Cyprus Mail

Relief and frustration greet cut in army service

A mother looks on as her son enters his army camp for the first time

The sudden announcement this week that army service has been slashed from 24 months to 14 took everyone by surprise.

It had long been promised but never delivered, and the response has been a combination of jubilation, relief and anger that it took so long for the pre-election pledges of several presidents to finally be fulfilled.

“Everyone thought it was amazing, everyone is already planning to go out and celebrate,” 18-year-old conscript, Leondios Leondiades, told the Sunday Mail.

The promise of shorter conscription has been dangling over teenage boys and their families for decades. Successive governments going back to Glafcos Clerides, more than 20 years ago, made pre-election promises to reduce conscription.

Demetris Christofias’ government promised to look at reducing army service, but settled for chasing down draft dodgers instead, after a committee set up to investigate the creation of a semi-professional army deemed it unviable.

President Nicos Anastasiades, elected three years ago this month, also pledged to reduce the length of conscription.

On Thursday he finally made good on all those promises when it was announced that from June this year, when the new intake is called up, conscripts will only serve 14 months while the shortfall in men will be made up with 3,000 professional volunteers.

Those, like Leondiades, who were called up in June 2015 will have six months shaved off their service and serve 18 months.

Despite all the years of discussions, in the end the announcement was unexpected, especially for those who were conscripted last year and suddenly have the prospect of six months of unexpected freedom.

“People have been calling me saying the drinks are on them,” said Leondiades.

Whilst those extra months of freedom are most certainly welcome, he pointed out that for his intake at least, it still meant he would miss two full years of university.

But for those who were called up in the summer of 2014, this week’s news is particularly hard. They are still serving and no reprieve has yet been offered to them – they will do the full 24 months.

In years to come their claim to fame will be that they were the very last men to serve 24 months in the national guard, but it provides little solace now.

“I just can’t believe our bad luck,” said Agni Neophytou, mother of a 2014 conscript.

“This is an outrage. They should at least give them a few weeks’ leave before they are discharged. I believe it’s only fair.”

Just one year behind Neophytou’s son is 21-year-old Costas Anastasiou who left the army last summer and is now at university in England.

When he was called up in the summer of 2013, just months after Anastasiades had been elected, he had hoped he would benefit from the president’s election pledge. It was not to be.

“I felt somewhat envious when I heard that the new kids managed to get almost a full year knocked off their service time,” he said.

“I always told myself that if the guys who came in a year after me had to serve less time than I did, I’d get so angry I’d just get up and leave.”

But now that he has finished his stint and gone on to university, he feels more resigned than resentful over missing out on the reduction.

“At this point what can I do about it? I served my time and now I’m free to appreciate life just as everyone else who went through the full 24 months did.”

For Anastasiou the most important thing is that a change that he feels should have happened years ago is finally taking place.

“It’s a nice feeling to know that a country that is infamously backward in infinite ways has made some progress in its policies, albeit doing something that should have been done a very long time ago.”

Even those who wholeheartedly believe that national service is necessary for the country and a positive experience for their sons have welcomed the reduction.

Marios Michael has two sons, one has already finished his army service, his second son, now 16, is to follow in two years’ time.

He said the slashing of the army service “is the best thing the government did”.

“At 18, boys are very immature. Being in the army helps them become more self-sufficient. One year goes by fast. I believe the second year, however, is a complete waste of time,” Michael said.

“It’s excellent news! It’s way more realistic for an 18-year-old to be giving one year of his life,” said Kaiti Sotiriou, who has a 16-year-old son, adding that now it only delays them going to university by one year.

Not all parents felt the reduction was necessary in theory, but incompetence had made it so in practice.

Andros Soteriou’s son was injured during training in the army. It was an injury his parents blamed on army incompetence, and they insisted their son be released from the army early. But this was not what they had wanted. Neither had their son who had taken his call up very seriously.

“I would embrace the idea of national service if competent standards were applied and would support the full 24 months, or more, providing true professionalism, respect and understanding are there. But based on what their programme is all about today then even six months is still a waste of time,” Soteriou said.

“A team is only as good as their leader and their guidance, support, cooperation and understanding. And that’s the issue here. It all starts from the top with these overpaid incompetent time wasters who like to think they are running national service and wasting tax payers’ money.”

For other families the reduction is a case of too little, far too many years too late.

“What were all those boys’ wasted years for?” asked Despina Ioannou. “Making them serve so long was all a pretence at defence and everyone knew it.”

Like Anastasiou, her son was supposed to go in the army in 2013, but the family are still fighting a complicated court case based on Cypriot citizenship and EU law that has so far managed to keep her son out of the army.

Would she have gone that route if presidents had kept to their promises and reduced army service in time to benefit her son?

“Probably not, but to a teenage boy, there is a massive difference between 24 months and 14. Twenty-four months was not right in any modern society, though neither is 14. We had the grounds to fight and we owed it to him to do so.”

If for the vast majority of families and their sons, the service cut is viewed as long overdue, 72-year-old Costas Charalambous is outraged, comparing what he sees as the weakening of Cyprus’ defence to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 which was partially down to the lack of a local army.

“Byzantium was lost when they had to bring in mercenaries to protect it,” he said.


(Some names in this article have been changed)





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