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‘One letter in a name made the difference between life and death’: how Glafcos Clerides saved my life

97 year old Ibrahim Salih Bekir (CNA)

By Georgia Vasiliou

A Turkish Cypriot World War II soldier, serving with the British army, and a Greek Cypriot soldier, both imprisoned in the same German camp. A friendship is born in captivity, as the Greek Cypriot, Glafcos Clerides, who later became President of Cyprus, saves the life of his Turkish Cypriot compatriot, Ibrahim Salih Bekir, whom the Germans mistakenly took for a Jew by the name of Abraham.

Bekir, 97 years old today, in an interview with CNA, reveals his memories about World War II and his friendship with Clerides. He also recounts some other stories when he served at the Central Prisons in Nicosia during the British colonial rule and explains how he met Cypriot resistance fighter Michalakis Karaolis, the first EOKA member to be sentenced to death alongside Andreas Dimitriou on 10 May 1956.

“First we were deployed in Egypt and Libya where we fought against the Italians. After this I went to Greece because the Germans started pushing up in Mount Olympus. We started retreating. From there they pushed us till Kalamata (a coastal Greek town),” he says and describes how their hopes of rescue turned into a nightmare when, instead of the English fleet, German ships appeared on the horizon.

“We were waiting for the English ships to come and take us away. We waited all night. Suddenly we saw lights out at sea and we began cheering. They were German, they surrounded us and took us prisoner,” Bekir said.

He then recounts how they were transferred to Salonica to a temporary prison where he nearly died. Under the guidance of their English officer in command, they decided to attempt an escape through the sewage pipes.

“One night,” Bekir recalls, “a group of us set off, hoping to escape. Fifteen or sixteen managed to escape and ran into nearby woods. Then the General told me `it is your turn`. I went down into the pipe and I was ready to start crawling. Suddenly, we heard machine guns. The Germans discovered the last people coming out of the pipe on the other end and killed them all. Our officer shouted `back-back`. I rushed back”.

Two months later they were transferred to Czechoslovakia, only to be taken later on to what he describes as “the biggest prisoners` camp”, on the borders between Poland and Germany. Some 34,000 prisoners were held there, he says.

“There I met Glafcos Clerides. Being both Cypriots we became friends, very – very good friends. We spent four years together. We shared everything, food, the cigarette butts the Germans were throwing away which we collected from the ground,” he says.

“Glafcos was such a gentleman, without discriminating between Turks or Greeks, he was treating us the same way.”

Bekir, more than seventy years ago
Bekir, more than seventy years ago

“During the day we used to play football and other sports,” in one of the eight teams the prisoners had set up. Bekir played for the Irish team “because there were not many Turks or Greeks to form a team”. Clerides, he explains, did not play. “Glafcos organised a Cypriot volleyball team and we were the champions of the camp. I was the captain and Clerides was playing near me. I was better than him, but anyway…”

Bekir recounts Clerides` attempt to escape together with a Yugoslav fellow prisoner. “Are you coming? Clerides asked me. I said let me think about it. Next morning the Irish football captain came and reminded me about the important match ahead of us. So I told Clerides, look, I promised to play. I can’t leave them. It’s up to you, he said. And he escaped with the Yugoslav friend”.

“Clerides and the Yugoslav walked for nearly 3-4 days in the forest. They were very near Yugoslavia when they got hungry and decided to eat a tin of English corn-beef they had with them. They threw away the empty tin and they continued walking. But a German patrol spotted the tin and they started searching around, till they found and captured them and brought them back to the camp,” he says. “They were so near. They were an hour and a half away from the sea. When they came to the camp again, we were making jokes of course,” Bekir said.

“Time passed. The camp where the Germans were burning the Jews, women, men, and children was nearly 100 yards away from our camp. And we used to watch hundreds of people brought in on lorries”.

That could have become his fate too, had it not been for Clerides he said. One letter in a name made all the difference between Ibrahim and Abraham.

