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Cyprus untold: a home in the buffer zone 

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‘Every inch that’s gained could mean millions in future value!’ ALIX NORMAN speaks to a UN officer turned podcaster who’s revealing the truth of life on the Green Line

“One scorching summer, I sat outside Ledra Palace with two elderly gentlemen: one Greek Cypriot, one Turkish Cypriot.

“They were in their late 70s and had, they told me, been friends for years: long before 1974 tore them apart. On opposite sides, they’d been involved in military action against one another. Yet their profound hope, even after all they’d seen, all they’d suffered, was for reunification.

“That, before they died, they’d once more be classed as simply ‘Cypriot’.”

There were many such moving incidences in Samuel Lewis-Blanc’s career. The Continuity Liaison Officer for the UN in Cyprus from 2019 to 2021 – the first to hold the position – he came into contact with people from both sides every day; encountered places and uncovered stories unfamiliar to even those of us who know the island inside out.

And now, having moved back to Britain and retired from service, he’s finally able to share those fascinating stories with the world. His vehicle? The podcast Cyprus Untold.

“In Cyprus Untold, I am not,” he asserts, “trying to speak for Cyprus. There are plenty of books, documentaries and academicians who are only too eager to give their opinions on the Cyprus problem, its history, its troubles.

“Instead, what I’m doing is revealing something that has never before been documented on a wider scale: why the Buffer Zone endures, and why is it still such an issue.

“In essence, I’m looking at the area that binds the divide. And,” he sighs, “the ineffectiveness of the UN to broker a solution.”

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Sam podcasting

As someone who lived for two years in the Buffer Zone – “our house was in the UNPA; Turkish watchtowers to the north, abandoned buildings all around” – Sam is privy to a unique understanding.

He’s lived the Green Line, walked it, wrangled over it. He’s seen the lines of demarcation creep forward or back overnight. Heard it lied about time and time again. And has a rare understanding of why, even in this day and age, every centimetre of the Buffer Zone still matters…

“North of Ledra Palace there’s a large piece of land the UN once patrolled every day,” he reveals. “Over the years, the Turkish forces have claimed this for themselves – even going so far as to hold UN peacekeepers hostage over it.

“Now, the problem here is in the changing of the guard, so to speak. Every year, the UN replaces its contingents. The new troops don’t know the history, don’t know where the ceasefire lines begin and end. And so, over the years, land gets ‘stolen’ from the Buffer Zone…”

Part of Sam’s job was to pinpoint and record the exact demarcations of the ceasefire line for future reference. “Although,” he grimaces, “even when the UN do know what’s happening, there’s little they can do beyond a reprimand and a strongly-worded letter!

“They’re peacekeepers; there’s not much they can do on the ground. And so before you know it, the original ceasefire line has moved 100 metres to the south. And the residents of the so-called TRNC have started to build on it…”

Sam’s job was fraught with just such complexities. And in Cyprus Untold, he often references the historical and current tensions that led to such disparities…

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An abandoned Cyprus Airways plane at the airport

“The older and younger generations seem to be more liberal in their views, more understanding,” he muses. “The main issue of peace, I feel, lies with the middle-aged – who are often those in power. In my opinion and born of my experience, these are the people who are deeply embittered and quite possibly protracting the Cyprus problem.”

It’s a sweeping statement, Sam adds. And he understands that it’s subjective. “But nevertheless, it’s my honest assessment.

“I sat in on many high-level meetings between those from each side. Their interpreters were usually young men completing their respective national services. And these interpreters often displayed great insight into the absurd happenings in the Buffer Zone.

“Out of earshot of their commanders, they’d talk to me about the stark comparison between the peace they wanted, and the staunch intransigence of their military and political leaders. The difficulty they had in translating arguments to which they were so strongly opposed was palpable.”

Cyprus Untold is rich with such stories. And while Sam attempts to remain as unbiased as possible in his own views, the tales he tells often speak for themselves…

“Few people know that the most volatile region of the Buffer Zone is actually within Nicosia,” he says, recalling one of his earlier podcast episodes.

“There are three reasons for this…

“One, it’s the narrowest point, with soldiers close enough to shoot at one another – which has happened in the past. Two, unlike most areas of the divide, it’s manned by Turkish Cypriot troops, who are emotionally tied to this job. And three, every inch that’s gained could mean millions in future value; hence the issue over barrels creeping forward year on year…”

As part of his job, Sam was the subject matter expert for historical and current ‘hotspots’ in the buffer zone. A key player in preparing the Commanding Officer and the UN Chief of Staff for senior engagements, he often attended top-level meetings and bridged knowledge gaps.

“Maintaining records, advising officers on when they were being lied to, managing a wider network of continuity liaison officers – it all required discipline, communication and a huge amount of diplomacy!”

But most of all, it took heart. And for Sam, it’s the stories of the everyday people that continue to resonate most deeply, long after he’s left the island…

“One night, my wife and I were in a taxi going back to the UNPA. The driver was Greek Cypriot. And, as we passed the old airport, he asked if he could see it.

“‘Of course!’ we said. As we drove slowly round the airport, tears streamed down his cheeks. We comforted him, and he thanked us profusely, explaining that this was the first time he’d seen the airport since 1974. I suspect it was place of deep memories for him.

“Now, years later and half a world away, this still makes me sad,” Sam concludes. “The people of Cyprus have so much passion for their beautiful, divided nation.”

 Sam’s ‘Cyprus Untold’ podcast is free to listen to and download on www.cyprusuntold.com

 

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