Cyprus is part of the European Union but its problems are very much tied to the Middle East. July 20 marked 35 years since the Turkish invasion, the result of which was the division of Cyprus between the Greek Christian south and the Turkish controlled, and largely Muslim, north. Cyprus remains the only country in the EU to be divided and occupied by foreign forces.
The Turks call it an “intervention.” The government of then Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit felt the Turkish population of the island was threatened by a coup mounted a few days earlier by a group of Greek Cypriots favoring “Enosis,” or uniting the island with Greece.
The war that followed tore the island apart and produced staggering results.
Nearly 5,000 people were killed from a population of some 775,000. Almost 200,000 were displaced and 37 percent of the country was occupied by the Turks. If the numbers of internal refugees seems dwarfed when compared to other refugee crises, in relative terms, that would be the equivalent of 100 million Americans becoming refugees.
The conflict traces its roots to the back pages of history books. But let’s start just a few days before the war began, when the coup led by Nicos Sampson overthrew the Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios. Sampson was a member of EOKA, the National Organization for the Cyprus Struggle, a far-right group founded in the early 1950s with the aim of uniting the island with Greece.
Sampson had been urged on by the junta of Greek colonels ruling Athens at the time to depose Makarios, thereby opening the way to Enosis, much to the concern of the island’s Turkish community. When Makarios escaped to one of the island’s British military bases, and from there to Britain, Sampson declared himself president.
Ecevit ordered the Turkish army to invade when Ankara’s demands that Sampson be dismissed fell on deaf ears. The invasion began at dawn on July 20, 1974 with a simultaneous assault by about 1,000 paratroopers on the capital Nicosia and an amphibious landing further north in Kyrenia.
I had arrived in Nicosia two days earlier to cover the coup and from my hotel room I had a front-line view of the war, literally. Pulling back the drapes in the early hours of July 20, I saw the sky filled with Turkish paratroopers. With that came the sound of gunfire as Greek Cypriot forces began fighting back. The Greek Cypriots were no match for the better trained and armed mainland Turks. The Greek Cypriots were inadequately armed and suffered from poor leadership. One thing they did have was courage and persistence.
From my perch in the Ledra Palace, a four-star hotel situated smack on the Green Line separating Greek from Turkish Nicosia, I saw Greek Cypriot soldiers, equipped with what appeared to be World War II vintage rifles, seeking shelter behind amplifiers and drums abandoned by the hotel’s band to exchange fire with the Turks around the clock.
Tales of atrocities going back more than a century, combined with those of the more recent 1963 civil war suddenly resurfaced, reviving hatred and fears that never really dissipated.
When revolts erupted all over the Greek-speaking provinces of the Ottoman Empire in 1821, the Turkish governor of Cyprus received permission to crack down on the rebels. The Greek archbishop and other prominent Greek leaders were arrested and hanged. The suppression of the revolt dissipated the Greek Cypriot’s hopes of joining the wider Greek rebellion. But it had a more nefarious, long-lasting effect; that of instilling a deep-rooted loathing of the Ottomans in the Greek Cypriot community. This is where the desire for Enosis was first born.
Britain took control of Cyprus in 1878 (with permission from the Ottomans), but with the outbreak of World War I, Britain annexed the island, turning it into a British Crown colony in 1925. Meanwhile the Turkish and Greek communities never learned to trust one another, and civil strife erupted in 1963, pitting the two communities against each other. The 1963 clashes brought United Nations troops to separate the two sides. UN troops were still deployed when Turkey invaded in 1974, and they remain there to this day.
Now, 35 years later, tourists have been flocking back to the island where Greek mythology says Aphrodite waded ashore. But if the goddess of love were to return, she would find some 43,000 Turkish troops still “intervening” on the island.
Andreas Kakuris, the Cypriot ambassador, pointed out to this reporter that if the United States had 120,000 troops in Iraq at the height of the fighting, why does Turkey need 43,000 when Cyprus does not represent a threat and there has not been a shot fired in 35 years? A good question.
Where does this leave Cyprus today? Talks between the two communities continue. The Republic of Cyprus holds a major trump card given that it is a member of the EU, and as such, has the power to veto Turkey’s accession into the EU — assuming that Turkey would eventually be allowed in.
Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times and was in Cyprus when the Turkish Army invaded.