Caught in the middle of an insane non-war, our boys in Cyprus can't wait to leave
AN OFFICIAL government handbook on Cyprus opens with this cheerful greeting: “The Cyprus people welcome the UN International Peace Keeping Force with feelings of relief and absolute confidence.”
If Canadian soldiers there could bring themselves to believe that, they would be far happier than they are. As it is, they’re convinced that the only Cypriots glad to have them there are shop-keepers, night-club operators and B-girls, and the only Canadian thing welcome in Cyprus is Canadian money.
This I discovered not long ago dur-
ing a visit to Cyprus with a troupe of Canadian entertainers. I imagine that before they get to Cyprus, many Canadian soldiers harbor the same idealistic notion I had about the job to be done there: Canadians in a distant troublespot, playing that favorite Canadian role of peace-keeping mediator.
But most soldiers aren’t there long before they’re convinced that their tour of duty is really a tour of frustration, which continues day and night whether a man is on duty or off.
Some frustrations, of course, arise out of the uncommon nature of the Cyprus operation. It has rules that go against any soldier’s training. He’s been taught how to fight a war. But in Cyprus, all he is permitted to do is keep two combatants apart. If a UN soldier catches a Turk or a Greek trying to carry guns or bullets across the line, all he can do is turn the man back; he’s not even allowed to confiscate the arms. Yet he knows these guns will be used. Every day, there are reports of shots fired the night before, from both sides.
Some incidents are ludicrous. A few Greek (or Turk) fighters decide to build a gun emplacement. They need an axe, so the nearest UN soldier is asked to borrow one for them from the Turks (or Greeks). The axe is borrowed, through the referee, and the work is done. Then the axe is resharpened and returned — again through the Canadian soldier.
“What the hell kind of war is this?” the soldier wants to know.
The answer is that much of it is a propaganda war. Each side will take advantage of the most trifling incident to accuse the UN of favoring the other. The Canadian soldier is under orders to resist his instincts and not give money or food to the refugee children (mostly Turkish) who hang around UN outposts. But he can’t win. If he helps a Turkish urchin, the Greeks accuse the UN of being biased. If he doesn’t help the child, the Turks claim the UN force is inhumane.
Nor is the Canadian soldier’s morale helped any by stories that have been published by papers back home describing the happy, wild time Our Boys are having on the “island para-
dise.” One soldier I met was trembling with rage as he produced a clipping from his wallet. It was from his hometown paper, telling of what a wonderful time the Canadian boys were having in Cyprus. He had received the clipping from his wife — along with a note saying she planned to divorce him.
In reality, the chances of having a good time on an evening’s pass are almost nil. A soldier can’t have an evening alone — even an innocent evening — with a respectable girl unless he’s engaged to her. An old Cypriot custom permits only engaged girls to go out unchaperoned.
Brothels might be a temptation, even though they’re off-limits, but the authorities warn that ninety percent of the prostitutes have venereal disease. (One major told me the Turks deliberately brought in diseased women, presumably from Turkey, to embarrass the UN.)
Nicosia and Kyrenia both have bars and nightclubs, but they’re sucker traps. B-girls and dancers hang around such places, hustling drinks and promising vaguely to let the soldiers take them home after the show. Novices out on an evening’s pass are usually parted from their money before they discover what the girls already know: because of the midnight curfew, the soldier has no hope of seeing a girl after the floor show, which doesn’t start until 11 p.m.
The curfew itself is another irritation, partly since it’s imposed on most ranks but not on officers. There’s a reason for it. Cyprus streets are dangerous at night, especially along the Green Line separating Greek from Turk. But the men resent it.
“What kind of sense does it make?” one thirty-six-year-old sergeant asked. “A guy my age has been around. I can look out for myself. But I have to be tucked into bed by twelve. Yet a twenty-three-year-old lieutenant is presumed to be mature enough to be out at any hour.”
When he has a few days’ leave, a Canadian soldier can theoretically vacation in Famagusta, a beautiful coastal city. But the army is afraid of its men getting stranded there when they’re due back on duty, and so under regulations a soldier must have at least one hundred dollars with him when he goes to Famagusta. Few can scrape up that much money.
These are some reasons why the typical Canadian soldier counts the days until he can leave Cyprus. But there’s at least one other. Occasionally, at night, as he stands on duty between the two hostile factions, the stillness is broken by a loudspeaker from the Turkish side. A male voice, speaking English, will tauntingly suggest that while the soldier is in Cyprus, his wife back home is being unfaithful to him.
It’s an old propaganda stunt, of course, but when you’re five thousand miles from home and feeling pretty brassed off anyway, it’s not hard to believe that the voice could be telling the truth. ALEX BARRIS
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