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“None of us expected what happened next” July 25, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Uncategorized.

Former Observer correspondent Colin Smith recalls the days immediately after the coup and the invasion of 1974 in Cyprus.

David Astor, my editor and proprietor of The Observer, had spent his second honeymoon at Nicosia’s Ledra Palace hotel where, it is said, the brandy sour was invented so that Egypt’s King Farouk might appear to be sipping a non-alcoholic beverage.

In the early hours of Saturday July 20, 1974 its clientele were rather a rougher crowd. It was exclusively made up of that media circus (though nobody talked about media then) whose bar bills are the only consolation for grand hotels suddenly deprived of quality trade by some passing horseman of the Apocalypse.

In the Ledra’s case it had been a coup inspired by Athens’ military Junta, which five days before had overthrown Cyprus’ prelate president Archbishop Makarios who narrowly escaped with his life. Makarios had since removed himself, via the British bases, to London and a suite at Claridges where he was under police protection.

Hundreds of his followers, some of whom were still fighting 48 hours after his departure, had not been so lucky. The coup was the culmination of some eleven years of internecine warfare, fought mainly by bomb and assassin’s bullet, between those Greek Cypriots who backed Makarios’ independent Cyprus and those who cherished the old EOKA dream of Enosis – union with Greece. During their first five days in power, the coupists had done their best to seal off the Republic of Cyprus by closing Nicosia airport and all harbours to civil traffic while its night courts put their firing squads to work. A few days after his release, Tassos Papadopoulos, who was close to Makarios and briefly imprisoned by the men who toppled him, told the Washington Star that he spent a sleepless night in jail listening to the rattle of gunfire.

By Thursday July 18, the day after two Olympic Airlines planes from Athens had landed more Greek troops and some of the Junta’s intelligence officers on the island, the coupists thought it safe to reopen Nicosia airport. I arrived with other reporters on a charter flight from Tel Aviv, the first civilian passengers to land there since Monday morning when the National Guard’s Stalingrad era Russian T-34 tanks fired their opening shots on Makarios’ presidential palace.
At the terminal building were some smart, fit looking soldiers in shorts and green berets carrying Thompson sub-machine-guns who turned out to be from a Greek Cypriot National Guard commando unit. Behind them was a mass of anxious looking civilians of all nationalities, holidaymakers, hoping to leave the island on the aircraft that had just brought us.
“What are things like here now?” I asked one of the commandos.

“Now everything is alright. Now it is a Greek island?”

“What sort of island was it before then?”

Pause. Big smile. “A mixed up island.”

But the Turkish Cypriots had not gone away. The next day I visited Rauf Denktash’s offices close to the sandbagged Green Line which had separated the two communities since the first post-independence inter-communal fighting in 1963. Inside his aides were handing out copies of a speech made four months before by Nicos Sampson, regarded as an unparalleled Turk hater personally responsible for the massacre of civilians and a diehard Enosist.

