Can Europe Make It?

On remembering and forgetting: reflections on the long summer of '74 in Cyprus

Though I was born two years after the ominous summer of '74, my life has been defined by Turkey’s military operation, division and the agony of that long summer. A country so traumatized and marked with heart-wrenching memories, could not but produce children as scarred as itself.

Umut Bozkurt
20 July 2014
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The town of Kyrenia on Cyprus' northern coast. Demotix/Art Widak. All rights reserved.

I was born two years after the ominous summer of 1974. I was lucky enough not to have experienced what my fellow Cypriots went through, and how they fell to the darkest recesses of human capability: death, terror, revenge killings, rape of underage girls reigned the day. Yet, just like other Cypriots, my life was defined by Turkey’s military operation, division and the agony of that long summer. It could not be the opposite. A country so traumatized and marked with heart-wrenching memories, could not but produce children as scarred as itself.

My name means hope in English. In Greek it is “Elpida”. I have always been very fond of my name. Yet I feel a little uneasy when I think of how my name links me to that long, ominous summer of 1974. It was given to me after the famous motto of the day amongst Turkish Cypriots: “Umudumuz Ecevit” (our hope is Ecevit).

My family has never been a nationalist family. Yet their choice of a name for their newborn child reflected the feeling that was peculiar to most of the Turkish Cypriots at the time. That is why, in defining the events of 1974, I will use Turkey’s military operation rather than occupation or invasion. All my life I felt the need to distance myself from the official Turkish Cypriot narrative of the Cyprus conflict. Yet I feel the same about the official Greek Cypriot narrative that starts the entire story with Turkey’s “occupation” in 1974 as if there were no issues before. I believe that this narrative is also one-sided as it does not reflect the experience of Turkish Cypriots. Of course, it goes without saying that I do not represent the singular voice of Turkish Cypriots, as such a thing does not exist. As someone who feels that her life experience is shaped by the conflict and division in her homeland, I just feel like conveying my observations and thoughts, and that is why this article is written.

So, how can a prime minister that initiated a military operation that has caused so much misery for Greek Cypriots be hailed as a hero? I believe this can not be understood unless we talk about the difficulties experienced by the Turkish Cypriots in the years 1963-1974. As is well known, the bicommunal Republic of Cyprus (RoC) that was established in 1960 and whose sovereignity was guaranteed by three guarantor powers - Britain, Turkey and Greece - could only exist until 1964. Since the mid 1950s, nationalism reigned in both communities and it was difficult for this young republic to bear these pressures.

Intercommunal conflict that started at the end of 1963 and continued in 1964 led to a withdrawal of Turkish Cypriots from the RoC. From 1964 to 1974, most Turkish Cypriots were cramped in scattered enclaves (comprising only two-to-three percent of the island’s territory) under a parallel administration of their own. Until 1968, a harsh economic blockade was imposed on these areas by the Greek Cypriots. Turkish Cypriot civil servants and political leaders who had withdrawn from the RoC reorganized social life in the enclaves as a “state within-a-state”.

In this period, the Greek-Cypriot power elite conquered the bicommunal state and declared Turkish-Cypriots to be rebels, stripping away many of the rights and privileges given to them by the 1960 constitution. Meanwhile, the Turkish Cypriot nationalist elites imposed a siege mentality on the enclaves they controlled and silenced those members of the Turkish Cypriot community who insisted on intercommunal cooperation.

After 1964, many members of the Turkish Cypriot community had to leave their home behind and live in settlements where dire conditions prevailed. My own family also suffered their own fair share. My mother comes from the mixed village of Lapethos, near Kyrenia. My grandmother still fondly reminisces about her Greek Cypriot neighbours. She tells how Greek Cypriot women and Turkish Cypriot women of the village would work together on the farms and houses, helping each other out in harvesting, cooking and taking care of children. She recalls, with a broad smile, her neighbour Yorgos who started dancing in the street when he heard a Turkish song. Sadly this harmonious relationship would be overshadowed by the rise of militant nationalism in the 1950s. The son-in-law of my grandmother’s neighbour Eleni was killed in the mid 1950s for being a member of AKEL, the Communist Party of Cyprus. Two Turkish Cypriots from Lapethos; Şevket Kadir and İbrahim Nidai went missing on the night of 5 December 1963. Hence, trouble was brewing, and as intercommunal conflicts began to emerge at the end of 1963, the family decided to leave their home and move to Temros which was considered to be more secure.

The years between 1964 and 1974 were very difficult. In the first two years, the family could not live under one roof. My mother had to stay in a tent with her parents in Temros while her three younger siblings had been sent to Ipsillat to live with relatives. Then after 1964 for about two years, the family lived in the house of my grandfather’s brother in Nicosia. My mother recalls how four families had to live under one roof and eight people slept in one room. The situation went on until 1966 when my mother’s family finally moved to Gönyeli where they started to stay in relatively better conditions - a small house made of sun-dried bricks covered with a zinc roof. It was not only the dire conditions in terms of housing, infrastructure, hygiene that turned their lives into a nightmare. Most of the 493 Turkish Cypriot missing persons had disappeared in this period and that is why fear was reigning all the time.

Hence, it was thanks to these circumstances that most Turkish Cypriots greeted the 1974 military operation with jubilation and relief and - apart from few graceful exceptions - turned a blind eye to the suffering of the Greek Cypriots. I believe until after 2003, a collective (selective) amnesia prevailed in the Turkish Cypriot community where the traumatic experiences of the Greek Cypriots were not really discussed, at least in public. The anniversaries of 20 July would be commemorated in a militaristic fashion with parades and long, dull speeches that expressed gratitude to the “motherland”.  Yet what was repressed, returned in the most disturbing ways. I heard many stories of men who either lost their minds or were continously haunted by the Greek Cypriots they killed. “I can not forget their faces” said one of these poor souls.

The other demonising and self-victimising narratives that prevailed for the most part in the post-1974 context started to be challenged after 2003 with the opening of checkpoints that enabled more contact between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots. For a number of years, journalists Sevgül Uludağ and Andreas Paraschos have been publishing story after story of perpetrator and witness confessions about locations of graves of the missing persons, or stories of violence. After 2003, such efforts gained further momentum as film-makers Tony Angastiniotis, Panicos Chrysanthou, Derviş Zaim as well as other journalists focused their work on the theme of conflicting stories about the violence of the past. A small number of NGOs, including the Bicommunal Initiative of Relatives of Missing Persons and Victims of War - an association of survivors and victims of the conflict which incorporates both Turkish and Greek Cypriots - have also contributed to this process. These efforts are very important for creating a public debate on what happened in the past, and challenging hegemonic narratives about blame and victimhood that have gone unquestioned for a full generation.

Meanwhile, the relations between Turkey and Turkish Cypriots increasingly turned sour. Today, increasing numbers of Turkish Cypriots are critical of Turkey for creating an unrecognized state in the North that is dependent on Turkey in political and financial terms. Turkey used the Treaty of Guarantees as a pretext in its operation in 1974, with an aim to reconstitute the constitutional order that was undermined at gunpoint. Instead, it encouraged the formation of a seperate statelet and paved the way to the partition of the island. Today Cyprus is again in the midst of peace negotiations. For more than forty years, these negotiations have been carried out by elites behind close doors. Yet the incompetence of all those past elites to provide a just and viable solution to the Cyprus issue tells us that peace shall not be left to political elites and civil society organizations in both sides need to get mobilized in order to raise solidarity and fraternity between the two communities and ultimately to unite the island. This might not be an easy goal, but it is definitely a goal worth fighting for.

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