The enchanted isle of sudden death
Will the Greek-led campaign of terror force the British out of their last Middle East bastion? A famed Canadian correspondent talks with the rival leaders—and the assassins themselves—to bring you his answer
COME TO the Island of Cyprus,” proclaims the tourist folder, “enchanted holiday island of romance and beauty. A prevailing atmosphere of peace and unsophistication is perhaps one of the best remembered charms of this British Crown Colony in the eastern Mediterranean; the murmur of the sea broken only by the silvery echo of goat-bells and the shepherd’s flute, the heavy, elusive perfume of orange groves and jasmine will long remain a haunting memory of this enchanted isle, the birthplace of Aphrodite...”
The perfume of orange groves and jasmine remains but the enchantment, alas, has fled. In this winter of 1956 the only visitors to Cyprus are twelve thousand British troops together with complements of navy and air force, and they patrol the island roads and its air and sea approaches with trigger fingers poised tensely on automatic weapons. The
island’s residents—430,000 Greek Cypriots, 94,000 Turkish Cypriots, and a handful of British — make a poor pretense at normal existence. They sit in cafés behind wire mesh as protection against a tossed bomb, they keep away from windows after nightfall, they peer at one another out of the corners of their eyes not knowing who is friend and who assassin, they walk quickly by day and drive madly after dark. For this island is, by official prochmation, in a state of emergency. In plainer language, it is a scene of insurrection by Greek Cypriots against British colonial rule.
For eleven months, since last April 1, 1955, there has been terror here. Terror begets suppression, and suppression begets hate, and hate begets the cowardly crime of haphazard assassination in the dark. This is the ugly progression that has spread out of the Asian belt snce 1945 — from Indonesia to Malaya and across the Indian sub-continent to Kenya, to Palestine, to Egypt, to North Africa—and now to the once-enchanted island of Cyprus.
This is not a large island. Its ink-blot shape is one hundred and forty miles at its longest and sixty miles at its widest; its people are for the most part Europeans by culture and Middle Eastern peasants by their choice of the land as a livelihood, and they have lived more peacefully for a longer time than any other people in this part of the world. The British administration, though stiff, plodding and sometimes tactless, has certainly not been oppressive.
Then why an insurrection? Why should an island of 520,000 people, its internal economy perilously balanced, its natural geography making it practically defenseless in a voracious corner of the world, strive to cut away the protection of a government that has given it peace and reasonable plenty during generations of violence and heartbreak elsewhere?
Does the reason lie in the infection of upheaval that has been scourging Asia, Africa and the Middle East? Does it lie in international intrigue? In racialism? In emotion? Religious fanaticism? Mass insanity?
Cyprus embraces all these things. It is a small and ugly test-tube demonstration of the mistakes of the past intermixed with the compulsive psychoses of the present, of the galloping consumption of blind nationalism, of political perfidy, of greed, and above all, of the anachronism of Disraeli’s imperial structure, dusty and tattered but still stubbornly standing in the age of wireless, jet and atom.
MY JOURNEY to seek the answer to the bloody puzzle of Cyprus began in England on a foggy rain-spattered day as my car sped toward London airport. The morning newspapers, headlined the ambush death of the thirteenth British soldier in Cyprus and the riots of Athenian students who burned the British flag amid shouts of “Enosis!” which is the battlecry for union of Cyprus and Greece. The popular press in London shouted: “Stop This Senseless Killing!” The hard-pressed Eden government had nothing to say except that conversations were continuing
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The enchanted isle of sudden death
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between Greek and British negotiators and that Field Marshal Sir John Harding, Governor of Cyprus, was confident his security forces were gaining the upper hand over the handful of Greek Cypriot terrorists.
As I flew high over Paris, winging southeastward, I wondered at the biashness of Greece in acting as agent for the revolutionary movement in Cyprus—the same Greece that was so recently an ally of the battlefield, the same Greece that holds a key membership in the NATO alliance, the same Greece that has blood ties reaching into Buckingham Palace. I looked at the map. Cyprus is by no means a part of the complex of Greek islands in the Mediterranean. It is five hundred miles southeast of Athens, only forty miles from Turkey, only sixty from Syria. For three hundred years it was a province of Turkey. In 1878, in return for one hundred thousand pounds a year and a promise to aid the Turks againct Russian encroachment, Disraeli brought Cyprus under British administration. In 1914 the island was formally annexed to the British crown and in 1925 Cyprus was proclaimed a British crown colony.
But blood and seed have a way of ignoring beribboned parchments. Dark centuries of rape and plunder, no less than modern generations of civilized British administration, have left the hard Cypriot basically untouched. Eighty percent of the islanders remain Greek-speaking, Greek-thinking,Greekworshiping. The other twenty percent remain Turkish. There is no intermarriage, no social mingling, very little business interplay.
