The ghost of Grivas divides Cyprus again

Patrick Cockburn on 'a bit of the Balkans that floated into the Mediterranean'

Patrick Cockburn
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:50

He Stares defiantly out of his picture in the church of St Nich- olas in Limassol, pistol in his belt and right hand raised in a military salute. General George Grivas, the guerrilla leader against Britain in the 1950s who fought for enosis - the union of Cyprus with Greece - is once again proving his ability to divide Greek Cypriots, 23 years after his death.

The row started when President Glafkos Clerides attended a service in memory of Gen Grivas in St Nicholas's, and laid the foundation stone for a pounds 1m memorial to be built nearby. For now the only monument to the Eoka B guerrilla leader is a white marble plaque set in the ground beside a modest one-storey house in an orchard. From a secret room in the house, Gen Grivas directed his last campaign, an attempt to overthrow Archbishop Makarios on behalf of the Greek junta in Athens.

The general did not live to see the campaign carried out, which was probably just as well. He died of cancer six months before the Greek military contingent in Cyprus, aided by his partisans in Eoka B, launched their coup in 1974, a disaster which opened the door to a Turkish invasion and partition of the island. Not surprisingly, the building of a memorial to him is being denounced by many Greek Cypriots as grossly provocative. One outraged member of the opposition said: "The government must be pushed out of office along with Eoka B and the ghost of Grivas."

The legacy of Gen Grivas, the symbol of union with Greece and no concessions to Turkey, seems a great deal more relevant to Cyprus today than it did a year ago. Friction between Greek and Turk has increased to a level not seen since the 1970s, and violence is in the air again. Last Thursday morning there was an exchange of fire on the 112-mile "green line" which bisects the island. Turkish Cypriots at the village of Louroujina accused two armed Greek Cypriots, backed by three other gunmen, of trying to lower their flag. "They opened fire to give cover to the two intruders, and our patrol guards returned the fire," said a Turkish Cypriot spokesman. "They escaped, but bloodstains were traced going across the buffer zone to the south."

The skirmish is the latest in a series of incidents on the island. In the second half of last year four Greek Cypriots and one Turk were killed on the "green line", and in January President Clerides signed a contract with Russia to supply SA-300 anti-aircraft missiles at an estimated cost of $600m (pounds 375m), or $1,000 for every Greek Cypriot.

Suddenly foreign governments, who had come to see Cyprus's problems as relics of a bygone era, have begun to remember that the island was once described as a piece of the Balkans that had floated into the Mediterranean. Ethnic hatreds are no less than in Bosnia. Tansu Ciller, the Turkish Foreign Minister, said if the SA-300s "need to be hit, they will be hit".

The bellicose rhetoric seems out of place in a country as prosperous as modern Cyprus, visited by 2.3 million tourists a year (a third of them British). The last hide-out of Gen Grivas is today surrounded by newly opened shops with large plate glass windows called "Beriozka" and "Moskva", catering for the growing Russian population of Limassol. On the hills above the town are villas belonging to Kuwaitis, and the local marina is full of yachts from Israel.

But Cyprus has changed less than might appear. The Turkish invasion turned 180,000 Greek Cypriots into refugees, and their sense of grievance has never ebbed. Foreign diplomats keep warning that Turkey is only 40 miles away, and that Greek hubris may bring disaster, as in 1974. They see President Clerides as engaged in a dangerous game of bluff, buying the missiles not to change the military balance, but to gain an extra card to play against Turkey and force international mediation.

No memorial will restore the reputation of Gen Grivas, fatally damaged by his final years as a catspaw of the Greek junta. But in the Troodos mountains north of Limassol there is already a more moving memorial to the willingness of Greek Cypriots to fight. Here, in a narrow valley, the monks of Makheras monas- tery maintain what is close to a shrine to Gregoris Afxentiou, an Eoka leader killed in a battle with British troops in 1957.

Afxentiou was trapped by men from the Duke of Wellington's regiment in a dug-out half a mile from the monastery. The guerrilla commander told his men to surrender, but fought back with a sub-machine gun, killing a corporal. Unable to get close to the dug-out, Royal Engineers poured petrol down the slope and set it ablaze. Afxentiou was burnt to death.

A statue on one side of the monastery overlooks the spot where Afxentiou died, while inside monks maintain a museum, illustrating his last moments in the goriest detail. There is a photograph of him in a svelte military uniform with a pencil moustache, a monk's habit he sometimes wore as a disguise and a bolt-action rifle. Other pictures show his burnt body, one leg severed by a grenade.

As a monument to Greek Cypriot resolve to resist, wisely or unwisely, in the face of overwhelming force, Makheras is more compelling than the purchase of any number of missiles.

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