U.N. saved press corps in Cyprus

Deadline: The Ledra Palace was a handsome hotel, but the action was too close and the clock was ticking.

January 27, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

LAST WEEK, in a column about promising settlement talks under way between the leaders of the Greek and Turkish communities in Cyprus, I neglected to mention that a United Nations peacekeeping force was stationed on the Mediterranean island at the time of the 1974 Turkish invasion.

A caller alerted me to this oversight.

Certainly, the United Nations force was there. They had arrived in 1964 to keep apart the Greeks and the Turks after some internecine bloodletting. They were still there in 1974 when the Turks and the Greeks went to war and ignored them.

The United Nations Force in Cyprus is there to this day, known by its acronym, UNFICYP. Talk about coalitions. The force in Cyprus is about 1,200-strong and has troops and police from Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, Paraguay, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, and Uruguay.

Getting to cover the Cyprus conflict in 1974 was one of the most bizarre experiences in the careers of many of the journalists who were there.

The story began on July 15, 1974, when the Greek national guard on the island overthrew Archbishop Makarios, the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in Cyprus who had been president since 1960, when the island won independence from Great Britain. Makarios was an important source of reliability in the bitter distrust between Turkey and Greece over the island, so it was clear that Turkey would not allow the Greek national guard to have its way.

This happened at a time when Richard Nixon was on the verge of being brought down by the Watergate scandal, and other places like Vietnam were high priorities for newspaper editors. Not Cyprus.

But the press corps in the region, many of whom, including The Sun, had offices in Beirut, thought this was the biggest story going. It was only 200 miles from Beirut to Cyprus. We had to get there, but that seemed impossible because the airport in Nicosia, the capital, was closed. We tried to persuade private pilots to fly us by charter into any other airport on the island. No dice. We tried to find a few big speedboats that might take us over. No luck. Finally, we went down to the Port of Beirut and persuaded the captain of a rusty freighter to take about two dozen of us to the Cyprus port of Limassol. We pooled together $10,000 for this rusty tub.

The ship of fools arrived off Limassol at dawn on July 17. We were all taken, very politely, to a resort hotel near the port and told we could not leave the grounds. Two British journalists tried to walk off, but were brought back at gunpoint. Hotel arrest! And in Limassol, of all places, far from the bloody chaos in the capital, Nicosia. Frantic calls went out, pleading for help, and somehow our captors were persuaded to take us by bus to Nicosia.

There we checked in to the Ledra Palace Hotel, a handsome place that recalled the island's time as a British colony. It had a nice restaurant, a nice bar, comfortable rooms, very gracious staff. Most important, it had working telexes at a time when the telex was the fastest way to transmit stories. The Ledra Palace also had the advantage - or so it seemed at the time - of being on the "Green Line" that divided the Greek and Turkish sides of Nicosia. The Greek side was in a state off chaos, realizing the national guard had made a very dangerous mistake. The Turkish side was seething.

Early July 20, Turkey invaded, dropping paratroopers, bombing the capital, strafing the shoreline, landing in hordes on the beaches and moving with devastating force toward Nicosia. Four of us rushed to the beach to watch the landing. My abiding memory of that ride was not the landing, though; it was of a bus we came upon on the hilly top of the roadway from Nicosia to the coast. The bus had been strafed. It was a school bus and there were about a dozen dead youngsters inside.

The ride back to Nicosia was terrifying as Turkish jets seemed to be swooping down on anything moving. We couldn't wait to get back to the safety of the Ledra Palace Hotel, file our stories, have a drink at the bar and figure out what to do next.

We did get back to the hotel, but it turned into a nightmare, precisely because it was on the Green Line. Greek troops stationed guns on the roof of the hotel and were firing into the Turkish side. The hotel's marvelous lobby was caught in a cross-fire. And here is where I am reminded most impressively of the United Nations force.

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