For young Cypriots, war is something they see in the movies. But the old and middle-aged actually endured it 44 years ago. How are the Greek-Cypriot displaced people coping with this legacy?
Rodia jumped out of her bed. She was stricken by panic. It was 5:30am and the sun was rising over the self-housing settlement in Latsia. The sirens had woken her. It took her a few seconds to realize why; she didn’t need to check the date.
For 44 years now, civil-defence sirens installed in 180 locations in Cyprus go off for a minute at 5:30am each 20th of July to remind people of the moment in 1974 when Turkey invaded the island, and its two communities – ethnic Greeks and Turks – were plunged into war.
Some psychologists argue sirens should be used only to warn of natural disasters, as their sound can trouble people suffering from war-inflicted psychological trauma.
Dr. Maria Hadjipavlou, a professor of conflict resolution at the University of Cyprus, argues that we Cypriots never talk about our shared trauma. “We hide things under the carpet, like they never happened. Many people were displaced, others were injured, saw death or were raped,” she says.
“The fact that the civil society never talks about their experiences from 1974 leaves the historical narrative open for exploitation by nationalist politicians who use it to instrumentalize the suffering, demonize the Turkish-Cypriots and present us (Greek Cypriots) as the innocent victims in this situation. If more people understood that we too are responsible for today’s division, they would be encouraged to act to end it.”
There are many untold stories in Cyprus that would surprise us, the younger generations, that haven’t lived through the war and displacement. Stories that we’ve only seen in movies. For us who grew up enjoying one of the highest standards of living in the world, it is surreal to think how close we are to these stories. And yet how far.
We live in a sunny, peaceful holiday resort while still theoretically being in open conflict with Turkey. We sip our coffee relaxed at a café in Nicosia, while just metres away from a UN Peacekeeping Forces post which stands in the middle of the Greek and Turkish military posts, making the city the last divided capital of Europe and our country the 7th most militarized in the world.
Now that almost half a century has passed and given that eight out of ten Cypriots were unborn or under 18 at the time of the war, the sound of the sirens doesn’t unnerve people anymore. They are used to them.
But, for Rodia, it was not so on the morning of the 20th of July 2018. Although, she returned to her daily routine, cleaning the house, cooking for her and her son and opening the door to let their 17 cats in, she says that she wasn’t really herself that day.
Rodia’s family was prepared the first time they heard the sirens, on Saturday, the 20th of July 1974. “On Friday morning, my brother came from Nicosia where he was working and told us that people were whispering that the Turks will come tonight,” she says.
That day Rodia, along with the other women of the family, were at her home in the village of Dikomo. Four days earlier, a coup d’etat against President Makarios had taken place. The plotters were EOKA B, a Greek-Cypriot far-right nationalist paramilitary group that supported the political union of Cyprus with mainland Greece.
Although Makarios started his political career as a proponent of this position, he eventually rejected it and favoured the independence of Cyprus. From 1955 and until 1974, a civil strife was taking place in Cyprus between the Greek and Turkish-Cypriot populations of the island. EOKA B - which had the material and political support of the junta government in mainland Greece which had hundreds of officers stationed in Cyprus- had been involved in the killings of hundreds of Turkish-Cypriots, as well as Greek-Cypriot communists.
Rodia’s husband was a janitor at the British base in Dhekelia. “When he returned back home at night we told him that there’s going to be a war,” Rodia said. He answered, “I know, the English told us.”
Her daughter Chrystalla, 10 years old at the time, says that although they were kids and thus could not understand completely what was happening, she “could sense something weird in the atmosphere” from the discussions the grown-ups were having. “We didn’t know what war looked like, we didn’t have a TV, we never went to the cinema to have something to compare it with.”
At 3am Rodia and her husband Costas, were awoken by the sound of Turkish fighter planes. “We could hear them dropping parachutes. We said, ‘They are coming, the Turks are coming’.”
