There’s only a handful of war veterans left in Cyprus. THEO PANAYIDES meets one whose whole life has been a fight for his ideology
“I was born on the 20th of September, 1919,” intones Christos Kourtellaris. “A year after the end of the war – the First World War – and about a year and a half after the October Socialist Revolution.” I’m not sure what to expect when I ring the doorbell of the house at the end of a cul-de-sac in the Nicosia suburb of Ayios Dometios. A live-in maid? An old gent in a wheelchair? But the small, 95-year-old man answers the door himself, a flat cap covering his bald head, and leads me to a ramshackle study crammed with books, old papers and a stack of shoeboxes holding who-knows-what memories.
This is where the full significance of his line about the October Revolution becomes apparent. On his desk, next to a magnifying glass for ageing eyes, I note a copy of Haravgi, the official mouthpiece of Communist party AKEL. On the shelf behind him – across from the list of “phone numbers for emergencies”, and photos of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren – is Vladimir Lenin himself, gazing out with his usual truculence; on another shelf, at right angles to Lenin, is Che Guevara. Outside the study, in the front room of the house, are plaques from grateful organisations (Christos is a lifelong “volunteer”, having devoted his time to various projects and worthy causes) – and of course they include AKEL, thanking Comrade Kourtellaris for his “contribution”. The plaque is dated 1989, having presumably been presented on the occasion of his 70th birthday.
There’s another 70th birthday coming up soon. Next year marks 70 years since the end of the Second World War – and Christos fought in that war, being one of our handful of surviving veterans. A few months ago he published a book about his experiences, Skorpies Selides or ‘Scattered Pages’, subtitled ‘From the Memory Diaries of a WWII Volunteer’; he volunteered in June 1943, just a few days after AKEL urged its members, through an official party proclamation, to enlist en masse and fight Fascism. The young Christos had already been a member for three years, having previously joined the Garment Workers’ Union (he was trained as a cobbler) at the age of 18.
All this is important, because Christos Kourtellaris doesn’t view WWII as a war between different nations; he views it as a war between different – and competing – ideologies, part of the 20th-century (and even 21st-century) battle of Left vs. Right. More to the point, he doesn’t view WWII as an aberration in his own life, a short and necessary interlude when he risked life and limb for his country before going back to the joys of peacetime. Instead, he views it as part of one endless project, another verse in the song he’s been singing all his life. ‘How did you feel when you enlisted?’ I ask at one point. After all, the decision to volunteer wasn’t really his. He was answering a call, following an order. What was going through his mind?
He seems mildly startled by the question; his voice is low and initially clear, though it gets a bit slurred as he starts to get tired. “Well,” he replies, “I was – how can I put it? – my consciousness was raised. Because I’d lived through poverty, you know. I’d grown up in the village, then we had the crisis [i.e. the Depression]. My father wanted to educate me, make me a doctor or a lawyer and so on – but when the time came and I finished primary school, he couldn’t do it”. The family already had one son in high school (Christos was the fourth of five kids), and couldn’t afford another one. That may seem unconnected to the fields of Italy where he later fought the Nazis, but in fact it’s all one thing – the fat cats who fomented the Depression being as much enemies of Communism as Hitler and his cronies. Like he says, his “consciousness was raised” long before he picked up a gun to fight Fascists.
The fact that he wasn’t educated – that he never became a doctor or a lawyer – clearly rankles, even now (he mentions it twice in our conversation). He seems to have been a very bright child; his father used to say that Christos’ tongue was like a “velidari”, an archaic word whose meaning isn’t clear (he assumes it meant ‘very sharp’). His own words are also archaic sometimes, as befits his 95 years – as when he mentions a “saraklos”, the contraption used by farmers in the old days to flatten a field before sowing. A flat, heavy board was tied to a team of horses and dragged across the field, with farmhands lying on the board to hold it in place and make sure it was flat. That’s how Christos and his fellow soldiers transported the corpse of their commanding officer – a man from Southern Rhodesia – after he crouched down instead of lying flat on the battlefield and was killed where he crouched, his troops later dragging his body across the fields below Monte Cassino on an improvised ‘saraklos’.
That’s one of his war stories, though he doesn’t seem to have all that many; actual front-line combat only takes up seven pages (out of 150) in his new book. It’s also notable that many of the stories underline his own cool-headed composure, like the one where his platoon refused to get drinking water from a river where the body of a German soldier had been found floating. “I’d rather die, but I won’t drink any water that had a German’s corpse in it,” said another soldier; “I’ll drink it, and I don’t care,” replied Christos calmly. Then there’s the tale of the Turkish Cypriot corporal who succumbed to a full-blown panic attack as the company was making its way up Monte Cassino, running a gauntlet of mortar fire and trying to keep as quiet as possible. Christos approached him, offered to take over his duties and calmed him down. “Aren’t you scared?” asked the corporal. “We’re at war,” he replied imperturbably. “And war means death, it means danger and destruction.”