Danger signals in the night
It was dark when the plane came down at Athens airport for refuelling, and at once the crisis in Cyprus was all around me. Security guards surrounded the plane because it is British. In the airport restaurant someone whispered to me that another student riot had erupted before the British Embassy and another British flag had been burned. I remembered being in Athens only ten years ago when another generation of students adored the British for defending Greek liberty in street fighting against Communist revolutionaries.
The next stop was Nicosia, three hours of flying, and on departure from Athens I was relieved to see the plane fill up with Greek nationals, including two handsomely bearded priests. It wasn’t likely that a mad student would conceal a bomb in this plane.
The plane came over Cyprus in a tight approach pattern and at a welldefined altitude. Any diversion is dangerous. RAF patrols are in the air watching for unauthorized flights over the Cyprian mountains. The rebels need arms, and on these winter nights signal flares are often burning to guide parachute drops of equipment.
At Nicosia airport I noticed that the security guard who came out to the plane was a Turkish Cypriot (you soon learn that a great many of the security personnel employed by the British are of the Turkish minority). A customs inspector asked me if I was carrying arms, but he didn’t search beneath my soiled shirts.
There were two roadblocks before my car cleared the airport compound and then the driver stepped on it along an unlighted highway. At the Ledra Palace, a spacious sandstone hotel on
the outskirts of Nicosia, the Greek Cypriot management seemed delighted to see me. The place was empty except for a handful of correspondents. The room clerk said, “A year ago you would have required a reservation thirty days in advance.” In the grill room an orchestra was playing to empty tables. (A fortnight before a bomb had been tossed through an open window onto the dance floor.) In the lobby a bulletin read: “Time of issue, 2030 hours. Just after 1900 hours this evening a bomb was thrown in Metaxas Square which exploded outside the disused post
office now used to house Security Forces on duty in the area. No casualties.”
1 settled down and wondered how and where to start. But I didn’t wonder for long. Within an hour they were all in touch with me—the British, the Greek Cypriots, the Greeks, the spokesmen for the Turkish minority. They all knew I’d arrived, for intelligence in this island moves quickly. And the strange drama of terror, debate and intrigue began to unfold.
I soon learned that the Greek cry of “Enosis!” and the Cypriot demand for “self-determination” are, in practical
fact, the same thing. Enosis is the Greek word for union (and has come to mean the union of Cyprus and Greece) and the Cypriots once used it but have been convinced that “self-determination” is a less bare-faced, more legalistic term. There’s no doubt that any Greek Cypriot parliament that gains the right of self-determination will, in the next breath, vote for enosis with Greece.
While the majority of Greek Cypriots, who constitute eighty percent of the island’s population, would vote for enosis, the Turkish Cypriot minority of twenty percent would vote unani-
mously against it. But the over-all popular vote would unquestionably favor union with Greece. This is candidly admitted by spokesmen for the British colonial administration. It is the key fact in the whole situation, the moral basis of the enosis argument, the cause of the fury, frustration and terrorism of the Greek arch patriots, the master point of Greek appeals to the United Nations.
How great a majority of the Cypriot people would vote for enosis in a secret ballot is open to question. Archbishop Makarios, the leader of the enosis movement, claims every vote of the 430,000 Greek Cypriots. The archbishop’s shadow government, the Ethnarchy Council, held a “plebiscite” on Jan. 15, 1950, and reported a vote of ninety-six percent of the Greek Cypriot adult male population without a single dissenting ballot. But the vote was held in Greek Orthodox churches; it was not secret; it was taken after inflammatory speeches from the pulpit; the opposition (if any) was not represented; in short, it was not a plebiscite in the Western sense of the word.
The consul-general of a neutral power, a man who has no axe to grind, told me: “My own estimate is that in a genuine secret ballot conducted, let us say, by the United Nations, not more than sixty percent of Greek Cypriots would vote for enosis. If you consider the Turkish vote which would be overwhelmingly for the British, the result would be close but, I believe, slightly in favor of enosis.”
Yet, wise or foolish, moral or immoral under the political code of the mid-twentieth century, the British have set their faces against selfdetermination for the Cypriot people under present circumstances. They have offered an almost full measure of internal autonomy; they have promised, and indeed instituted, reform; increased financial assistance; they have even agreed to recognize the principle of self-determination to be invoked at some indefinite date in the future. But, in the light of present strategic and political circumstances,
they resolutely decline to allow the Cypriots the freedom to make this island Greek territory. The British are at least frank about it. They will not be pushed out of this last British stronghold in the Middle East.
