July 1974, War and imprisonment at Lefke
By Chris Elliott
This article by Ismet Üstüner is part of a larger work he is developing, which contains many of his experiences of battles with the legal system and other interesting aspects of his life. This account of his life was published as a book in Turkish in August 2013.
There is a lot of interest in the plight of the Turkish Cypriots during this very sad period which is why we have decided to publish it but we also hope in future to be able to publish a number of other features from Ismet Üstüner’s new work in English.
July 1974, War and imprisonment at Lefke
By Ismet Üstüner
We came to Cyprus on 13th July 1974 and started our holiday at Lefke where the parents of both sides lived. This visit also brought good news to them as a surprise. We told them that we were expecting our first baby. On Monday 15th July Makarios was toppled by a junta and he escaped to Paphos. Under these circumstances it became dangerous to venture outside Lefke. I hated the fact that we did not even have a chance to go to the sea even once. Why could they not wait for a few more days? On Wednesday 17th July I joined the army together with other 15-16 year olds plus another older Turkish Cypriot man like me from Australia. With the help of our army instructor we tried to learn our left and right feet. How many times should we call out left, right, left, right and so on ad infinitum? We dare not ask. We had much the same repeats on Thursday. On Friday the situation looked more sombre and someone with a higher rank began making a serious speech and told us that we must be prepared to fight to the last drop of our blood. A couple of young lads fainted on the spot and the commander cut short his speech and disappeared. On Friday evening the commanders were speeding from one war front to another with a stop watch and it was very obvious that the war would break out very soon. In fact next morning, On 20th July we woke up about 5am with announcements from the minarets and the operation of the Turkish army had begun. Immediately we switched on our radios and amid national marches we listened to the voice of Raif Rauf Denktash telling us that the Turkish Armed Forces began landing in Cyprus from the sea and the air. I dressed up and rushed to my army unit straight away. They gave me a shot gun to share with a sixteen year old and a handful of cartridges. The young lad wanted to carry the gun and I gave it to him and I kept the cartridges. How was I going to carry the cartridges in my hands all the time? I looked around for some plastic bags but could not find any. The environment was much cleaner in those days. So I took off my two socks, put the cartridges in them and hung them from my waist. That was my practical solution. Not an engineering genius but good enough.
The bullets were going with a whistle from right, left and above. The young boys, me and the one from Australia i.e. those with no army experience were taken to a ravine and held there as a spare unit. Our commander left and we were left there alone. The bombardment continued from the Greek side over our heads towards Lefke. I felt quite safe in the ravine because I knew that the bombs were not capable of changing direction and fall directly on us. The young lads were mesmerized with fear and as their elder I tried to calm them down but the person from Australia did the opposite and started saying things like this: If Turkey was not capable of such an operation why did they start it all? Turkish war planes sometimes flew over the Greek batteries but did not try to silence them. My brother in law who was fighting at the front later told me that the Greek batteries were in front of a church and as soon as the planes approached they withdrew within the church and closed the doors. So the pilots refrained from bombing the church as it was against their orders. What charming behaviour from the Greek side.
On Sunday morning our commander brought us a plastic jerry can half full with water and as the oldest person there he asked me to take it to the soldiers at the front lines. I took the can and started walking towards the front lines. I did not really know the terrain, since I had never been there before. I was not aware how far I walked but at one moment I heard our soldiers calling me to get back from behind me. “Quick get back, you are going towards the Greek lines”. Oh dear me, apparently I was taking water to the Greek Cypriot soldiers. So I got back and our soldiers began to drink the water directly by putting their mouths to the can. They could not afford to waste even a drop of water. I apologized for not offering them the water in a glass with a small plate under it as we do at home.
On Monday 22nd July at about 3 pm we had orders to surrender. It was not clear who gave the orders or who told us. Everyone moved in all directions in a flurry. After a very short time I was left there standing on my own with the rifle. I was not really all alone because the Greek Cypriot batteries were still bombing Lefke. I tried to get to Lefke and find my direction by looking at the sun and walking through the orange orchards. I was still carrying the rifle and I asked myself why? I could not find an answer and I hid the rifle there and then in the bushes. Don’t ask me why I had to hide it and not simply throw it to the ground, no reason at all.