Wasn’t he scared of those things, though?
“That’s not the point,” he tells me. “Yes, I was scared – I didn’t have a death wish. But the point is knowing that war is like that. And once you know, you’re prepared for it.” Other men might thank the Almighty for helping them survive; Christos – whose opinion of the Church seems rather low, judging by a story he tells of an indolent priest he encountered as a schoolboy – prefers to credit himself. “At the front, if you look at things calmly, when a shot comes out of a cannon you can see where it’s coming from, and take protective measures,” he explains. One can easily imagine him being ruthless, if he had to be. What he said to that panic-stricken corporal had a clear implication, he admits without rancour: “Shut up, or we’ll shut you up”.
Above all, war for Christos was a continuation of the class struggle by other means. His most startling stories come from the end of his tour, when the war was winding down. The Allied troops included soldiers from Poland, some of whom were staunch anti-Communists – and the Poles targeted the AKEL volunteers, killing dozens (around 40 of our Cypriot casualties were actually murdered by supposed allies, he claims). Then came VE Day, but the British colonial masters – who were busy “organising the Greek civil war” and “bathing Athens in blood” – refused to let the soldiers go home, wanting to keep them as a bulwark against post-war unrest. “We said ‘But we’re volunteers, you have no right to keep us!’,” he protests. Many were imprisoned, one Cypriot soldier was killed; Christos himself was finally demobbed in May 1946, a full year after the war ended.
It’s all of a piece, the story of his life as he tells it: crushed by capitalism as a child, victimised during his WWII experience – then his post-war life, founding Onisia (the first collective farm in Cyprus) and being arrested along with dozens of others when the British declared AKEL illegal in 1955. Talking to Christos, it’s easy to see why the party continues to exert such a hold over so many Cypriots, especially older Cypriots; there’s a real, inextricable history of defiance against oppression mixed in with its ideology. His allegiance to AKEL is unwavering – he served as its MP for two decades, 1970-1991 – indeed we end up having a slight problem because whenever I use the respectful plural ‘you’ he thinks I’m talking about his comrades (his daughter suggests I use the more informal singular ‘you’, but I can’t bring myself to do that with a 95-year-old man), making for exchanges like the following:
“What’s your secret with people?”
“Our secret is that we respected, and continue to respect, all people, irrespective of race, colour, gender or country…”
What is his secret with people? Christos Kourtellaris gives the impression – even now, in old age – of always having been a leader. You can chart the progression, from the clever boy with the ready tongue to the soldier keeping his head when all about him were losing theirs, to the long-serving politician and now, finally, the distinguished old man with a front room full of plaques commemorating his achievements. “Only if Kourtellaris is a candidate does the Left have any chance of winning a seat,” someone apparently said during his political days, though Christos disclaims any ambition of his own (“I didn’t want to be an MP, they asked me to be an MP”). “Ever since I was a child, I was the inquiring type,” he says when requested to describe himself. “I was always an optimist, and always a volunteer.” He’s always read voraciously, and wrote comment-pieces in the newspaper (Haravgi, I presume) till quite recently. He never really had any hobbies.
He’s the folksy type, the type to greet you with an old Cypriot saying. He loves old Cypriot sayings so much that his son Kypros actually compiled them in a book some time ago, asking his dad to list all the sayings he knows along with their explanations (I’ve seen the book; it runs to hundreds of pages). He’s always tried hard to be a man of the people. “When I used to speak in Parliament, a man from the Ministry of Finance asked me: ‘Mr Kourtellaris, why do you speak so colloquially?’. I said: ‘I want people to listen to me and understand what I’m saying’.” He seems to have enjoyed life as an MP, solving problems, listening to the woes and gripes of plain-spoken villagers worried about permits and licences.
He’s a villager too (born and raised in Ergates, near Nicosia) – and a man of the people, or at least the People. At 95, he doesn’t seem to have any doubts or regrets, at least when it comes to ideology – or indeed WWII. “Today the new world order is trying to pervert History,” he writes in his preface to Scattered Pages, warning against any attempt to diminish the Soviet Union’s role in the fight against Fascism.
He still follows current affairs (he mentions the recent comet probe landing), and still fears the spectre of capitalism: “Unfortunately this system, the global economic system, is the source of all our evils,” says Christos Kourtellaris sadly. “As long as this system exists, we’ll have crises, poverty, hunger, unemployment… Because some people think they’ll take their money with them, so they step all over others [in order to make it] – whereas, in the end, all of us leave this world the way we came into it”. Not for a while yet, we hope.