The Cyprus Buffer Zone
A visit to a land where time stands still
By Ismail Veli
Travelling to Cyprus has always been a rewarding experience. The normal routine is one of sightseeing, visiting friends and relatives, and of course the usual visit to my birth place of Lurucina/Akincilar village. My last visit however was of a completely different nature. My intention was to research the national archives for anything and everything about my village and roots.
This article however is about a different experience. Having been invited by my friends Chris and Margaret (of Cyprusscene) to the Remembrance day at the Old British Cemetery in Kyrenia gave me the opportunity of seeing first hand another side of the tragic history of this Island.
The memorial erected in Kyrenia, in an already existing British cemetery, was only built 4 years ago in memory of the 371 British troops who died between 1955-59 during the EOKA campaign for Enosis (Union with Greece). The reaction by the Greek Cypriot people and their leader Demetris Christofias in 2009 was one of outrage, incidentally, they had refused to allow the memorial in the original cemetery Wayne’s keep. Christofias’s statement that “it would have been more appropriate for the memorial to be erected in the UK”, caused disappointment amongst many British people who found it hard to understand how a memorial could possibly provoke such anger. Gallipoli and many other memorial sites around the world were cited as proof that the victims of historical disputes were, and should be, respected.
The attendance on the 10th November far exceeded what I expected. It was the first time I had witnessed such a large gathering of British people abroad. Together with some Turkish Cypriot guests, there was Lord Maginnis of Drumglass amongst the honoured guests. Having met him on a number of occasions in the UK, I was pleased to have the opportunity to exchange a few words.
With so many ex-servicemen present to honour their past friends who had lost their lives in the service of their country, I felt a powerful feeling of personal sadness that so many young men mostly in their late teens and early twenties had lost their lives in a land far from their homes and families. But what really impressed me was the immense dignity and pride that all the ex-servicemen were displaying. There was no anger or animosity only a feeling that they had served their country with courage and conviction.
There was perhaps some disappointment that the British government has forgotten the sacrifice of so many young men merely doing their national service and following orders, but that’s a story for another day. Following the memorial service, a dinner function at the Ship Inn Restaurant and Hotel gave me a further opportunity to meet some ex-servicemen and hear first hand their personal stories of their time in Cyprus during the 1950s.
The following day on the 11th November I met up with Chris, Margaret and 3 ex-servicemen, John, Derek and Mick all from the Suffolk Regiment. Having had dinner with them the previous day I knew our planned visit to Wayne’s Keep Cemetery, where the 371 British troops were buried, would be a very emotional visit for them.
We made our way to Ledra Palace across the green line in Nicosia to meet up with Sergeant Mark White, the Wayne’s Keep Custodian. Mark, a Welshman, with over 24 years’ service was an impressive figure full of experience, knowledge and an amazingly helpful individual.
Boarding a UN mini bus, Sergeant White drove us through the buffer zone to Wayne’s Keep, where a cross was laid on behalf of a relative’s request at the grave of Kenneth Henry Spragg who lost his life on 4th November 1956 at the age of 20 years. Captain Andy Oliver, a Padre who was present in order to read some prayers left us all with a feeling of sadness. For the first time I realised that John, Derek and Mick in spite of 57 years since their years of service had not escaped the ravages and deep personal emotion of that period.
Tears flowing with a dignity of silence I have rarely witnessed gave me a feeling of sadness in their personal loss. My admiration for their courage in the face of past dangers made me realise that what was on their minds was the fact that it could so easily have been they who could have been buried, while Kenneth Henry Spragg at the tender age of 20 lost the opportunity to experience adulthood, marriage, children and grandchildren.
From Wayne’s Keep Sergeant White agreed on Chris’s request to take us all to a rare visit of the old Nicosia International Airport which was also near the site of the Suffolk Regiment’s camp at Kykko East Camp. No sooner had the mini bus stopped then the 3 ex servicemen, all in their seventies, suddenly began darting around, no sooner had they recognised the exact location of their tents their speed of foot took on a different level.
Here I was in “no man’s land” watching a group of pensioners calling out to each other and pointing to one spot then another. Sergeant White and I began to talk and admire the incredible fitness and memory displayed by men who had served their country when I was but 2/3 years old while Mark White was not even born. In spite of the setting sun and a slight darkness now upon us, to his credit the Sergeant simply left John , Derek and Mick to bask in their pleasure of nostalgic memories of their youth to their hearts content.
Our final run before darkness fell upon us was our unexpected visit to the Old Nicosia Airport. It turned out that I was the only member of the group to have ever used this airport in 1972 before the traumatic events of 1974. According to Sergeant White “the Turkish paratroopers overshot their target by a couple of miles”, this gave the UN and British troops time to occupy and prevent the airport from falling into the hands of the advancing Turkish army.
To say that time has stood still is an understatement. On the runway an Olympic airways aeroplane stands exactly where it was in 1974. The terminal has decayed and rust is everywhere. The car park, apart from some weeds, seems to be in reasonable condition. The runway apart from some overgrowing weeds still seems in remarkable condition.
Members of the group were eager to listen to any small bits of memories I still had. Looking into the terminal building from the broken windows, the check-in area and balconies brought back the memory of a pretty young lady waving her family goodbye. I was sitting in the lounge at the time simply waiting for my flight. At only sixteen years of age her beauty did not escape my attention. I have always wondered what may have happened to that young girl. Looking at the balcony almost made me feel she was still waving goodbye.
A goodbye to a period that has been frozen in time, a goodbye that may have ended in tragedy in 1974, goodbye to a life that will never return for the many thousands of lives that were caught up in the fateful years between 1955 to 1974. Goodbye to a part of our land where time still stands still.