By Angelos Anastasiou
SOME 25,000 soldiers served at least one stint as peacekeepers in the Canadian contingent of UNFICYP – the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in Cyprus or ‘blue berets’ – from 1964 to 1993, when the country reassigned all but a handful of its force to ‘hotter’ areas in the giant chessboard that is global conflict. Twenty-eight of them died here.
Fifty years on, and ten of those soldiers came back this week, this time as guests of honour in a series of events commemorating UNFICYP’s 50th anniversary and the role Canada played in keeping the peace here.
These men exuded pride and perhaps a little bewilderment. They seemed to have some understanding of the importance of their mission in Cyprus, but, much like any soldier embroiled in any armed conflict, their time in the island was not without those ‘What-am-I-doing-here?’ moments.
“I had met this lady here, and she said to me ‘You left your family at the age of 22 to make a great sacrifice’ – but to me it was just a job, and that was the first time I’d ever seen it like that,” says Kevin Hollahan, stationed at the Nicosia Airport in 1970.
Hollahan had left his wife of two years and his infant daughter – “she’s forty-five now!” – behind to travel to a tiny island ten thousand kilometres east that was plagued by intercommunal strife in order to drive the local Canadian paymaster around.
“I remember people here were very friendly, life was good,” he says of his term in Cyprus. “But the loneliness was the worst bit – I wrote letters home every day.”
But in talking to these soldiers, a pattern of disconnect emerges. Perhaps due to the peacekeeping neutral ethos, these veteran blue-berets aren’t particularly familiar with the minutiae of their mission – or maybe they are especially wily about keeping out of contentious areas.
Hollahan said he didn’t see armed conflict in Cyprus, nor did he witness acts of aggression between the two communities. His experience of the Cyprus problem was mainly professional and only tangentially personal.
“There was this one time that someone spoke of two civil servants, one Greek Cypriot and one Turkish Cypriot – but he was cut off by a blue beret, who said ‘no, they are both Cypriots’,” he remembers which sounds a lot like a romanticised snippet out of a horror movie.
Paul Greensides, another Cyprus veteran, offers a similar take. In 1966 he was assigned a communications post in the Kyrenia pass. He, too, remembers his time here fondly, the people pleasant and amiable, the life simple but gratifying.
“I enjoyed it here because I had the chance to visit Israel, the Holy Land,” Greensides says.
Again, the Canadian peacekeeper described his contact with the Cyprus problem – and even the two communities – as “indirect”. He recalls a “favourable” political climate at the time, in the sense that the two sides were at least talking to each other, but his recollection quickly transforms into an optimistic soliloquy.
“I hear that they’re going back to the table again. Well, let’s hope they make it to the end this time, because it’s been fifty years,” he says with a rising ‘oh-my’ inflection on the last two words, possibly an unintended signal of his realisation of the elapsed time.
At the event where the soldiers had gathered – the official opening of the Canadian peacekeeping exhibition in Nicosia – one man seemed incongruous.
He looked Cypriot but was neither a dignitary nor a government delegate, though he acted like one. He was a tall, dark man who appeared more at ease around the Canadian visitors, though he addressed them with obvious reverence, than any of the hosts.
Solving the mystery didn’t take very long. Pavlos Marouchos emigrated to Canada out of school in search of a better future and landed a job with Pirelli.
He returned to Cyprus on July 12, 1974, a Friday, and on Monday the 15th, he set off to the commerce industry to submit his academic credentials in order to get a job. He was about to enter the building when the first gunshots were fired at the Presidential Palace.
Marouchos left Nicosia and was at his parents’ home in Morfou by the afternoon, but it didn’t take much longer for news of the trouble in Cyprus to reach Canada and the rest of the world.
His former boss at Pirelli instantly realised he had one of his own in the eye of the storm and called the Canadian ministry of foreign affairs, which in turn notified the Tel Aviv consulate – then also covering Cyprus. Within minutes, the name ‘Marouchos’ had travelled halfway around the world.
“By chance, someone from the consulate was in Cyprus, staying at the Hilton in Nicosia,” Marouchos says.
The consulate managed to phone his parents’ house in Morphou to check that Marouchos was all right, but he had already been conscripted into the National Guard and did not get the message until after the ceasefire for the first stage of the Turkish invasion on July 22, 1974.
“As soon as I got the message, I travelled to Nicosia and met with him,” he says.
“He was the nicest man, it was almost bewildering,” Marouchos says of the man who was determined to keep the young Greek Cypriot safe.
When Marouchos told the man that he had been drafted to the army, the consular clerk gave him his phone number and implored him to keep regular contact.
“And we did stay in touch, we spoke every two or three days, if only to say good morning. He just wanted to know that I was OK,” he says.
The second leg of the Turkish invasion on August 14 had found Marouchos transferred to Platania, Troodos. His family had become destitute, at the mercy of charity and divine provenance. He was out of reach by telephone and had lost contact with his new friend, who – unbeknownst to Marouchos – had been looking for him frantically.
The next time they spoke, a few days later, the Canadian diplomat’s tone had an unfamiliar urgency. He asked Marouchos when he could be free to travel and was told that he was due to be released from active duty in about a week’s time.
“Then he told me that he’d get me on a flight back to Canada,” Marouchos says. He must have told this story a thousand times, but that pinch of astonishment when he utters these words will probably never dissipate.
On instructions, Marouchos went to the British Sovereign Base Area and gave his name at the gate. He was immediately boarded on to the outgoing Canadian contingent’s flight home, with a stop-over in West Germany. There, an officer approached him to ask what he needed.
“I don’t need anything,” Marouchos replied. “You got me on a plane to Canada, what else could I need?”
In a moment of cinematic release, the officer opened a briefcase full of cash, offered Marouchos some of it – “for travel expenses” – and informed him that his brother had been notified to pick him up at the airport in Canada. Everything went according to plan.
“For years I’ve tried to find a word in the Greek vocabulary strong enough to describe the kindness these people extended to me, and my gratitude towards them,” he says. “It doesn’t exist.”
Marouchos is now a volunteer warden at the Canadian consulate in Cyprus, an informal liaison service aiming to help out anyone facing a predicament similar to his.
“How do you pay that back?” he wonders.