Time mellows the `Smiling Killer'
Colin Smith in Nicosia meets one of the most wanted men involved in the Greek Cypriot revolt against British rule, which began 40 years ago tomorrow, on All Fools' Day
Friday 31 March 1995
I point to some dark vegetation flourishing in the corner of one of the ravines that fissure the place. Triumphantly, Vassos shakes his head, bends and plucks out some dusty thyme plants, revealed to be rootless and quite recently cut. He begins to brush away some dirt and slowly the rim of a manhole-size cover becomes apparent, like the revelation of a water-mark. When this is removed there is a vertical shaft, descended by a rough-hewn wooden ladder.
In 1958 they took three weeks to hack out the igloo-shaped cavity, with ample standing room, beneath the spur. When they had finished they sank the entrance shaft and filled in the way they had come in. Five of them lived in this hole in the ground for eight months, venturing out only at night to bury their rubbish and defecate about a mile away, eschewing toilet paper for stones and grass so as not to start tongues wagging among the local shepherds, in whose rabbit snares they sometimes became entangled, and had painstakingly to replace.
When they returned to their lair they brushed their footprints away with a branch and scattered pepper around to put off the tracker dogs. Once, a British search-party practically walked on top of them. Athos and Vassos picked up their Sten guns and prepared to sell their lives dearly, but the soldiers walked over them.
Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the Greek Cypriots' armed rebellion against British rule in Cyprus, which began on All Fools' Day.
The rebels called themselves Eoka, the acronym for National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters. They were fighting for Enosis - union with Greece. On that first day the only casualty was in Famagusta, where an enthusiastic saboteur entangled a rope damp with dew on power lines and was electrocuted. But they got better.
By March 1959, when the shooting ended, 509 people had died, of whom 156 were British soldiers and police. Fleet Street dubbed Ledra Street, then Nicosia's main shopping thoroughfare, "Murder Mile". One of the most successful local reporters was Nicos Sampson, whose uncanny ability to be first on the scene of a shooting was explained when he was sentenced to death for being in possession of a Sten gun.
Among the British civilian dead was Catherine Cutliffe, a sergeant's wife shot emerging from a Famagusta dress-shop. The police responded by issuing revolvers to those Britons who applied for them. Both sides indulged in graffiti: "Greeks are sneaks" and "Plato is a potato" were among more memorable British offerings.
Last year about a million British visitors, more than the entire Cypriot population, came to what the Daily Sketch once called ``this hateful, squalid island'' as it campaigned for the exclusion of Cypriot sultanas from Winston Churchill's 84th- birthday cake. Most of today's tourists were not even born in 1960, when Archbishop Makarios was persuaded to drop the idea of Enosis and accept independence and permanent British bases.
Enosis may no longer be a popular cause but most Greek Cypriots still see the Eoka struggle as a celebration of both their heroes and their Hellenism. Most school days, coachloads of children come to the Central Prison to lay flowers on the graves of 13 Cypriots buried in the little walled garden a minute's walk from the execution shed, where a working British gallows is demonstrated to the older children. Nine of the Cypriots were hanged, one an 18-year-old condemned merely for possessing a firearm. The others were Eoka men killed in gunfights whose public funerals were deemed likely to turn into riots. Among them is Gregoris Afxentiou, cornered in a dug-out in the Troodos mountains where he made an epic last stand until petrol was poured in and lit.
Athos was described as "The Smiling Killer'' by Detective Sergeant William Webb, the sole survivor of three detectives ambushed in Ledra Street by 17-year-old Athos and two others who exchanged shots with them at point- blank range.
``It was like the movies," Athos recalled over afternoon tea at the Nicosia Hilton. "Were we terrorists? I think not. We were patriots and very religious, like the Irish. We certainly weren't doing it for the money."
But Athos, an amiable man who meets British troops almost daily as a Cypriot liaison officer with United Nations forces here, seems troubled by the killing and says there is no way he could do it now: "Only God has the right to take life."
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