By Zoe Christodoulides
AN ENGLISH couple with no Cypriot blood carrying an official refugee card after the 1974 invasion is practically unheard of. That the English couple actually chose voluntarily to live in refugee camps for a whole year is even more of a rarity. But Peter and May Moore did just that.
Their unusual and inspiring tale of days spent at a Kolossi refugee camp has recently sprung to life in the pages of a book aptly named Days We Have Seen with a parallel exhibition that has opened up at the 6×6 Centre for Photography in Limassol.
Showcasing 25 vivid black and white pictures from the time, each has a poignant tale to tell. Some show mothers holding pictures of missing relatives, others depict happier moments from sporting events and youth clubs, while many are of children grinning despite the bleak backdrop.
But how did a British husband and wife end up living in a Cyprus camp? The moving story is one that begins in 1972, when Peter, his wife, and two year old boy first arrived on the island in search of sunshine and a relaxed Mediterranean lifestyle. They set up base in Famagusta where Peter taught art at the FamagustaGrammar School. The new experience, however, was cut short by the Turkish invasion.
“We went to the British bases just like everyone else at that point and thought that we’d get to go back to Famagusta within a few days,” the now 69-year-old recalls. “Of course, that wasn’t the case, and we were evacuated back to the UK. But we resented leaving. We felt an affinity with Cyprus and didn’t want to abandon it.”
Back in the UK, Peter found a well-paid job in a London Public Relations company as a graphic designer, but both he and his wife both could not stop yearning for Cyprus. Following a four month stint in London, the couple decided to do what many people deemed as sheer madness- return to set up base on a war torn island.
“I had made enough money to survive in Cyprus for about a year without any work,” explains Peter. “I know that most people thought we should have stayed away at that point. It was hard to explain to anyone why we were going back so soon, but Cyprus was calling. Our friends were still on the island and in trouble. We simply wanted to go back.”
A train ride across Europe ensued, and before long, the family was riding against the current on board a boat from Athens to Limassol. “There was hardly anyone on the boat inward while the boats leaving Limassol were absolutely packed,” remembers Peter.
Once on dry land, they made their way to officially register as refugees and volunteer their services. “We basically said to the authorities: ‘Hello we’re here to help, what can we do?’ and quite surprisingly they didn’t just look at us oddly. After all, we were in a sense outsiders who spoke no Greek.”
Soon enough, the couple were asked to go down and engage in volunteer work (arts, crafts and English lessons) at the Kolossi camp, giving up their rented accommodation in Limassol, and setting up base at the camp just before Christmas of 1974.
“We were both in agreement that we wanted to be as close to the people as possible,” Peter explains.
But it certainly can’t be overlooked that a British family in a Cypriot camp was an oddity to say the least, and a certain hostility was to be expected at first. While the refugees were initially guarded however, the family gradually became accepted in the community.
“This level of acceptance was truly astonishing,” says Peter. “We didn’t speak much Greek at all, but at the end of the day, people differentiated between the English person and the British government. It came down to a human level; in the end we are human beings.”
The experience was one that was filled with highs and lows, vivid memories that will never be forgotten which are now recalled on the pages of Peter’s book.
“It certainly wasn’t a picnic but people were strong and tough and they managed to survive. There were some truly heart-breaking things that we saw, but I didn’t want to write a book just about the sadness, sorrow, weeping and tearing of hair. Instead, I wanted to show a balanced picture and the triumphant human spirit that came through.”
In fact, the couple look back on the period as being one of the happiest of their lives, primarily because of what they learnt about life, overcoming hardship and the solidarity between ordinary people.
While at the camp, Peter gave the refugees a chance to unleash their creativity, and by the end of it, over 35,000 imitation icons consisting of paper on wood had been created which were eventually sold locally and overseas, raising funds for the displaced community. But more than just an artist or craftsman, Peter soon became known as a brilliant photographer.
With a great desire to record daily life, he bought a cheap Russian Lubitel II twin lens reflex camera that ended up producing great quality shots.
“I took snapshots around the camp, stuck them on card, and put them on the back of the communal kitchen door,” Peter says. “People saw them and really wanted copies and I eventually came to be known as the camp photographer of sorts. It turned into a great Sunday morning ritual; families would book appointments with me for portrait shots and I’d go round to each of their tents in turn.”
At the Limassol gallery today, visitors can catch a glimpse of two rather different types of images. There are the casual snapshots of daily life, juxtaposed with more formal pictures where families are dressed in their Sunday best, posing for the camera.
One photo shows a man who created a lawn around his tent, complete with a bamboo fence. Another depicts a group from the same village next to a sign they have erected showing their village name, Vatili.
“They took great care of their space: they planted things, they had old tins that they put flowers in, anything that was clearly identified as theirs was immaculately kept. They were amazing people,” says Peter.
Despite the evident inner strength that people carried with them, the horror of what had happened was evident. “I remember feeling utterly heartbroken when I took a picture of two little children holding up a picture of their missing father,” Peter recalls. “It was a time of great contrast. There were times of howling and times when we all laughed and laughed.”
While the good and bad memories from the year spent at the camp will never be forgotten, Peter decided to put pen to paper a few years ago when he discovered the negatives of the pictures he had taken that he thought had long been lost. Local photographer Vassos Stylianou then helped him bring the photos to life, now brilliantly showcased on the walls of the Limassol 6×6 Centre.
While life after the 1974 camp experience has seen Peter and his wife travel back and forth between the UK and Cyprus, they have now officially retired in Paphos.
“This country is so special to us both and that whole experience enriched our lives enormously, I get emotional just thinking about it.”
And does he have any regrets from his whole experience? “None whatsoever,” he insists. “It showed us, more than anything, that you don’t need many material goods to be happy: human relationships are most important. My only regret right now that is that these refugees still can’t go back to their homes.”
An exhibition of 25 black and white photos taken by Peter Moorecapturing the everyday life of the refugees at Kolossi refugee camp during 1974-75. Peter’s book is available for sale in English and Greek for €9.90.The exhibition will remain open until December 14 at6x6 Centre for Photography, 19 Ipeirou street in Limassol (parallel to Anexartisias street), open daily from 9am-18pm and on Saturdays from 10am-1pm.www.centreforphotography6x6.com, [email protected] Tel: 25354810