This was the same spring that had supplied water, via aqueduct, to the ancient city of Salamis - first built by Teucer, the famed Achaean archer who fought in Troy - next to the sea in the Gulf of Famagusta, 80 kms away.
After the invasion of July 20th, 1974, the Greek south was held hostage as the water was turned on and off at the Turkish army's whim. Ironically, the spring has now lost its potency due to the huge number of independent bores put into the ground to water the north and the Turkish authorities have apparently resorted to importing water by tanker from southern Turkey. The Greek south, on the other hand, has worked hard to reduce that dependency by building many dams in the mountains and desalination plants on the shoreline.
From my sister's rooftop I would also contemplate the Green Line, so named after a British general drew a line of the same colour in 1964 to mark the front line between the two feuding communities and in 1974 through the invasion was extended to become the infamous Attila Line. Ironically, in winter, looking down from my sister's house, the area along this line, full of lethal land mines, is indeed a lush green as the parched Greek and Turkish areas approach it from either side. Probably this is owed to the Pedias River, which cuts though the area, and although its waters are now collected by dams in the Troodos Mountains it sometimes still floods, mainly due to some localised torrential rain.
An early series of those contemplative works on paper I exhibited in Wellington and a series of photographs exploring the people and the landscape was exhibited in Cyprus. I find to my surprise that the Cypriot theme regenerates itself with every visit. To me, the island is like a beautiful lover whose essence one thinks one has fully comprehended after a prolonged period of cohahitation, only to suddenly find after a period of separation that one is clutching an illusion and that the creature of one's attention is still a total mystery.
On Saturday morning, on the July 8 th accompanied by my twenty five year old niece Panagiota, and driving my brother-in-law's Chevy pick-up truck, I approached the bi communal Cypriot village of Pyla.
I had, through e-mail correspondence, been commissioned to illustrate the cover of a poetry anthology that would include poems written by both Greek and Turkish Cypriots. When learning of my impending visit, the editor of the anthology and president of the United Cypriots Friendship Association invited me to meet some of those poets.
Pyla in Greek means gate or door. This is the only bi-communal village that since the 1974 invasion still straddles the border and, situated in the surrounding hills, is an entry point between the Turkish-occupied north and the mainly Greek-occupied south. The village is situated 12 kms north-east of the city of Larnaca and 60 metres above sea level. Archaeological finds indicate that Pyla was established and named by Achaean immigrant Greeks in prehistoric times. Some parts of the present village date back to Byzantian times. The British operated a detention camp there during the 1950s. Interestingly, not far away at Cape Pyla, the bones of pygmy hippopotami have been unearthed, evidence perhaps of one of the first-ever ecological disasters brought about by human habitation in Europe.
We arrived at Pyla twenty minutes early, and although we followed our host's instructions to the letter we couldn't find “Friendship House”, our meeting place. I finally decided to park the Chevy in the middle of the village and ask for directions from a United Nations' peacekeeper perched in a sentry box on top of a house. As he couldn't speak good English, he pointed to another building where I could get some help. It turned out that this was a United Nations' police station and inside was a tall Australian policeman from Tasmania, apparently of Swedish extraction, who offered to show us the way.
The heat of mid-summer was already rising as we walked up the street past Greek and Turkish coffee shops, and one could just make out a hillock in the back of the village where the Turkish flag was waving in the heavy breeze. We shortly came to a rather typical, modern concrete box-like house that one finds scattered throughout the island. Apparently the house has been rented from its Turkish owners by a Greek millionaire and offered for use for bi-communal meeting place. Entering, we were welcomed by Tina Kallis, a short, bubbly redhead. Tina was born Greek-Cypriot parents and educated in London. She now works for the newly-launched English paper The Weekly Review and lives with her husband in Nicosia, where they are bringing up three daughters. She introduced us to two striking, well-groomed women sitting around a table waiting for other members of the soon to be inaugurated United Cypriot Friendship Association to arrive.
Then, as is the custom in Cyprus she offered us drinks to quench our rising thirst. I took out my folder and showed them the drawings for the cover that I finished the previous day. To my relief they all liked the design. Not long after two of the Turkish-Cypriot contingent arrived. One was an enigmatic, chain-smoking dentist and the other a self-assured secondary school student. The language that everyone used, to bridge what is now a wide language divide, is English. This was not always the case, as I remember as a child visiting with my father bi-communal villages where Turkish and Greek was spoken by both communities, and even being sung Turkish songs by our Greek neighbour who sometimes babysat my sister and I.
The poetry anthology was an idea formed by Tina Kallis and her friends to bring the two estranged communities together. It has the blessing and the financial backing of the United Nations which has in the recent past, undertaken many initiatives to bring the two communities together. From what I could work out, there were no established well-known poets on the Greek side involved in the project and that it was run by enthusiastic up-and-coming poets. One or two poems that were shown to me were of a very high standard.