The British offer a variety of explanations, both valid and questionable, for their stand. “We have an obligation,” a spokesman said, “to the large Turkish minority and also to the two thousand British permanent residents. They planted their roots here in good faith. We can’t brusquely hand them over to Greek citizenship. We have an obligation, too, to peace in this area. This island, after all, is on the doorstep of Turkey, and the Turks are already breathing threats of violent action if the Greeks take over. This is our principal, indeed our last, base in the Middle East—or it will be next May when the last British troops leave Suez. We are spending twenty million .pounds on it and it’s essential both to NATO and the entire Western position that we keep it. The argument of Archbishop Makarios that we would be permitted to maintain rights on the base really doesn’t hold water. The huge Greek minorities in most Middle East countries could be held as hostages against Greek action in the event of crisis, if this island comes under Greek sovereignty.”
But perhaps the overriding British consideration is one of face. “We have been pushed out of Burma, India, Egypt, the Sudan, practically out of Iraq, and of course Abadan. Where does it end? If we allow a handful of Cypriot terrorists to cow us here, what happens to Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Singapore? We must make a stand somewhere and this is as good a place as any.”
The government of Greece, despite its long-standing friendship and treaties of alliance with Britain, is clearly an agent provocateur in the Cyprus matter. Incitement to rebellion is beamed each day from a radio station in Athens. Greek consular officials here make only a pretense at being outside but interested parties in the crisis. There is good
reason to believe that arms and financial support, no less than moral support, have their origin in the Greek mainland.
An ambassador of a neutral power, presently serving in Athens, explained the Greek attitude this way: “It is an emotional thing that has seized both the government and the people. In Athens today one would think there was no world crisis, no Soviet threat. Cyprus is the one and only question. It is a national fever and it runs higher every day. All factions in the coming election are outbidding one another on the Cyprus question. The slightest hesitation on Cyprus would doom any political party.”
My own observations bore this out. Oif the scores of persons I interviewed, and these included some of the terrorists, the most implacable, most emotional, were Greek nationalists. Enosis is a Greek nationalist movement, not a Communist one. The Communists have a substantial voting strength in Cyprus and they tried naturally to intensify the disorders for purely nihilist purposes (the party is banned in Greece). Governor Harding has interned the Communist leaders and closed their newspapers, but the importance of this action can easily be overemphasized.
Bomb-lossers in a hurry
The one physical spearhead of the enosis movement is a secret terrorist organization called EOKA. It is responsible for the murders and the bombings, and its membership is sworn to continue the terror until union with Greece is achieved. In the classic style, its membership is divided into cells of five so that no one member can betray the whole movement. It is believed to consist of between fifty and one hundred and fifty members. They are most difficult to track down, for they strike in lonely mountain passes or in crowded shopping streets. Either through intimidation or blood loyalty, they clearly enjoy the protection of most of the island’s Greek Cypriots. By midJanuary they had killed thirteen British soldiers, mostly from ambush, and seriously wounded thirty-five. Only one known EOKA member has been killed by the British. He was Charalambos Mouskos, a twenty-three-year-old cousin of Archbishop Makarios. He and three companions ambushed a British officer and his driver in the Troödos Mountains. The driver was instantly killed and the officer alone stalked the four attackers. The officer, Major Brian Coombe, was awarded the George Medal.
British military commanders told me they are fully confident that EOKA terrorism is being contained and will eventually be eliminated. It seems that few Greek Cypriot terrorists are
anxious to die for the cause. Most of their bombs explode harmlessly be-
cause the bomb-tosser is in too great a hurry to make good his own escape. Sensitive to jibes of being more vocal than lethal, EOKA claims to have
killed more than two hundred and
fifty British soldiers but, in neutral quarters, the accuracy of the official figure of thirteen British dead is not doubted.
Nevertheless, the terrorists have
gained two important victories. They have attracted world-wide attention to the problem of Cyprus and they have forced the British to adopt such repressive measures as arrest and search without warrant, roadblocks, curfew, and virtual martial law. This tends to turn public opinion against the British.
I spent two days listening to the vehement propaganda coming at me from all sides, then I decided to escape, explore the island for myself, and try to sort it all out. Cyprus is indeed an island enchanted by nature. Even in January the sun beams out of a crystalline sky and the thermometer rises to sixty-five. I drove along an excellent road through Greek and Turkish villages, clearly separated as to population, and up into the Kyrenia mountains to the twelfth-century castle of St. Hilarión, so spectacular as to give Walt Disney a lesson in imagination. The road descends, steep and winding, into the fishing port of Kyrenia, a picture post-card town, once a paradise for tourists and now quiet and conspiratorial as are all towns on the island.
