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1963 is still a historical minefield

1963 is still a historical minefield First checkpoint at the Ledra Palace Hotel in early 1964

By Elias Hazou

THE FANATICS won: that’s the view shared by a growing number of modern historians and researchers on the outbreak of inter-communal violence on the island exactly 50 years ago.

Mutual distrust was aided and abetted by false-flag operations and disinformation on both sides. Perhaps the only ingredient missing was the spark to light the powder keg, and that came on December 21 1963.

A historical analysis of the period both before, during and right after is like navigating a minefield.
The dominant narrative on the Greek Cypriot side has been that in 1963 the Turkish Cypriots mounted an insurrection, effectively seceding/withdrawing from the Republic which they sought to undermine.

The Turkish Cypriot official narrative holds that the Greeks, the majority, never regarded them as equal partners and provoked the conflict by attempting to scrap the 1960 Constitution: they were the victims reacting to the violence initiated by the Greeks.

Greek Cypriot fighters in Limassol

Greek Cypriot fighters in Limassol

Tensions between the two communities in administrative affairs began to show in the immediate aftermath of the Republic’s establishment.

Disputes over separate municipalities and taxation created a deadlock in government. A constitutional court ruled in 1963 that Archbishop Makarios had failed to uphold article 173 of the constitution which called for the establishment of separate municipalities for Turkish Cypriots.

Makarios subsequently declared his intention to ignore the judgement.

He then proposed 13 amendments to the constitution. Under the proposals, the president and vice president would lose their veto, the separate municipalities as sought after by the Turkish Cypriots would be abandoned, the need for separate majorities by both communities in passing legislation would be discarded and the civil service contribution would be set at actual population ratios (82:18) instead of the slightly higher figure for Turkish Cypriots.

The ‘Akritas’ plan, drafted at the height of the constitutional dispute by the Greek Cypriot Interior Minister Polycarpos Yiorkadjis, called for the removal of undesirable elements of the constitution so as to allow power-sharing to work.

The plan stipulated an organised attack on Turkish Cypriots should they show signs of resistance to the measures, stating: “In the event of a planned or staged Turkish attack, it is imperative to overcome it by force in the shortest possible time, because if we succeed in gaining command of the situation (in one or two days), no outside intervention would be either justified or possible.”

Turkish Cypriot fighters in Limassol in early 1964

Turkish Cypriot fighters in Limassol in early 1964

The trigger came in December 1963, which has come to be known as ‘Bloody Christmas’. On December 21, a Greek Cypriot police patrol, ostensibly checking identification documents, stopped a Turkish Cypriot couple on the edge of the Turkish quarter in Nicosia. A hostile crowd gathered, shots were fired, and two Turkish Cypriots were killed.

On the same day, armed Turkish Cypriots from the paramilitary TMT (Turkish Resistance Organisation) clashed with Greek Cypriots loyal to Yiorkadjis. The conflict escalated fast and spread from Nicosia to Larnaca, Famagusta, Limassol, Paphos and Kyrenia.

On December 24 alone, 31 Turkish Cypriots and five Greek Cypriots were killed. There were attacks on Omorphita, Kumsal, Kaimakli and other parts of the capital, as well as nearby villages.

Newspapers at the time reported the forceful exodus of the Turkish Cypriots from their homes in the days and weeks that followed. According to the Times, threats, shootings and attempts of arson were committed against the Turkish Cypriots to force them out of their homes.

British soldiers were brought in on December 27 1963, ahead of the UN peacekeeping force UNFICYP in March 1964

British soldiers were brought in on December 27 1963, ahead of the UN peacekeeping force UNFICYP in March 1964

Fearing a Turkish invasion, Makarios agreed to a British proposal for troops from the British bases to deploy between the two sides. The first British soldiers from this truce force went on patrol in Nicosia on December 27, immediately trying to supervise a ceasefire. Under their supervision, 545 Turkish Cypriot hostages were exchanged for 26 Greek Cypriots.

In April 1964 Turkish Cypriots established a bridgehead at Kokkina, in the Tylliria region north of the island, providing them with arms, volunteers and materials from Turkey and abroad. Seeing this incursion of foreign weapons and troops as a major threat, the Cypriot government invited EOKA leader George Grivas to return from Greece as commander of the Greek troops on the island and launch an attack on the bridgehead. Turkey retaliated by dispatching its fighter jets to bomb Greek positions.

The threat of a Turkish military escalation and a resolution of the United Nations Security Council calling for a ceasefire ended the standoff. The UN peacekeeping force, UNFICYP was established in Cyprus in March 1964, mainly comprising troops from the British truce force. Few could have imagined then that UNFICYP would still be present today, half a century later.

Political commentator and columnist Loucas Charalambous was a teenager at the time; he recalls how preparations for an armed conflict were underway long before December 1963.
“Weeks before, our teachers would come to school and speak to us, rather excitedly, about a ‘struggle’ that was imminent. Some of them even bore side arms,” he told the Sunday Mail.

Greek Cypriots being evacuated from predominantly Turkish Cypriot neighbourhoods

Greek Cypriots being evacuated from predominantly Turkish Cypriot neighbourhoods

Charalambous personally witnessed military exercises taking place by paramilitaries months prior to the outbreak of hostilities.