They waited until the sun came up and went to her sister’s, Maroulla, next door to tell them what was happening. Days earlier, Maroulla’s husband, Kyriacos, who was known in the village’s coffee-shop as an outspoken member of the left-wing AKEL party, was captured and detained by the far-right plotters.
Very soon, the coup plotters realized that besides their internal enemies -- the communists and the Turkish-Cypriots -- they would have to face an external enemy as well, the Turkish military. Turkey and its military would not stand still while the plotters in EOKA B, backed by the right-wing Greek junta that ruled in Athens, tried to achieve to achieve the unity of Cyprus and Greece, or enosis.
Ironically, things for Kyriacos would have been far worse if Turkey had not intervened, recalls Rodia’s son, Demetris.
Turkey issued a list of demands to Greece via an American negotiator. These demands included the immediate removal from the Cypriot government of Nikos Sampson (the president instilled be the plotters after the removal of Makarios), the withdrawal of 650 Greek officers from the Cypriot National Guard, the admission of Turkish troops to protect their population, equal rights for both populations, and access to the sea from the northern coast for Turkey. Britain declined and refused to let Turkey use its bases on Cyprus as part of Ankara’s military operation.
At 5:30am - hence the timing of the sirens in later years - the first Turkish frigates reached Cyprus at Pentemili beach in Kyrenia.
The first wave consisted of four battalions totalling 3,500 men, 12 M101 howitzers and 20 M113 armoured personnel carriers. Two Cypriot torpedo boats were sent to intercept the approaching Turkish flotilla but were destroyed by Turkish air support. The landing itself did not come under fire.
The provisional government of Cyprus, which was controlled by the EOKA plotters and Greece, were caught completely off guard. Although, the Hellenic Armed Forces could track the Turkish movements by radar, they had believed that the Turks were bluffing.
In the area the Turkish forces landed, there were two infantry battalions of the Cypriot National Guard nearby. Neither was alerted.
The 281 Infantry Battalion had been previously sent to find Makarios who had escaped from the coup and 251 battalion was told to stay put.
Finally, at 08:40am, Athens, which had a military presence of 950 men in Cyprus, ordered the initiation of a counter attack.
Bedrettin Demirel, the Turkish general which commanded the first wave of the invasion wrote in his memoirs: “I wonder what would have happened if that beach had been mined or if we had faced any obstacles. What would we have done? There was no way we could choose another beach for our landing, there was no time.”
Trying to make up for the lack of defence, some civilians took their hunting guns and got on the roofs, trying to shoot the planes, Demetris recalls.
Meanwhile, Rodia’s family remained at home until noon, not knowing what to do. The Turkish planes were drawing closer, one to two miles away. They were trying to get some information from the radio but CYBC - the state channel - was controlled by the plotters. In what might have been Cyprus’ first acquaintance with fake news, the channel was broadcasting Greek-Cypriot victories.
“The radio was not saying the truth. They were saying that our army was shooting down planes and forcing the Turks to back off. They were saying that we would throw them back into the sea,” Demetris says.
Eventually, the planes started bombing Dikomo. “Next to our house, there was a freshly sown field. They dropped bombs there and it lit up,” Rodia says. This forced the family finally to leave their house and find refuge under some cypresses. “All the family gathered there, my brothers, their wives, their daughters. We sat under the cypresses.”
Little did they know that it would take them 30 years to see their house again. “We locked the house and left in the clothes we were wearing. We didn’t get any money,” she says.
Her dad, Giorgos, who she describes as a tall, strong, “real man’s man” was a respected figure in the village. He owned the coffee shop at Dikomo’s central square. Most villages at that time had two coffee shops. One that was frequented by the left-wing, supporters of AKEL and one by the right-wing nationalists. However, Dikomo had three coffee shops. Rodia takes pride in saying that the one in the central square had customers from both the spectrums of the division.
Giorgos stayed there when the battles started but he eventually joined the family under the cypresses. Rodia recalls that when they first saw him, he was covered in dust and blood. It was the first time she saw him crying. It turned out, that the dust was debris from his coffee shop, which a plane had bombed but he had miraculously survived.
