This reflection was written 18 years ago. Except for the fact that the British Army has replaced the Canadian, the checkpoint is now at the end of Ledra Street, and vastly many more people – Cypriots from both communities and foreigners – can now cross the line, the situation in the Buffer Zone itself remains unchanged. It cannot be visited except with a UN pass, booby traps are still in place, and the two armies still jockey for position in much the same way as described below.
Ledra Street Checkpoint
Back in the Republic of Cyprus I got in touch with Colonel Murray Swan, the commanding officer of the Canadian Battalion of the United Nations Interim Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). He was also Chief Humanitarian Officer, and a useful contact. We were hoping to join a UN Humanitarian convoy – either to check on Turkish Cypriots living in the south, or to take supplies to the few elderly Greek Cypriots who had remained in enclaves in the north. Colonel Swan told us that there was no way that we could join a convoy, but that he could get us two slots as journalists on a Line Tour – a VIP tour that took place about once a month through the Buffer Zone of the Old City. The next one was due to take place the following day.
We arrived at Wolseley Barracks, the Ledra Palace headquarters of the First Regiment of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery at nine, and were ushered into a briefing room with seven other ‘line-walkers’. Canadian officers briefed us on the UN mission in Cyprus, concentrating on the role of City Battery, whose sector we were about to ‘patrol’.
Ledra Palace Headquarters
Deployed in Nicosia since the 1964 intercommunal strife between Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots, the Canadians’ task was to ensure that neither side infringes the cease-fire line – a tough job in the highly populated inner city where soldiers of the opposing sides faced each other from only a few metres apart.
After the 1974 invasion, the Peacekeepers’ role became an international one: on one side of the Buffer Zone stand soldiers of the Greek Cypriot National Guard; on the other, Turkish-Cypriot units backed by numerous and well-equipped Turkish mainland forces. In such circumstances, it was hardly surprising that City Battery dealt with as many incidents of cease-fire infringements in a day as others did in a week.
Briefing over, we piled into a van with Captain Billings and Lieutenant Draho, our guides, and drove to the far end of City Battery’s sector. We climbed the steps to OP Bastion.
”This will let you see what our guys see every day,” Billings said. Built atop the city’s 16th Century Venetian Walls, the observation post was roughly equidistant between Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot positions. To our right, a concrete emplacement marked the Greek-Cypriot ceasefire line; fifty metres to our left, a soldier from the Turkish-Cypriot Wolf Regiment watched us from beside his camouflaged bunker.
Most of City Battery’s sector, we learned, was narrower than at Bastion. In some places it is the width of the single-lane patrol road. Contact between the opposing sides is inevitable.
“Sometimes the soldiers just insult each other,” said Lt Draho. “Sometimes it’s a little worse. Last week we had a bunch of Turkish soldiers lobbing stones at the Greeks with sling-shots.” Gunfire across the line is unusual, and fatal shootings such as the incident earlier that month when a Greek-Cypriot National Guardsman was killed by a Turkish soldier, are very rare indeed.
Nearby Beaver Lodge, once Agios Kassianos School, used to be a Canadian barracks. In 1974 after giving the Canadians 15 minutes to vacate the building, the Turks opened fire with heavy weapons. Two Canadians lost their lives, and the area is still contested. Turkish-Cypriot soldiers enter Beaver Lodge every six months for maintenance under UN supervision.
“Maintenance?” we all raised our eyebrows. “How can anyone maintain the roofless shell of a building whose walls have been riddled with .50 calibre machine-gun fire?” someone asked.
“They paint rocks,” Captain Billings replied with a straight face. “That’s how they let us know it’s their turf.”
A few steps west of Beaver Lodge stands Annie’s House. Annie, A Greek-Cypriot ‘madame’, was the only resident to remain in the Buffer Zone during the fighting and after the cease-fire. Several years before, when Canadian foot patrols noticed no movement in the house for days, soldiers entered and found her dead. “The UN took care of Annie,” said Billings. And the last resident of the Buffer Zone became a part of history.
The patrol road winds through the heart of Old Nicosia, an area of stone and mud-brick buildings that date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most were damaged in the fighting that ravaged the city during the ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. Only a few are casualties of time. Plaster crumbled from the walls and the intricate wrought iron of balconies and fan-lights hung in rusted confusion amid rotted wooden shutters and a jumble of smashed beams.
Some of the buildings are on the point of collapse. Lt Draho pointed to a section of wall. “We have tried for three years to get the Turks to demolish this section, but if they take down a wall, the Greeks have to take down a wall, and the Greeks have nothing that they can lose in this area.”
A move by one side had to be reciprocated by the other. “It would make our job easier if these buildings could all be cleaned of all the rubble,” added Draho. “But neither side is willing to risk losing ground.”
The patrols had to be constantly vigilant. “If we don’t go into an area for a day or two, one side or the other will move in,” said the Captain. He pointed to a Turkish position of galvanised iron that jutted out into the middle of the patrol road. “We didn’t come down here for a few days and the Turks moved this construction right out into the middle of the Buffer Zone.” After days of negotiation, the Turks agreed that the building was unlawful. Eventually, so that the Turks saved face, the Canadians drove armoured personnel carriers along the patrol road at night without headlights, and partially destroyed it.
The Line Tour culminated at the Magic Map. “This started as a small map of Cyprus on the road outside the Greek-Cypriot bunker,” Draho told us. “Each time the Greeks repainted, it grew a little.” The Canadians asked the Greeks to restrain their artistry to no avail. They eventually put barrels at the edge of the map, and painted outlines on the ground to indicate the barrels’ final position. According to Captain Billings, the barrels had so far remained in place.
c. Rachael Pettus 1992