CYPRUS – A Remembrance Day Tale

CYPRUS – By Brian Howard Seibert

             The weathered old woman cried and wailed as she walked, sometimes dropping to her knees and flailing her bony fists into the dust of the sandy road.  Her tattered black dress was sodden with dust and when she walked the dust wafted free of her woollens and drifted behind her, the dust sparkling in the summer sun before returning to the road.  Her cries and laments were indistinct though, blending in with those of the other wailers walking down the sandy road beside her.

             The funeral procession trudged down the demarcation zone – the stifling summer heat slowing its pace to a crawl – while its professional wailers wauled their undulating cries, beating themselves with thorny sprigs, or thrashing themselves upon the earth as the old woman had done.  Both Turks and Greeks, opposing forces, watched solemnly from their respective positions, about a hundred yards apart on either side of the DM line, mute testimony to the impartiality of the deceased shopkeeper.  I had the somewhat dubious honour of paying my respects from a more intimate distance, being part of the Canadian peace keeping force located in the centre of the Green Zone.

As the parade shuffled past, I dutifully flashed an austere salute – military personnel always salute funeral processions – and it struck me then that my salute bestowed upon this unknown expired merchant seemed to carry more weight than any I had doled out back home.  But death seemed to permeate the air that hot afternoon.  Back home, funerals were always for other people; over here, they were more apt to take on a personal relationship.

An old Greek man, a shopkeeper like that corpse had once been, told me in a market only a few days earlier that, on Cyprus, death was a way of life.  His cracked leathery lips had parted, exposing intermittent yellow pegs – his teeth – in a grin that I would have previously reserved for the pages of National Geographic.  He then laughed, looking away, but I failed to see his humour.  And watching the procession in front of me, I doubted if any such humour existed.

I related to the Greek Cypriots far more easily than to the Turks; far more of them spoke English.  But I was amazed by how similar they all were.  Olive faces, the whole lot; and the same swarthy features.  Their dress was slightly different – the Greeks wore hats while the Turks wore white caps – but, on the whole, they seemed as one people.  Differentiating the two groups racially was like trying to pick out the French Canadians from the English in a crowd back home.  And there I was in Cyprus, my sole objective – to try to keep them from each other’s throats.

The markets in Nicosia, the capital city, were similar to the ones back home only in the sense that they were perpetually crowded.  They consisted of long wide paths snaking between vendors in a large sandy market square, quite like the desert bazaars one might picture while reading The Arabian Nights.  The merchandise, varying from local produce to bright textiles to strong, dark wines, was all sold in open air displays, backed by heavy board and thatch rooms in which the proprietors usually resided in order to protect their inventories and preserve their locations.  Ass-drawn carts and ancient lorries, but mainly carts, were used for transporting goods and often for displaying produce, their drivers hawking their wares until they, too, were driven from their temporary locations by wildly gesticulating merchants, whose businesses they were obstructing.

I seldom visited these markets, for the khaki green of my uniform stood out against the whites and the stripes of the local populous.  And to stand out was to have money, hard foreign currency; to have smokes, real tobacco cigarettes; to have desires.  The hawkers knew your potential as their sale of the day and they called out to you, tore at your sleeves and stepped in your way with their offers of breads and wines and women.  But avoiding the markets was as futile as avoiding the sand.  A soldier has his wants, his needs, his desires; our modest military pay made us rich men in Cyprus.

Our location at the entrance to Ledra Street in Nicosia was set upon sandstone cobbles in the middle of a square.  It was the start of the demarcation zone, an imaginary line running through the city that kept the Greek and Turkish fighting men apart, and the post was one of many, making the line not quite so imaginary.  Our position consisted of a small tin shelter surrounded by a low square wall of winter-greened sandbags, many of which leaked, due to failing seams and the occasional bullet hole.  And when the wind blew, it carried more sand.  The sand got in your hair, your boots, your shorts, and often your eyes, but it never made its way into your rifle.  My French Canadian comrade had shown me how a military condom, placed over the flash arrestor of my FN rifle, could keep the sand out of the barrel.  Finally, a thick, military issue condom had found its proper use.  It was the sand, you see, that was our only tangible enemy there.

We had no direct resistance in Cyprus.  When the local militias got hot headed and started throwing rounds, we kept them apart.  But, more often than not, the firefights were limited to a single shot, or volley, or machine gun burst.  We had orders not to return fire, but if situations started to get sticky we were to fire over their heads.  But on very hot days or lonely nights I found my arms drained, sapped of strength, and on several occasions I could not seem to lift my sights above those hatted and capped skulls, though I do not think I hit any of them.  And I know for a fact that on some days the local militias considered our neutral khaki uniforms to be no more than convenient targets, and the white UN on our helmets to be nothing more than a fixed point upon which to adjust their sights.  Over here we were not Canadians.  We were the despised British overlords who had previously governed their island.

Several hours after the funeral procession had passed, hostilities broke out once again, and my French Canadian friend caught a machine gun burst.  He had been sitting upon the breastworks of our position, smoking a cigarette, when the burst of machine gun fire rattled its way across the square.  I ducked behind the sandbags and I saw my comrade jump down directly across from me.  Just as his boots hit the cobbles, the rounds hit him and drove him back into a sitting position upon the breastwork he had just vacated.  He teetered there a moment, a shocked look on his face, with ghastly spurting wounds on his chest, and then he cocked his head to one side.  He reached towards me with one arm, his cigarette still smouldering between trembling fingers, as if to offer me a drag, then he toppled backwards, out into the square.  I huddled in the shelter of the sandbags as wild shots flew from all sides.  I could not see my friend’s condition outside our fortified position, but his blood oozed down the inside face of the sandbags – a deep red blood.  While studying the origins of Hamlet I had read of the four colours of blood by which the ancient Danes classified the severity of wounds.  And this blood I knew to be the colour of death.

As I pressed my flesh into the sandbagged wall of our position – for sand, once contained, can be a life-saving friend – I saw once more the pegged tooth grin of the old Greek merchant, and I hated him.  I now knew that what he had told me days earlier was not intended to be humorous.  He had been deathly serious.  His grin had been his mask, his protection, covering the scars he bore from a decade of political conflict.  And his laugh had been his weapon, for he knew that I would now bear some of his pain and carry it away with me when I left his partitioned isle.

When our six-month tour of peacekeeping duty had expired, we were marched to the airport of Nicosia, where a troop transport plane awaited us.  As we trudged down the dusty road we passed by a column of newly offloaded Canadian replacements.  They marched toward us so smartly in their clean khaki green and, as they marched past us, I was drawn to gaze upon the freckled young face of a soldier who was smiling at me.  He waved; I waved back.  I tried to return his smile, but my smile seemed unfamiliar somehow – I now had leathery lips, a cracked grin and yellow pegs for teeth.

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