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Mari disaster permeates memoir of late defence minister

Former defence minister Costas Papacostas

After a lifetime of public service, Costas Papacostas died a bitter man. His memoir explains why

An ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances is the recipe for any good novel. It is also the recipe for Anemodarmeni Poria (Wuthering Life), the self-penned narrative by the late Costas Papacostas, founder of riot squad MMAD, three-term Akel MP, and, most notoriously, minister of defence in the administration of Demetris Christofias from 2008 until July 11, 2011, hours after the Mari disaster.

Written in plain-speak, the book is a riveting account of some of the most momentous events in the history of the young Republic of Cyprus, since even before its inception in 1960, from the point of view of a man of integrity and a heightened sense of duty, who constantly finds himself in increasingly challenging situations and marvels at how time after time he managed to come out on top.

Papacostas was the only political figure to be held legally accountable and sentenced to five years in prison for the failures that led to the Mari disaster, after 98 containers of explosives that had been stored for over two years in the sun on the Evangelos Florakis naval base self-detonated and killed 13 people.

The Mari explosion killed 13 people
The Mari explosion killed 13 people

His bitterness at the military top brass, as well as Christofias, for seeking – and managing – to shake off their own responsibility, colours every aspect of his version of events, but seems to fall just short of demonstrating his own utter and undisputed innocence. Instead, reading through the book and the arguments the author makes, one walks away with the sense that Christofias and certain senior military officials are at least as culpable as he was – only they got away with it.

Following several pages of arguing that he acted on bad advice by a National Guard explosives ‘expert’ (“gunpowder doesn’t explode, it just burns”, Papacostas claims he was repeatedly told) and that he had warned the foreign ministry and Christofias of the dangers of storing the containers out in the open, he concludes that “with respect and a sense of duty to the readers of my memoir, Mari was a tragic accident”.

His prison conviction was the heaviest blow he had ever suffered. Although he didn’t spend any time in prison due to poor health – he wrote the book during his two years of confinement in room 251 of the Nicosia general hospital – he remained under police guard and not allowed outdoor strolls even on medical advice.

Papacostas believed the sentence was the result of several factors at simultaneous play: the military men trying to shake off responsibility, police investigators and state prosecutors seeking to quench the public’s thirst for justice and advance their own careers at his expense, and an “overly sensitive, indecisive, cowardly, and stubborn president, who thought he knew everything and was infallible”. Papacostas claims that Christofias, once a close friend, completely abandoned him during his ordeal.

Other notable moments in the book – among many – include the heart-wrenching account of his youngest daughter’s death in the line of duty as a 25-year-old traffic policewoman tragically hit by a drunk driver. Papacostas also played a key role in the December 1993 Chlorakas debacle, when MMAD men raided a house in which a man held a girl hostage at gunpoint and threatened to kill her if police didn’t leave, resulting in the death of both captor and hostage

A poignant aside is the fate of the fate of a hand-written letter he left his family, with instructions to be opened after his death. In it he listed his specific burial requests which included the church where he wanted the service to take place, and a funeral with all the honours of a sitting defence minister with MMAD officers to carry his coffin which was to be buried next to his daughter’s grave. Although the letter was not found until after his funeral, all of his requests, apart from the MMAD coffin bearers, had been carried out.

In many ways, Papacostas was more than a living, breathing reflection of the generation that built a country almost from scratch. He was a traditional Cypriot, the kind that placed a high premium on personal integrity and doing what’s right. He fought in the 1955-59 struggle against the colonists, defended democracy against the coupists in 1974 and resigned the post of deputy chief of police in 1995 in protest over corruption in the force. Yet in his book, he gives a perverted justification of the local brand of cronyism – commonly known as ‘rusfeti’ – with the reductionist rationalisation that helping people get things done faster is different to helping someone at the expense of someone else. It is the typical self-serving excuse one might encounter today, except in Papacostas’ case you know there was never anything self-serving about it.

If he ever bent the rules, it was only because he thought that, on balance, he was helping make the world just a little better.

Anemodarmeni Poria (Wuthering Life) is available only in Greek from bookshops

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