Eventually, the cypresses proved to be inadequate cover. “We thought that an open space, like under some trees in a field would be better than staying in a building. However, some low-flying helicopters saw us and started shooting. Because it was the middle of the summer this field too, lit up very quickly,” Rodia says.
This forced the family to move to the centre of the village. “We could not see anyone where we were, so we went to the centre to see what was going on,” she says. There they found an abandoned warehouse which was full of their co-villagers. Still, there was no sign of the Turks.
They spent the night there.
“On Sunday morning, a man came and told us: ‘You should go, you should go. The Turks are close to the village,’” Rodia says.
The man was a soldier that was retreating from the front in Kyrenia, around 20km from Dikomo, Demetris adds. That day, many trucks with soldiers who were forced back by the Turkish victories, were passing through Dikomo on their way to Nicosia and they were alerting the villagers to evacuate.
In the rush to escape, the family split up. Rodia, her daughter and husband got in their car, while Demetris left with his Kyriacos and Maroulla.
“We were like caravans with many cars, buses and trucks going to an unknown destination,” says Chrystalla, Rodia’s daughter.
Demetris, who has a big passion for cars now, remembers that, unlike him, his dad had a characteristic distaste for them. Although, he owned one, he avoided driving it whenever he could, never did any maintenance work on it and always took the bus to work. “It was a very shitty car,” he says laughing.
Costas’ habits backfired as the car broke down outside Dikomo, on the way to Nicosia. “After we got out, a truck was passing by and the driver let us hop in. He took us to Trachonas, a village 10km away,” Rodia says.
There, the family of, now, three people, spent the night under a tree. “We could hear the planes coming and going, coming and going. They knew that there were people under the trees. They could see us,” Rodia says.
“The next day, a man with a truck came and told us that the ‘Turks have Dikomo’. We thought that we were going back. My husband told us to be quiet because we were never going back. He knew what was going to happen. The Englishmen told him.”
On the 22nd of July, two days after the war began, many cars appeared at the fields in Trachonas. They were people looking for their relatives. Among them was a man from Dikomo who couldn’t find his family. Rodia’s husband asked the man if he could take them with him. There was word that the villagers had gathered in Psimolofou, a village on the south of Nicosia, 28km away from Dikomo. The man took them to a nearby village and eventually, after four days, the family was reunited in Psimolofou.
“There were many families from Dikomo there,” Rodia recalls. “We stayed in some unfinished houses, without doors and windows. My daughter was crying, ‘I want to go home, I want go home’ and I was telling her, ‘Don’t cry we’ll go soon’ but Kyriacos started shouting ‘Tell her the truth, tell her the truth, we’ll never go back.’”
The battles were brought to a ceasefire, on the 23rd of July. The Greek military junta collapsed mainly because of the events in Cyprus. Mainland Greek political leaders in exile started returning to the country. On the 24 July Constantine Karamanlis returned from Paris and was sworn in as Prime Minister of Greece. He kept Greece from entering the war, an act that was highly criticized by the nationalists as an act of treason.
Shortly after this Nikos Sampson renounced the presidency and Glafcos Clerides temporarily took the role of president. The first round of peace talks took place in Geneva between 25 and 30 July 1974, James Callaghan, the British Foreign Secretary, having summoned a conference of the three guarantor powers (Greece, Turkey and the UK). There they issued a declaration that the Turkish occupation zone should not be extended, that the Turkish enclaves should immediately be evacuated by the Greeks, and that a further conference should be held at Geneva with the two Cypriot communities present to restore peace and re-establish constitutional government.
After a few days of thinking, the family decided to move again. This time to Aradippou, a village near the Dekelia base, where Rodia’s husband was working. That way they could make some money. “When things cooled off a bit, my husband said let’s go to Aradippou. We knew a woman there, she used to be a colleague of my husband’s’ and she gave us a house.”