“One day a German officer came to me and said the chief of the camp wanted to see you. Clerides was near me and I said, “Re (You) they want me to go the office”. He asked why, I said I don’t know but I am scared. Are you coming with me?”, because he was in charge more or less of all the Cypriot prisoners. He said “I will come with you, sure”. And we went”.

The Germans told them that being a Jew, as they maintained, he would be detained until further notice. Ibrahim protested, saying “I am not a Jew. They insisted, your name is Abraham. I said, no, I’m not Abraham, I am Ibrahim.”

Then Clerides intervened. “He said he is with the British army, he is not a Jew. They argued and he insisted that I am Turkish and my name is Ibrahim not Abraham. He took me away and saved my life,” Ibrahim Bekir recalls.

“God save his soul, he passed away. He saved my life,” he repeated.

As the end of the war was approaching, the Germans from the camp were sent to the Russian front and were replaced by soldier-boys, 14-15 years of age. Bekir, who describes them as worse than older soldiers, talks about the hatred they showed towards the prisoners, the pushing and the shoving, the biting.

When the war came near to an end, the Germans decided to evacuate the camp because the Russians were ready to advance. Every night around three or four thousand prisoners were taken on foot through the mountains in what proved to be yet another ordeal.

“After three weeks of walking in the mountains I was exhausted, so fed up, no food, and no rest,” Bekir says and describes how he decided to spill hot water on his right leg hoping he would be left behind and transferred to a small camp nearby, where he was told sixteen Cypriots were also being held. And everything went as planned.

“Nearly a week after that, the Allies freed us and I was transferred to Newcastle,” was the final act in Bekir’s days as a prisoner of war.

On arrival he was met by his brother who instead of taking him to their parents’ house at Heroon Square, took him to their sister’s home where they told him the tragic news. “Both my parents had passed away. That was the worst day of my life. I visited their grave at the cemetery and I threw away the presents. And I joined the army because we were so poor and I couldn’t find a job and I wanted to help them. All the years in the army I never received a penny. I asked that my money was sent to my mother”.

Another important chapter in Ibrahim Salih Bekir`s life is connected with Cyprus` history. His English army captain urges him to apply for a job with the prison service.

Those were the years of the EOKA uprising against British colonial rule, in the mid 1950s. There he met Polykarpos Giorgadjis – who later, after Cyprus gained its independence, became Interior Minister – Nicos Sampson, Ourania Kokkinou and Michalakis Karaolis. He describes how he became friends with Giorgadjis and Sampson, who was very young at the time and Bekir arranges that he cleaned his office in order to avoid the much harder work the other prisoners were forced to do.

“In the prison I had some authority as to certain things and Giorgadjis would ask me for an extra visiting card for his family. The rule said one visiting card per month. And I gave him a second. The same thing I used to do for other prisoners also,” he says.

“I also met Karaolis. He was sentenced to death. And they (the British) used to ask him a lot of questions, interrogating him – not by me, I had nothing to do with that. But Karaolis wouldn’t say a word. They told him, if you give us any information you will be free tomorrow. No, no, nothing. I went and met him. And I told him, if you want something, if I can help in anything. Not about his death sentence of course. I had nothing to do with that. But if he needed clothes, a visiting card or things I could help with. Finally, they hanged him,” Bekir remembers.

In 1960 England announced that if any of the people working for the Government in positions like a prison guard, and they were afraid for their life after Cyprus became an independent state, they could put that in writing and they would be given 5,000 pounds. “And I said that I was afraid, that my life was in danger,” Bekir says.

Asked why he thought he was in danger since he had helped people in prison, his answer was short and blunt: “For the money, of course. I wasn’t afraid; all the Greek Cypriots I met became my friends. I lied for the money”.
He sold his house in Limassol for 3,000 pounds and took his family to London. There he worked at the Ministry of Social Security for 30 years, until he retired. (CNA)

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