By Annette Chrysostomou
First, they came here for soldiering. Now, they come every year for a holiday, a very long holiday indeed.
A group of retired Swedes and Norwegians, many of whom had once served in the UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus (Unficyp), visit Larnaca every winter. Some stay for two months, others up to six months. But altogether they enjoy a very active social life. They play boules three times a week at the beach, organise weekly bus trips to the mountains where they go for walks around the villages, and 35 to 40 play darts at a local pub on Wednesdays.
Much of this is organised by 70-year-old Jan Mernelius who first came to Cyprus when he served in the Swedish UN battalion in Famagusta in 1974 and 1975. Now retired, he has been living in Larnaca for the past five years.
Most of the other retirees stay only over the winter months, but usually there are roughly two groups, those who come from October until November or Christmas, and those who stay between January and April.
“They come and go. I can never be sure who or how many will turn up at the next event,” the retired UN veteran said.
He guesses there are around 70 permanent residents and 60 who come and go. “I want more to join,” Mernelius explained, “we take care of each other and call each other when we need help.”
Those who come for a few months, rent apartments in and around Larnaca.
Larnaca is a popular choice because it is near the airport and the visitors want a lively place. As Mernelius explained the popular summer tourist centres like Ayia Napa and Protaras are almost dead in winter.
“People think we only want the sun. That is not true, we want an adventure, something to do,” Mernelius said.
Hence the organised walks and the rest of the activities. Not to forget about the pub, which is the Old Country Pub, complete with a flag of the Swedish UN contingent.
His friend, 76-year-old Ove Kristofferson, is another retired Swedish national. He has spent the last ten winters in Larnaca and agrees on the importance of the shared activities.
“I play tennis twice a week and go to the gym,” he said. “On Thursdays we go for walks, and on Wednesdays to the pub.”
Would he come here if this support group didn’t exist? “Yes, though it wouldn’t be the same. The people are nice, and the weather is perfect. In Sweden there is lots of snow in winter. Here [in Larnaca] you can do something every day.”
Although not all the long-stay visitors served in Unficyp, many of them did.
In 2014, 125 Swedish UN veterans returned to Cyprus for a reunion, 40 years after they witnessed the invasion of the island in the summer of 1974. Now they are planning another one, on an even bigger scale, in 2019. Already invitations have been sent, 500 cards and 200 text messages, and more than 200 people are expected to attend.
Sweden was one of the first troop-contributing countries to Unficyp. Between 1964 and 1993, a total of 27,981 Swedish military and police officers served in Cyprus.
At its height, the Swedish contingent that took over responsibility for Famagusta district had a strength of 240 military personnel and police officers. Mernelius was based in the Carl Gustav camp in Famagusta which has a long history. Once known as Karaolos camp, it had first been used as a detention camp for Jewish refugees attempting to jump the British blockade of Palestine after WW2. The barracks were not in a particularly good condition in 1974.
“But they were a roof on our heads and we had a church and a hospital,” said Mernelius.
Before the invasion many of the soldiers were stationed at many hotspots around the island in groups of seven. They would see to it that Greek and Turkish Cypriots would keep the peace. For example, Mernelius recalls, there was a line right in the middle of a road, and members of the UN had to see that the Greek Cypriots didn’t cross it from one side and the Turkish Cypriot on the other to prevent potential fights. They would also help the civil police out, for examples when traffic accidents happened.
One of many new duties of the Swedish peacekeepers in the wake of the invasion was to feed and take care of animals at farms, left behind by their fleeing Greek Cypriot owners.
They also set up and manned new observation posts in Famagusta district and acted as mediators between the opposing forces.
During the invasion, Unficyp numbers swelled to over 4,400 with soldiers from Austria, the UK, Canada, Finland, Denmark and Sweden. The force is now around 860 although Sweden no longer takes part.