Sadly, after a couple of weeks the sound of the planes appeared again. By the time that the second Geneva conference met on 14 August 1974, international sympathy (which had been with the Turks in their first attack) was swinging back towards Greece. At the second round of peace talks, Turkey demanded that the Cypriot government accept its plan for a federal state, and population transfer. When the Cypriot acting president Clerides asked for 36 to 48 hours in order to consult with Athens and with Greek Cypriot leaders, the Turkish Foreign Minister denied him that opportunity on the grounds that Makarios and others would use it to play for more time.
The Turkish Foreign Minister Turan Güneş had said to the Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit, "When I say, 'Ayşe should go on vacation' (Turkish: "Ayşe Tatile Çıksın"), it will mean that our armed forces are ready to go into action. Even if the telephone line is tapped, that would rouse no suspicion." An hour and a half after the conference broke up, Turan Günes called Ecevit and said the code phrase.
On 14 August Turkey launched its second operation, which eventually resulted in the Turkish occupation of 37% of Cyprus.
As the planes could be seen on the Aradippou sky, the family was again afraid for their lives. They packed whatever things they had and went back to Psimolofou to find their relatives. Again, they relied on the kindness of strangers for shelter. Rodia says that a local family let them stay in a room in their unfinished house. The owners had left the area during the battles and when things calmed down they returned and found her family inside.
“We were ashamed, we felt that we were a burden to the people there. I got up very early in the morning to clean up the common toilet and change the toilet roll.” As the house was unfinished, their room did not have a door. “Me, my husband, my sister, her husband, the kids, my brother, his family, we all lay on the ground in a row. But we could not sleep, the rats would run on us all night.”
Despite the harsh conditions, the family stayed in Psimolofou for two years. The government, headed by the restored Archbishop Makarios, started building refugee camps. As there was a big number of refugees concentrated in Psimolofou, they build one there.
“A family of four would get one tent. If they were more, they gave them another one,” Demetris says.
They settled there soon. Rodia’s husband, Costas, went back to his old ways of taking the bus to go to work in Dekelia, while Rodia was re-employed in the factory she used to work before the war. “In Dikomo I used to work in a factory where we sew military uniforms. After we settled, the factory opened up again near Psimolofou and I found work there.”
She still had to wake up early, but this time was to prepare the children for school and get the bus on her own to go to work. Employment brought money and much-needed new clothes.
“I was wearing the dress I left Dikomo with. It melted by all the sitting we did in the fields. When we both found jobs and got our first wages, we went to Nicosia and bought clothes for the children and us. This happened 5-6 months after the war had begun,” Rodia says.
There were many hardships in the camp. Most had to do with the cold, overcrowding and hygiene. The common toilets and the kitchens were shanties that were set up by the government. According to Rodia up to 100 families used each shanty.
However, they were resourceful. Her husband brought back British military blankets from his work. “We slept in camp beds. We would put one blanket below us to be comfortable and used the other one to cover ourselves.”
To avoid the lack of space in the communal kitchens, Rodia bought her own cooking stove. “I stood in the middle of the tent and cooked with it. We also had a table. We set it up and ate there,” she recalls.
What couldn’t be resolved with resourcefulness was the reality of raising two children in a tent. “We were sad. The children were growing up and they lived in a tent. Until we built our house. We got through.”
Demetris, though, remembers their time in the camp in a more positive light. He remembers being with his friends from Dikomo and playing all day. “We were having fun in the camps. We were rebellious. We did anything we wanted, we didn’t care about school and had no one to check on us.
“At some point, people started having fun. They started doing BBQs, playing music. Most of them thought that we were going to go back to our villages,” Demetris says.
What bothered Demetris was the mud. “Every time it rained, the tent would get all muddy and it was extremely cold.”
Some months later – in December 1974, the state started planning about how to rehouse the refugees. Hundreds of refugee settlements started being build all around Cyprus. The government gave people the option either to move in a state-built flat or to receive funding to build their own house in the settlements. They were called the ‘self-housing projects’.