As we sat around making small talk and waiting for a Turkish chairman of the association, another three Greeks arrived. The meeting was started and everyone was given refreshments but Tina Kallis kept looking anxiously at her watch. Finally she asked the chain-smoking dentist if she could borrow his cellphone to ring the chairman to see what the problem was. It wasn't long before she somberly announced to the group that the chairman, Hasan Hasturer, a journalist for Kibris , one of the leading newspapers of the Turkish North had extended his apologies and would not be coming. Apparently, he was frantically searching for a journalist friend who had been arrested during the night and whose whereabouts no-one seemed to know.
The group did not allow this news to destroy the positive atmosphere already engendered by the meeting, and under the chairmanship of Tina went on to discuss the book and a variety of reconciliatory ideas for future exploration.
After all, this was Cyprus. People here are desensitised, as drama fills their everyday life. Couple of days after I arrived, one of the two Ninja brothers, a bomb-making psychopath who would supply bombs to anyone who would pay him 200 pounds, was ambushed and killed in Limassol. It's unbelievable that an island of 700,000 could have seven television stations, nine daily newspapers and several weekly and monthly publications. Headlines abound about homosexual monks, highly-paid Bulgarian prostitutes, underworld feuds, bomb explosions, water shortages, power cuts, arson attacks, the now obligatory daily fatal car accident, drug deals gone wrong and the misdemeanours of corrupt local and national politicians. In this birthplace of Zeno, the Stoic Greek philosopher, I heard times many a cynical quip from his descendants: “ Here, everything is forbidden but everything is allowed.”
Cyprus ranks 22nd out of 174 countries on the United Nations Rich-Poor list between Spain and Israel. It is common for some households to have four cars. It costs almost four New Zealand dollars to buy one Cypriot pound. This is where the philosophies of the new right have found fertile ground in the Government of President Glafkos Clerides who is still trying to implement economic policies that have demonstrably failed in New Zealand.
As in the international arena a new round of United Nations-sponsored talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriots were taking place in Geneva, the temperatures of summer broke the 40 degree barrier. The sweat poured off me like water as new fires broke out in the mountains and the heat on the plains was felling the unprepared elderly. During this time at Strovilia the Turkish army provocatively m
oved a sentry post 400 metres under the noses of British troops guarding the sovereign base of Dhekelia, and the United Nations peacekeepers overlooking the border. Through this act, the Turkish army had enclaved another ten Greek Cypriots and their homes.
This inter-ethnic conflict started during the later stages of the 1955 revolt by the Greeks, lead by Archbishop Makarios and Georgios Grivas, against British rule, when 600 people lost their lives. On the 7th June 1958, as the current President of the Turkish north, Rauf Denktash, admitted in a BBC documentary, a hapless Turkish Cypriot wanting to give some oomph to a Turkish demonstration for partition, threw a bomb at the Turkish Information office in Nicosia. This was immediately blamed on the Greeks. To the delight of the British, who first raised the concept of partition in 1956 and whose strategic dictum in dealing with any anti-colonial uprisings had been “to divide and rule”, this bombing lead to the first incident of wholesale inter-communal burning, looting and killing. This ethnic bushfire has continued ever since, with more inter-ethnic fighting in 1963 and 1967 then finally, the 1974 Turkish invasion.
While sitting one day sipping a beer outside a takeaway bar in the much sought, after shade of a pepper tree and contemplating the hustle and bustle before me, it struck me that Cyprus was like a Hollywood cliché of a Western. The town is splintered into different factions, the ranchers have free rein and an an impotent sheriff sits around waiting for a Shane-like saviour to arrive and restore order. Belatedly, Bill Clinton, Kofi Annan and several EEC politicians have been vying for this saviour role while the Turkish Army is thumbing its nose at them and shooting up the town to their heart's content.
Most Greeks will now agree that Turkey was probably justified in sending troops to protect their kin after the coup that was carried out by the right wing against the Government of Archbishop Makarios that summer of 1974. After all, if the Greek Junta-led fanatics were prepared to execute the 2000 leftists that they had listed, why not the Turks? However, what is not sanctioned by many countries and the United Nations is that they went on to displace 200,000 Greek Cypriots from their homes and, for 18% of the population, taken and occupied 38% of the island. Having imported more than 60,000 immigrants from southern Turkey they now have a puppet regime with a standing army of 30,000 well-trained and armed troops.
Recent research published in the Greek south unearthed the possibility that a lot of the Cypriot Turks may be Greeks who apostatised to Islam after going through a crypto-Christian phase to avoid the onerous taxes imposed by the Ottomans who captured Cyprus from the Venetians in 1571. They were called Linombambaki, and apparently there is evidence that with the annexation of Cyprus by Britain in 1878 many accepted Turkish citizenship or reverted to Christianity. One theory is that they probably were Catholic Greeks who tried to avoid the loss of their wealth when the Ottomans gave religious control to the Greek Orthodox Church. Whatever the case, it could be that there is as huge an irony in Cypriot inter ethnic conflict as occurred recently in Yugoslavia.