“In the afternoons, we’d play football near a house, and then these armed men showed up, kicked us out and started training.”

It turned out that the site, located next to the Presidential Palace no less, ended up becoming the headquarters of the ‘Akritas’ organisation.

Charalambous also remembers seeing sandbags being filled in the days before December 21 near what came to be known as the ‘Green Line’ in Nicosia.

“Greek Cypriot policemen used to get off work early in the afternoons, which was rather curious. It was obvious that they were going off to do training. The Turkish Cypriot members of the police of course did not fail to take note of this and knew something was brewing,” he said.

“By the following morning (December 22) barricades and roadblocks had been erected almost across the length of the entire Green Line. It can only mean that both sides had been preparing.”

Research produced by Canadian scholar Richard Patrick in the 1970s is considered among the most authoritative accounts of the period.

Patrick was an officer in UNFICYP in the late 1960s and pursued his interest in the Cyprus conflict as a doctoral student in political geography at the London School of Economics. This research was published as ‘Political Geography and the Cyprus Conflict, 1963-1971.’

Women and children being evacuated from the Turkish village of Ayios Sozomenos

Women and children being evacuated from the Turkish village of Ayios Sozomenos

Summarising his findings, Patrick wrote: “The general trends of the December 1963 – August 1964 period are clear. . . Decisions were made to implement the conflicting ideas of enosis [union with Greece] and taksim [partition] by various coercive movements. Violence induced a refugee movement which altered existing demographic fields.”

Subsequently a Turkish Cypriot civil and military administration was developed to govern the Turkish Cypriots and the land they held, he said.

“The result was the de facto partition of the Republic of Cyprus.”

From his research, Patrick argued that most Turkish Cypriots moved only after Turkish Cypriots had been killed, abducted or harassed by Greek Cypriots within their village or quarter.

“Most refugees expected to return to their homes within a few months at the most, and it was this assumption of an early return that facilitated their departure in the first place,” he said.

These findings cast doubt on the argument that the Turkish Cypriot gathering into enclaves was a calculated move by hardline Turkish politicians wanting ethnic segregation.

Patrick goes on to note: “Any official administrative organisation to direct refugee movements was not established until the bulk of the refugees had already moved on their own initiative.”

The researcher also makes this interesting point: “In any case, by August 1964, the abandoned homes were looted…Neither community had the resources to rebuild the houses, to purchase new farming equipment or to provide resettlement grants. The side that undertook such indemnities would also be tacitly admitting to a degree of responsibility in the creation of the refugee problem, and that neither community was prepared to do.”

Opinions vary on whether the conflict could have been avoided. Costas M Constantinou, professor of international relations at the University of Cyprus, believes it could have been.

The barricades go up at the bottom of Ledra Street at end of 1963

The barricades go up at the bottom of Ledra Street at end of 1963

“I don’t consider that the 1963 troubles were inevitable, though one would certainly expect that those who remained committed to either enosis or taksim, even after the advent of independence, would have found an opportunity to prove the dysfunctionality of the Republic, one way or another, and to use it as a pretext to legitimise their opposing political aspirations.”

The segregation that followed the forceful movement of the Turkish Cypriots into enclaves in 1963-64 had tremendous implications and created a paradoxical alliance between Greek and Turkish nationalisms, he said.

“For the Greek nationalists, the withdrawal of the Turkish Cypriots from the government allowed them to rule the bi-communal Republic mono-communally under the law of necessity, something that politically marginalised the Turkish Cypriots and put them under considerable social and economic pressure,” he said.

“For the Turkish nationalists, the enclave period was a great opportunity to build a separate system of governance that would progressively create the rationale for an ethnically-based territorial division of the island when conditions allowed, as they did in 1974.”

Assessing those explosive times, Yiannis Papadakis, a social anthropologist with the University of Cyprus, says:
“In Turkish Cypriot collective memory, 1963 stands for the major collective trauma, as does 1974 for Greek Cypriots. Turkish Cypriots annually, and officially, commemorate 1963 as ‘Kanli Noel’ (Bloody
Christmas) for which Greek Cypriots have no official commemoration.

1974 is officially commemorated differently by the two sides with Greek Cypriots placing the greatest emphasis as ‘the dark anniversaries of the coup and the invasion’, while for Turkish Cypriots it stands for the ‘Happy Peace Operation’.”

Dr Meltem Onurkan Samani, assistant professor of History at the European University of Lefke, and vice-president of the Association for Historical Dialogue and Research (AHDR), thinks that neither side was disposed toward compromise.

“It was obvious that both leaderships had shared the opinion that the 1960 state would not last forever and they had decided to be ready for the day.

The spot in Nicosia where two Turkish Cypriots were killed on December 21, 1963

The spot in Nicosia where two Turkish Cypriots were killed on December 21, 1963

Goodwill was missing from the very beginning,” she said “The 1960 constitution was the one that required goodwill, interdependency, good cooperation and dialogue and trust between two communities of Cyprus. On the contrary, unfortunately both sides’ leaderships did their best to create mistrust between the communities in order to prove that the 1960 settlement was not working and that the guilty party was ‘the other side’.”

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