After struggling for fifteen or twenty minutes I reached a road junction that I recognized as familiar. Karadag (Mavrovouni) was nearer than Lefke to me so I began to walk in that direction so that I could meet some people. When I neared the coffee shops in Karadag I noticed our commander in civilian dress and a clean beard. He turned his back to me and pretended that he did not see me. All those who gathered in front of the coffee shops were all people from that region and they advised me to go to Lefke. The Greek Cypriot bombardment had slowed down by that time but did not stop completely. I was totally exhausted when I reached Lefke and people I met on the way told me that everybody gathered in front of the cinema. Yes, the cinema building inside and outside too was full of people and it was extremely crowded.
After a short while my brother in law Olgun Dayıoglu found me and told me that our families were inside the cinema building and they were all well. Of course I was very worried but relaxed somehow upon their good news. A little later my brother in law found me again and this time he had a razor blade in his hand. He wanted to shave my beard, apparently everyone had done the same. So when the Greek soldiers came they would put the shaved ones as civilians to one side and the unshaven soldiers to the other side! It was just not logical to my mind. I do not remember if I agreed to be shaved or even if we had the time to do it. There were some United Nations soldiers around the place. After a short while we had orders to gather in the square nearby in front of the coffee shops. So we all gathered in the square and soon the Greek soldiers came accompanied by some UN soldiers.
We waited for some time in the square under the watchful eyes of Greek soldiers. The main problem for us was thirst. A couple of the coffee shops opened their doors with permission from the Greek commander. Some rushed to the doors in a very disorderly manner and I noticed the Greek commander enjoying the scene. I was driven to the ground with shame. I would not fight for water like that even if I went without it for three days and three nights. The shouts coming from the children and women were another problem and it was becoming unbearable. I did not think this at the time but apparently all this noise was a blessing in disguise. The Greek commander had a headache too like most of us.
The commander ordered the children and women to go home and we the men stayed in the square. Soon our ladies brought us food and water and the commander allowed it without any fuss. I do not remember what we did about our toilette needs but apparently it all disappeared from fear. In the square, my bed was made of asphalt and my pillow from a broken chair but it was comfortable enough under the circumstances. It was the middle of summer and there was no need for any covers.
I think I lodged (in a five Star Hotel) on a broken chair in the square for two days and two nights and then I heard a UN officer calling my name. My sister had apparently spoken with the UN soldiers and told them that I was a visiting tourist with a British Passport. So they wanted to send me back to England through the British Akrotiri Base.
They found a few more families like us who were only on a visit to Cyprus and they would take us to Xeros and then over the Troodos mountains to Akrotiri. After a short wait at Xeros we began to climb the Troodos Mountains. Our transport was a couple of military trucks with two rows of seats in the middle back to back and two rows on the sides. The comfort of the trucks or lack of it was not important at all. All we wanted was to get to Akrotiri safely. We were happy that we were leaving Cyprus but we were sad that we were leaving our families back in Cyprus to the mercy of Greek soldiers and the UN. At least our families would not be bothered with our safety any more once we left Cyprus. When we looked at it from this point of view, it was good that we were leaving.
We began to climb the Troodos Mountains and before we got to the top where Platres is we were stopped by Greek soldiers. They wanted to check our identities. I was sure that if they wanted to take any one of us away the UN soldiers would not move a finger to stop them. We passed the identity checks and moved on until we got to Platres. We had a short rest there and then we eventually got to Akrotiri at about 2 pm. There I met my old school mate who was on duty at Akrotiri as an officer on the base. They fed us there and without any delay we were on board a Hercules transport plane on the way to England to an army base there. From there we had to make our own way to our homes. I do remember an old German lady who happened to be on holiday in Cyprus from Germany and she was not pleased at all that she was taken to England instead of Germany. We were speechless.
After we returned to England we always listened to the news on the radio on BBC which we found to be very reliable. We were in London but our hearts and souls were left in Cyprus. If we had any planes flying over us at night and we woke up as we always thought that we were still in Cyprus and my wife I cuddled each other in fear. Only those who have been in a war really know what it is all about.
By Ismet Üstüner – December 2013
On publishing this article, I would like to thank the staff of the Lefke Post office for their interest and for putting me in contact withTamer Dayioglu who was so helpful in showing me some of the locations mentioned in Ismet’s article. Whilst I was taking photographs to suit this article I decide to include with these a number of other fascinating photographs of current day Lefke and I hope we may be able to write much more about it in the months ahead. Thanks also to Tamer Dayioglu who supplied a picture of the Turkish Army arriving in Lefke in July 1974.
Chris Elliott – January 2014