“There was word that the government was building houses and giving them to the refugees. By that time, we accepted that we would start again from scratch. We accepted that we needed to find a piece of land to build a house on and leave the tents,” Rodia says. You can still sense the relief in her voice about escaping the life in the refugee camps and how much this house means to her.
The government gave them 800 pounds and some land in Latsia, an industrial area just outside Nicosia, for their new house. Although the amount was not enough to fully-fund it, Rodia’s family was among the fortunate ones as both adults were employed.
In 1976 the house was finished. “When we came here our soul was comforted. We had a piece of land to stay in. We knew it was permanent now,” Rodia says. Their house was the first one in the neighbourhood.
Actually, back then you would not call it a neighbourhood. It was a house among big dirt fields near to many factories. The government decided to build the refugee settlements near industrial areas, for the refugees to find work there. Cyprus’ factories are still manned by people living in the settlements. Although most of their population now are old people, some of their children still live there. Like Demetris. Others are migrants, some of them refugees from Africa and the Middle-East.
Rodia’s daughter got a scholarship at a private school, that offered to pay the tuition fees for a number of refugees and Demetris enrolled in the technical school in Latsia. Rodia found work in a sweatshop that exported clothes to the Middle-East, while her husband continued taking the bus to the British base. “After a few years, some other refugees moved here. We mixed with them, we had fun. We got used to it,” Rodia recalls.
Although, an individual story, the story of Rodia’s family is one that resonates among many families in the island. 160,000 people, at the time of their displacement, the refugees made up around 1/3 of the Republic of Cyprus’ population. Some of them less fortunate, some more fortunate than Rodia’s family.
The recent history of Cyprus is a history of loss and of coping. Of successfully restructuring a state out of its ruins. And taking pride in that. We consider ourselves to have been lucky in our own misfortune. How many times have we heard our parents and grandparents saying, “We passed.” A characteristic Cypriot phrase which contains the memories of a generation. We say that we avoided the worse, by which we mean that Turkey did not capture the remaining 63% of the island, in which we now enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. When we read the news, we feel relieved that we didn’t suffer the fate of our neighbour, Syria. However, the trauma remains.
“Cyprus is a deeply traumatized society,” says Dr. Hadjipavlou. “We avoid talking about what happened then but 1974 can explain many of the socio-political issues we face today. 1974 was so violent and its consequences lasted and still last for so long that it surely shapes the kind of society we are.”
“I think that it is human psychology. You don’t want to talk about the things that have traumatized you so deeply. A woman doesn’t want to talk about her rape. A soldier won’t talk about how he killed somebody or seeing his comrades dying. It was an unconscious decision, to leave everything behind and move on,” Chrystalla says.
“In the first years, we talked about some things. Mainly about our properties. We wanted to show the non-refugees that we were not always like this. That we too had houses, cars and dignities. But we stopped. We felt that we started being miserable and tiresome,” she adds.
Both Demetris and Chrystalla admit that, to this day, they are terrified when they hear the sound of fighter planes. Demetris remembers a day he was as a teenager in Latsia, when he saw a low-flying plane and started running to find a tree to hide under. Apart from that, he says that he does not have any psychological trauma from the war. “When you are a kid you don’t understand that a war is something so serious. That life as you knew it ended. For you, life continues normally. We continued playing as we used to. When you are a kid you can live in a hotel or a tent and feel no difference. You don’t need any comforts,” he says.
He now recognizes the impact the war had on his life and personality. According to him, his life chances would have been much better. “If the war never happened I think that things for me would have had been different. It happened at a very crucial, transitional age. Although I was a good student back at the primary school in Dikomo, when I went to secondary school, I struggled to pass each class.”
Demetris went to secondary school in Latsia. To meet the demands of the growing student numbers - after the influx of the refugees - the school started operating at nights as well. In the morning it received the students that lived further away and at night those that lived closer. After his family moved from the tents, Demetris was assigned at the night school.