Although I have met Cypriot Turks who now live in New Zealand this was my first meeting with them in Cyprus since I went potato picking in Famagusta in the summer of 1972. I had read the poems of Turkish Cypriot poet Taner Baybars whose work I much admire, and the world-acclaimed Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. (The latter was translated into Greek by the renown Greek poet Giannis Ritsos, whose poems were put to music by Mikis Theodorakis and helped topple the Greek Junta in 1974.)
This meeting in Pyla-where Greek and Turk, men and women, sat around a table and talked about poetry, investigated common words shared by both communities, exchanged childhood memories and set optimistic goals for the future-I will never forget.
By the time Panagiota and I returned to Nicosia, the news had broken that Siener Levent the editor in chief of the northern Cyprus Turkish newspaper Evrupa, had been arrested. He and another four journalists were subsequently charged with being Greek spies, all for criticising the policies of the Denktash regime in northern Cyprus.
Before going to Cyprus, I was bolstered by the thought that initiatives like Tina's and her group were breaking down the barriers and that maybe a solution was in the pipeline that would bring peace to this troubled isle. However as I scoured the Greek, Turkish and English language papers I became convinced that nothing will happen until the United States actually twists the arm of the mainland Turkish Government to compromise. And given the geopolitical position of Turkey in protecting U.S. interests in the Middle East and its strategic importance in countering Iran and Iraq militarily from the far reaching air bases that the U.S. has established there, no solution will be found until Turkey loses this significance .
It is interesting to note that there are strong parallels between Timor and Cyprus. Both were occupied by allies of the United States in the 1970s when the United States turned a blind eye to the expansionist aspirations of its allies whatever their political persuasion. And although the United States has apologised to the Greek people for backing the Greek military junta that established itself in 1967 and whose fall was sparked by the disastrous adventurism to topple the democratically elected government of Archbishop Makarios, and the Turkish invasion, things have not changed much.
Here in New Zealand we are now far removed from this attitude of the superpowers, although we felt its full force when we banned nuclear weapon-carrying and nuclear- powered ships fromentering our waters and campaigned to stop French nuclear tests on Muraroa.
Things changed in Timor because the U.S. decided that Indonesia had lost its strategic importance in protecting their interests in Asia and the Pacific and that Suharto and his cohorts had become too corrupt to sustain. Similarly, Cyprus will not find some peace until the Palestinian and Israeli conflict is settled, the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq implodes, Iran moves towards a more democratic future and Turkey fractures like the artificial republics of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
After my two-week stay the day that I left Cyprus one of President Cleride's ministers accused Greek Cypriots of being selfish. I had to laugh when I read this because that is what I consider Rogernomics did to us. It turned us from a giving nation into one of selfish takers. But no one in the Cypriot Republic's Government has learned anything from our mistakes. They are about buy into the unsustainable capitalist fantasy and privatise their airline, electricity and telephone services, ignoring the inefficiency that occurred in our private sector that lead to massive unemployment, criminal frauds and bankruptcies.
Every Cypriot is playing the stock market at the moment as if it's Lotto. Many are borrowing to do this, and for the first time, homes are sold to repay money owed to the banks.
The majority of Cypriots look helplessly on as the expanding wealth from Tourism is squandered on the gambling table of the Stock Exchange. Cyprus produces very little and even less since it restructured to prepare itself for entry into the EEC and embraced the market-driven philosophy of the right. Where there was no unemployment, it is now rapidly increasing. Shirt and shoe making factories have closed, and potato and peanut growing has become uneconomic. Cyprus has replaced Beirut as the drug capital of the Middle East, and crime, including something unheard of before, armed bank robberies, is on the up. Over 20,000 illegal immigrants from the Philippines, India and other parts of Asia hide there, are systematically exploited and in some cases abused. Much sought-after land is sold to wealthy foreigners who build palatial summer residences and among whom are Mafia-connected Russians.
The island where western civilisation may have begun and where it is said Aphrodite the goddess of beauty and love rose out of its foamy sea shore is caught in a big sigh. At one of its peninsulas, Akrotiri, where the most ancient of Cyprus' archaeological sites (7,500 B.C.) is now being dug by American archaeologists because Britain will not allow Cyprus Museum archaeologists on what it views as a piece of Britain. This is because Akrotiri is a sovereign base secured in exchange for independence in 1960. This base includes an aerodrome, corrugated iron barracks and a lot of sophisticated electronic listening equipment. Who would think that at the end of the 20th century, Britain would still be clutching 256 sq. km of its colonialist past here and in Dhekelia? Who could think that on Mt Olympus the highest point of an independent country, Britain would build and control a radar dome on behalf of NATO? Unfortunately that is how it is, because Cyprus is still a slave to its past despite all pretensions to the contrary.
However, Tina Kallis and her association of poets made up of Greeks and Turks and other such groups, keep a spark and the hope alive that Cyprus will one day be truly the mistress of her own destiny.
Note: After 37 Euro deputies of the European Parliament and the British National Union of Journalists and many others made strong representations the five journalists were released on July 28 th .
Copyright 2000 © C.E.G. Moisa, New Zealand