A divided island where the living seems to be easy

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The Independent Online
yprus is the exotic, warm-weather posting that British servicemen and women and their long-suffering families covet â¿“ a three-year reward for putting up with Catterick or the North German Plain.

Cyprus is the exotic, warm-weather posting that British servicemen and women and their long-suffering families covet – a three-year reward for putting up with Catterick or the North German Plain.

It's a jolly, sunny place beside the sea, with private beaches, brandy sours and sweet-smelling, tree-lined avenues named after battles, generals or air marshals. There's even a housing estate called Happy Valley.

But Middle England transplanted to the Med is not quite so ideal for single soldiers, whose need for the company of the opposite sex can run counter to the similar needs of local youths. Competition for the favours of female tourists, fuelled by duty-free alcohol, can erupt into violence. Commanding officers must plan all manner of activities to keep their troops from becoming jaded by the good life.

The Akrotiri Sovereign Base Area is a strip of beautiful beaches, coastline and scrub-covered hillside in the south of Cyprus that remains, for the time being at least, Forever England.

The Naafi provides sustenance, military police provide security, and a reassuringly reliable routine of work, sport and socialisation ensures that all is well with the world.

But the Cyprus garrison is not just a hot weather R&R centre for over-stretched service folk. The military installations that all these bronzed, relaxed chaps are defending, play a vital strategic role in both logistics and intelligence-gathering, in a part of Europe that is frighteningly close to unravelling.

When I served there in 1974 during the Turkish invasion, the Greek Cypriots were chucked out of the northern half of the island. This defeat rankles with them, as it might with Ulster Unionists if they were deported en masse to Liverpool. It leads them to attempt strange things; for example the purchase of S-300 Growler missiles from the Russians in 1998. Capable of shooting down Turkish military jets flying over northern Cyprus, had this system been delivered, we could have seen all-out warfare between at least two Nato members.

Political tensions within Cyprus can run very high. It really hurts to have a divided island, and it's easier to blame the British than anybody else, especially when they are thought to be in league with the Americans to build huge antennae farms to harvest signals intelligence from Europe, the Balkans and the soft underbelly of the former Soviet Union.

In causing all this damage, injury and trouble, the Cypriot MP Marios Matsakis, the ring leader of the Akrotiri rioters, has managed to lump together a remarkable number of very emotive issues.

As seems to be de rigueur with global protests these days, he also managed to pull in an ecological angle. But even migrating marsh life needs to be kept secure. In the eastern Mediterranean there are far more ugly things than cables and the odd pylon.

Hugh McManners served in Cyprus for six months during the Turkish invasion in 1974, and has returned to the island several times, most recently while filming the BBC2's "Bare Necessities" series

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