Remembering a war and a mentor

July 18, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

On this day 30 years ago, I was in Nicosia, Cyprus, the fatally troubled Mediterranean island where I had arrived with a gaggle of about 30 news correspondents aboard a rusty freighter chartered from Beirut for the princely sum of $10,000.

We had to charter the freighter because it was the only way to get to Cyprus. A bunch of Greek Cypriot thugs, urged on by the military junta in Athens, had overthrown the elected government and its leader, the Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios. The Nicosia airport was closed.

Cyprus, a former British colony, had a majority population of ethnic Greeks, whose most rabid element wanted full union with Greece, and a minority population of ethnic Turks, who felt they were treated like second-class citizens, which they were. The thugs who staged the coup were for union with Greece. Since the Turkish population wanted no part of that, the coup generated a crisis far greater than blood-letting on the island. Turkey could invade to protect its ethnic brethren on the island. A war could break out between Greece and Turkey, pitting two important NATO allies against each other.

So, this was a big story, in an obscure place, whose history was not familiar to me or to many of the others who arrived on the freighter. We were Middle East correspondents, focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Two days later, at sunrise on July 20, 1974, Turkey did invade the island with a full assault from the air and the sea. The Greeks had no chance. Turkey has occupied the northern part of the island ever since. Exhaustive attempts to re-unify Cyprus over the years have failed. The only good thing that resulted from the Cyprus coup was that instead of going to war against Turkey, the people of Greece overthrew the military junta that had inspired the coup, and democracy was restored in its fabled birthplace.

As noted above, my own knowledge of Cyprus 30 years ago was practically nil. In those days, there was no Internet, no way to Google histories of countries and insightful reports about them. All I had with me as we sailed toward Cyprus was a notebook and - ridiculously - a copy of Bitter Lemons, a novel Lawrence Durrell wrote while he lived on the island in the 1950s.

But I was saved by an angel mentor, who knew more about Cyprus than anyone else aboard that tub. He was a British journalist named Donald Wise, known to his friends as "The Colonel" because of his 6-foot-4 stature, his impeccable moustache and perpetual tan.

Wise was 55. I was 31. While I was in diapers, he was a British officer incarcerated at Changi, the huge Japanese POW camp, and even at that age and in those torturous circumstances, defined himself as a man who would take no nonsense.

As the story is told, a Japanese officer at the camp wanted Wise and other officers to do manual labor, in violation of the Geneva Conventions prohibiting manual labor by officers. The Japanese officer argued that, after all, "Jesus Christ was a laborer; he was a carpenter."

To which Wise replied imperiously, "Jesus Christ was not a British officer." He was severely beaten for this insolence. But he did not do any manual labor.

Wise had served with the British mandate force in Palestine and later had led a British irregular group, which included some Borneo head-hunters, in a fight against anti-British insurgents in Malaya. Afterward, he turned to journalism and became one of Fleet Street's most celebrated foreign correspondents, covering conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Most important for me 30 years ago, he had covered Cyprus back in the days when it was still a British colony and Greek insurgents were fighting for independence.

Coincidentally, Nikos Georgiades Sampson, the fellow installed as the new president of Cyprus in the 1974 coup, was familiar to Wise. In the earlier days, he had been a freelance photographer and insurgent hit man. "He'd knock someone off and then call us to tell us he had an exclusive photo of someone who had just been killed," said Wise. "Dreadful man."

On that night sail across the Mediterranean from Beirut to Cyprus, Wise did what mentors have done for young correspondents since the beginning of the profession. He shared his vast knowledge. He taught me all of Cyprus's bloody history, its politics, the larger dimensions of the crisis. I should know, he said, instructing me like an Oxford don, that Richard I's army occupied Cyprus on the way to the Holy Land. "Their wine is named Othello," he said, "because this is where Shakespeare set the play."

Such are the baubles of information that enliven a story.

Once we arrived in Nicosia, he gave me invaluable logistical advice and helped me get in to see some high-ranking British authorities who had a much better idea of what was going on than the Americans did.

The best piece of advice he gave me was when I was preparing to leave Cyprus after a cease-fire had been declared and the parties were going to negotiate in Geneva. "Don't leave now, old boy. This isn't over yet."

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