Sampson, a news reporter turned EOKA street assassin, once sentenced to death then reprieved by the British, had just been named as Cyprus’ new president and promised that Turkish Cypriots had nothing to fear. “The day will come when those who oppose Greece will find themselves before public courts,” he predicted. “Support the respectable Greek officers and be sure that when the day comes they will unite us with our Motherland.”
When I was ushered into the Turkish Cypriot leader’s inner sanctum Denktash was listening with obvious relish to a BBC World Service report that a Turkish armada was heading towards Cyprus. Sabre rattling or was Turkey, with Greece and Britain one of the three guarantor powers of Cypriot independence, about to intervene? “There could not be a better time for Turkey to come here,” he said stroking Banjo his spaniel who also seemed excited about something. “Legally they have the right and the whole world would be behind them. You see, the Greeks believe Turkey will not come and in the past they have been right. This is why we have this continual process of rocking the boat.”
As I left Banjo objected to my departure and began snapping at my feet. “He’s like Makarios that dog,” observed Denktash who was clearly enjoying himself. “Snaps at his friends and doesn’t recognise his enemies.”
It was Friday night and in Turkish Nicosia it was hard to find a young man out of uniform for their entire militia, with its Turkish mainland officers, had been mobilised. Machine guns and mortars were quite openly being moved up to the barricades. In a coffee shop I met a man who had served in the police when Cyprus was a British colony and claimed to have arrested the teenaged Sampson for writing EOKA slogans. “Greeks don’t know what war is,” he said. “If the Turks come here they will show them what war is.”
I made my way back towards the Ledra Palace where Terry Fincher, a photographer and former paratrooper working for the Daily Express, allowed me and a photographer floor space in his fourth floor room. Getting a room was impossible. There were now 200 media people milling about the hotel. It seemed about to implode. The bar and the terrace, where a trio was playing Beatles numbers, were packed; there was a long queue for the teleprinter behind reception. I went upstairs to write the Denktash and other interviews on my Olivetti portable. There would be plenty of time to file it in the morning.
First light came shortly after 5am and with it the first shots: short bursts of automatic fire, hesitant at first then longer, more insistent as it rippled along Nicosia’s Green Line. The firing started after the Greek side learned that Turkish Skyhawks had inaugurated hostilities by sinking one of their patrol boats as it left Kyrenia to locate the Turkish fleet. None of us were expecting what happened next.
From our east facing room we watched as about twelve lumbering transport aircraft flew in sedate circles before the backcloth of the Kyrenia range and began dropping paratroopers on the central plain. There was a storm of fire from the Greek Cypriots on the Green Line but the paratroopers were out of range. The Turks drifted towards the parched earth with impunity. We went downstairs, which was just as well because later somebody put a single bullet through our open window, presumably a Turkish Cypriot whose closest positions were 150 yards away.
By now the Ledra was a legitimate target. The five-storey building’s flat roof had become a Greek Cypriot stronghold with firing points at each corner, two of them accommodating heavy .50 Browning machine guns. The Turks responded with mortar fire, which killed one man and saw another carried downstairs with a grievous head wound. As photographers and TV crews clustered around him, an hysterical young officer tried to pistol whip them aside and then rolled around the lobby floor with his drawn revolver in a paroxysm of rage. Eventually, the press were redeemed by the Daily Mirror’s decorated World War Two veteran Donald Wise who volunteered to make the dangerous drive to Nicosia General hospital with the wounded man and then returned. “Can’t leave the Express with the story.”
Not that any of us were sending any stories. All international telephone and telex links were down except from the British bases from where a Reuters correspondent had agreed to relay pooled reports. Both sides had declared 24-hour curfews for civilians. There was talk that the Greek Cypriots were holding the press corps hostage, confident that the Turks would not bomb the Ledra while they were there. Eventually they were persuaded to bring the Brownings down from the roof and set them up in the garden at the rear of the hotel.
Reinforcements in the form of half a dozen EOKA B fighters, Sampson’s men, rushed into the hotel. One was immediately nicknamed Sergeant Pepper for his Adonis curls crushed firmly beneath a peaked service cap of airforce blue held firmly in place by its chin strap. Poor Pepper. He had not been with us long before he was shot through the wrist by a round that managed to penetrate the lobby and evacuated by a French Canadian UN patrol under a sergeant-major called Rajotte who carried a pace stick and a bullhorn and kept shouting, “Ceese fire! Ceese Fire. UN patrol.” Neither side took a blind bit of notice.
Particularly, as the days became almost four weeks, ceasefire after ceasefire agreement was broken. By August 4 I was writing in The Observer: “It was as if the invading Turkish Army had become some uncontrollable giant, unanswerable even to the promises of its own Government, slowly devouring Greek villages and spitting out a misery of refugees.”
Some of the National Guard disgraced themselves by venting their rage on innocent Turkish Cypriot civilians. Some fought better than anyone expected, perhaps better than anyone had the right to expect. “We asked for artillery support but the Greek officers said that would be breaking the ceasefire,” said Lieutenant Lakis Zavallis, a British trained barrister who stuck it out to the end and survived.
Nonetheless, they had their successes. They made the Turks pay for the their foothold on the invasion beaches and, stiffened by mainland Greek regulars, held Nicosia airport. “I’ve just walked through a field of dead Turkish paratroopers,” an incredulous British UN officer present told me. He was part of a force put into UN berets and rushed up to the airport from the bases to persuade the Turks that the world expected them to do what they promised to do. By then they held 37 per cent of the island in the name of less than one fifth of its people. They still do.

Copyright © Cyprus Mail 2006

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