On one level, Elias Pantelides’ new book ‘Laconic Tales – Cyprus 1974’ is a local variation on everyone remembering what they were doing the day JFK was shot or the day the Twin Towers were destroyed.
Cyprus’ 9/11 is of course July and August 1974, and Laconic Tales is a collection of various individuals’ accounts – some well-known, others not – of the 1974 hostilities, penned by the author following discussions with each.
It highlights above all the profound impact the events of 1974, let alone their aftermath, has had on ordinary people.
Individual accounts of the events of 1974 have been reported on for decades, so this is by no means an original take on the issue, but the book aspires neither to be considered a comprehensive history of the two-phase war, nor a series of narratives aiming to set the record straight.
It is an effort at a literary rendition of the individual experiences of the Unnamed (the unsung, heroes and not, who saw and fought the battles and lost their homes, loved ones, memories) tied together by the few undisputed facts: Cypriots fought against Cypriots, the government of Cyprus was overthrown by the Greek Junta, Turkey attacked, and innocent people were caught in the crossfire.
In the introductory lines, the author declares that the book’s underlying theme is “anti-war”, and although the cause is certainly noble, other themes appear to emerge with every page turned.
Greece’s then Defence Minister Evangelos Averoff-Tositsas features prominently. His role in the unfolding events (“Retreat, do not engage the enemy, do not fight”, he is said to have instructed the troops during the second leg of the Turkish assault in August), although never deeply explored, is cast as undoubtedly sinister, which does the book no favours, especially since its stated ambition is not to identify motives or assign blame.
Also, recurring references to the cartoonishly inept, bumbling Greek army officers, who, with few exceptions, seem to have had a hard time telling right from left, and for whom the author and his tale-telling subjects spare few disparaging epithets (“even lions led by donkeys cannot win”), would be a welcome pressure-valve of comic relief, if not for the haunting suspicion that the behaviours described are, in fact, accurately recounted.
But many interesting factoids and some devastating accounts of individuals’ experiences during the war make for a truly memorable, enlightening read.
The reader will discover how the close personal friendship between Peruvian UN mediator Alvaro De Soto and a Vatican archbishop may have been instrumental in placing the Turkish-held Maronite villages under Greek Cypriot administration in the proposed maps of the 2004 Annan Plan; under what circumstances the late former Defence Minister Costas Papacostas joyfully cried to another man “We are saved! The Turks are coming!” at the sight of Turkish paratroopers dropped in Kyrenia; and why Peter Moore, a British national permanently living in Famagusta until August 1974, had to carry around a “do not harass this man” note stamped and signed by an official at the Akrotiri refugee camp.
Among all the death-escaping, life-changing experiences, one will also encounter familiar names in minor but anecdotal incidents, including former President of the Republic of Cyprus Tassos Papadopoulos, former MP Antonis Karas, and 1993 presidential candidate Paschalis Paschalides, and longtime Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, as well as the current one, Mustafa Akinci.
The diverse group of laconic-tale tellers features academics, businessmen and journalists from both sides of the divide, and it is perhaps predictable that they tend to focus on what they perceive as the instances that shaped their own individual outlook on the Cyprus affair. The Greek Cypriot author, doubling as a tale-teller himself, focuses on his experiences as a conscript during the frantic days of battle, while Turkish Cypriot university professor Niyazi Kizilyurek makes the shocking revelation that he grew up not knowing what Cyprus is from the confines of the Louroudjina Turkish Cypriot enclave.
It is also to be expected that, in the final section of each tale, where individuals from each of Cyprus’ communities are asked to list their favourite pieces of music and literature, most tend to pick works by composers and authors solely from their respective motherland. The notable exceptions are Kizilyurek and Turkish Cypriot journalist Sevgul Uludag, but it is probably indicative of how deep the divide has been allowed to take root.
In terms of the tales themselves, perhaps the most resonant overall comes from a man named Neoptolemos Kotsapas, the one most involved in active combat operations. His chilling account of being captured and taken to the Adana and Amasya prisons in Turkey, before eventually being returned to Cyprus and released, might well be enough to turn even the most hawkish among us off the idea of war.
The author, who set out to convey an anti-war message, may wear this tale as a badge of honour, content in having accomplished his mission.
Laconic Tales – Cyprus 1974 by Elias Pantelides is published by Elias Epiphanou Publications and is available in bookshops. Price €20.