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On the outskirts of a mountain village in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, Lakis Zavallis, 72 in September, is scrambling about a rocky roadside hillside looking for an imitation-leather grip he had first used when he was a law student in London in the early 60s.
Some 40 years ago he was a lieutenant commanding a diminishing platoon of weary Greek Cypriot National Guardsmen when he hid the bag under the overhang of a rock. They had just been ordered to make what he thought might be a temporary withdrawal from a forward position and he wanted to lighten his load. In it was the English paperback edition of Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and a sweater, for even during the island’s scorching summers the Kyrenia range gets chilly at night when you’re dodging mortar bombs by living in a hole in the ground.
Beneath the book and the sweater is the item that makes Lakis persist in trying to find his bag. This was his second attempt this year and there have been others. In it is the diary he kept when he found himself part of a shambolic home guard doing its best to take on Nato’s biggest army in cold war Europe and one that came with the kind of air and naval support intended to take on the Soviet Union.
This month sees the 40th anniversary of Operation Attila, Turkey’s codename for its invasion of Cyprus. It started on 20 July 1974 and ended almost a month later on 16 August. By then, its forces occupied just over a third of the island in the name of a Turkish Cypriot minority not quite a fifth of its total population. They still do, though May’s visit by US vice-president Joe Biden has raised hopes that the elusive settlement to the Cyprus problem might at last be in the offing, if only to divide the spoils of newly discovered offshore natural gas and oil.
On 15 July 1974, a coup against Archbishop Makarios III, president of Cyprus since 1960 when it stopped being a British colony, was orchestrated by the military junta in Athens who wanted what Greek speakers call enosis. This was the same political union with Greece desired by the Eoka guerrillas who in the late 1950s fought the British under Georgios Grivas, a Cypriot-born Greek army officer. The coup gave Ankara all the reasons it ever needed to launch Operation Attila, which came five days later.
About 650 officers in the 15,000- strong Greek Cypriot National Guard were professional soldiers from the junta’s Greece. Their passion for enosis was rejected by those Makarios supporters who preferred a Cyprus that was a world away from the weird fascists then ruling democracy’s birthplace. Dissenting conscripts got into trouble. In 1972 Doros Zavallis, Lakis’s youngest brother who had tasted life under the colonels as a law student in Athens, returned to Cyprus to do his national service. When he was overheard criticising a speech made by an officer, warning them they should be ready to intervene if Makarios took a wrong turn, he was accused of being a communist, given 20 days’ detention and sent to a remote coastal outpost monitoring a Turkish enclave.
These enclaves were guarded by the Turkish Cypriots’ own militia, established during a period of inter-communal reciprocal slaughter between 1963 and 1967. Enosis was anathema to them. Their own extremists responded with another single-word slogan: taksim. It meant partition.
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