I returned to Nicosia and tramped through its narrow crowded streets. I paused in the doorway of a boxlike apothecary’s shop where two British soldiers bled to death after being shot in the back. I wandered along, challenging passers-by out of the corners of my eyes, and found that I was being similarly challenged. This is the outward symptom of a town in the throes of terror. I wondered, what does the face of a terrorist look like? How does his mind work? Why bloodshed in a land that has existed peacefully for centuries and, by Middle East standards, happily?
There are no answers to be found in the faces of the island’s chief protagonists, Governor Sir John Harding and Archbishop Makarios. Sir John has a soldier’s outlook and a soldier’s face — neat, determined, blue-eyed, very English. His mission is to cleanse the island of terrorists. He is confident he can accomplish it. After that, under political directive from London, he can negotiate. Makarios’ shrewd blackbearded face is equally determined: “One of two things must happen during this year,” he told me. “Our demand for self-determination shall be satisfied or things will get worse for the British.” He is young—forty-two—iron-willed and politically ambitious. He was elected to his post as head of the church in Cyprus, an office that automatically carries with it the temporal leadership of the Greek Cypriot majority.
I spent days wandering the island, asking questions. Why, when there is a stable economy here, would a people want union with Greece where they are still struggling with unemployment and inflation? A Greek Cypriot businessman answered this way: “This small island is taxed to support nine thousand British or British-appointed civil servants — one for every fiftyseven Cypriots. If we are going to be taxed, let us be taxed by Greeks for Greek purposes. It doesn’t matter if we might be more prosperous under the British. All the money in the City of London cannot bribe us to forget we are Greeks.”
The days passed and I felt I was coming close to the heart of the problem but not quite close enough. Then a break occurred. A message was passed to me from EOKA. A terrorist spokesman was willing to talk to me.
I was instructed to walk along a street outside the battlements that enclose the ancient city of Nicosia. I patrolled the street alone for nearly half an hour, eyeing everyone who passed, wondering if the message was a fake, or if the terrorist had been scared off by
the frequent British patrols. I was almost ready to give up when I discovered someone had come up behind me. He walked with me a short distance, perhaps a hundred yards, and then he spoke. His accent was heavy but his English precise, though he clearly had to reach for vocabulary. He told me I must not look at him—for my own safety. I could see only that he wore a bulky overcoat and that his collar was well up around his ears. The voice was that of a man over thirty. It was the voice of terrorism. It asked me what I wanted to know.
I asked: “If Archbishop Makarios reaches agreement with the British on self-determination, will you automatically cease terrorism?”
The voice, harshly: “We are not terrorists, we are patriots.”
I repeated the question, substituting the word operations for terrorism.
The voice: “I can’t tell you definitely. Everything depends on the terms of the agreement. We will not accept vague promises for the future.”
I said that Makarios was rumored to be negotiating on the basis of selfdetermination within a period of not longer than ten years.
The voice: “That would not be satisfactory to us.”
I asked what would be satisfactory.
The voice: “We cannot state it precisely.” It became agitated and declamatory. “We want our freedom. We cannot have it too soon. We are Greeks. We have the right to our selfdetermination. We will die for it but we will win.”
I asked if he thought EOKA would beat the British force.
The voice: “If they do not leave, many of them will die.”
And if they still do not leave?
The voice became shot through with vigor. “It is impossible. They must leave. We are Greeks. What right have they to rule over us?” The voice took on the ring of sloganeering: “We are not black natives. We fought for liberty long before the British knew the meaning of liberty ...” It went on declaiming well-worn phrases about self-determination, about the conspiracy that prevented a debate on Cyprus in the United Nations, about the Greek tradition of fighting and dying for freedom.
I interrupted in an attempt to get the man back to the realities of the problem. What if the British did not agree to self-determination within a short period?
The voice: “There will be open
revolution everywhere in Cyprus. It will not be the first time the people have won against an army. We are prepared to lead the revolution—” It paused, then it said, “We are being observed—” and the man walked quickly ahead.
After a little time, a motorcycle shot past me and I suspected that the terrorist had been picked up by a colleague.
I walked slowly through the dark streets to the hotel, and reflected on how little of fact I had learned from the voice of terrorism. But I had learned something of great value. The voice was curiously reminiscent of every Greek Cypriot voice I had heard.
There is much to be said for the British case in terms of strategy, and for Turkish fears of coming under Greek domination, but the central fact remains that, wisely or unwisely, these people are determined to become a part of Greece. They have the numbers. They have the will. They have, by 1956 standards, political morality riding with them. It is a matter of time and negotiation. The only question left is: how many more lives will be lost before the inevitable settlement is made? ★