“After I grew up, I realized that I had made mistakes, but I think that they were mistakes that were not under my control. Sitting down to study while you lived in a tent was considered a big luxury. There was no space, no lighting, the ground was dirty. The first years in secondary school were a chaos. Nobody was interested in education. It was a matter of survival first. The teachers knew what we were going through and couldn’t say something to us if we hadn’t studied. The system pushed you in different directions than education. Our mind was set on other things.”
Chrystalla on the other hand, says that she feels a trauma. She says that there is a big part of her life that she has no memories of. “The trauma is that gap of memories.
“For the older people I think that there is only one life, the one before 74. It is like a very long waiting period. It is not life. You just wait for the conflict to be over, so you can go back home. For the younger people, there is also only one life. The one after the war. The one before is largely deleted, consciously or unconsciously. It is like you were born as a 10-year-old.”
She says that the war violently terminated her childhood, “we suddenly found ourselves in a situation where we were not the same people we were before. The war happened on Saturday and on Monday we were already refugees. Living in tents, having no clothes and relying on others for food. I could have been a different person if it never happened.
“All the things we lived through because of the war and displacement, created a negative mentality in us. Years of insecurity, fear, lack of confidence and certainty for the future. There was also the misery of the grown-ups that we could feel intensely. It was all a big black.”
Chrystalla says that she never sought counselling. “There were more serious problems than the trauma of refugees. We had to survive first.”
Rodia says that the kids were not as sad as the adults were. Unlike her daughter, memories from Dikomo return to her mind some days. “My husband got sick because of his sadness. Sometimes I think that if this had not happened he would not have got sick and he would still have been alive. You can’t forget about these things. We will have this sadness until we die.”
Chrystalla says that although no one in her family was directly involved in the battles during the war, everyone was affected indirectly. “The fact that my father died by an auto-immune disease nine years after the invasion was not a coincidence.”
Rodia’s sister Maroulla, was newly-married at the time of the war. “She had a house and she was living a good life.” After 1974, Maroulla decided not to live in the tents and moved to Greece to stay with her in-laws. Two years after that she returned to Cyprus, where she lived “in shanties and refugee settlements with no quality of life and with all her social relationships destroyed,” Chrystalla says. Maroulla struggled with health problems and obesity for many years and died by intestinal cancer in 2012.
“Rodia’s mother died in a retirement home, in which the Red Cross had placed her. During the flee from Dikomo at the war she stayed alone back at the village because we couldn’t bring her with us.
“My grandfather died while living in a sanitarium where his grandchildren were employed. It was the only place they could house and care for him, as his whole family was living in shanties and tents trying, to survive. All these experiences create guilt, depression and hardness in people,” Chrystalla says.
The most recent death in the family was that of Panais, Rodia’s brother in-law, in 2014. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and his children said that he often left the house trying to go back to Dikomo. After days of being missing and his story making the news, some people found him dead in a field. His children speculate that he was on one of his journeys to go back to the village.
As for Rodia, her daughter says that she was never herself after the death of her husband. A hard-working, energetic woman she started taking anti-depressants and pills to go to sleep. The only time when she was back in her old ways was when her grandson was born, and she had to take care of him while her daughter was working. The war took everything from her, and the grandson was the only thing she had.
Rodia came to show me out as I was leaving her place in the self-housing project in Latsia. I stopped, pretending to be cleaning some leaves off my car to talk to her: “Did I upset you with all my questions grandma?”
“No son, it was 44 years ago. Praise the lord, these things have passed. I just hope, it doesn’t happen again.”
I got in my car and made a U-turn. Rodia was still there, on the sidewalk, waiting patiently, as always, for me to leave her sight, like she’ll never see me again. Her eyes, just like many old people’s eyes here reflect all of Cyprus’s struggle.
As I leave the house I was born in and the woman who raised me to make my way back to Nicosia, I think about how vastly different our lives have been from our parents and grandparents and how many people with stories like this cope silently in Cyprus.