Helena Sage and her entire family were trapped in Cyprus in the 1974 Turkish invasion.
The whole family sprang into action. My sisters and I grabbed possessions that were significant to us while my mother emptied the fridge. My father made some phone calls and my Uncle Yiannis arrived in his tiny mini clubman and we all piled in. Seven of us in the mini, a pile of arms and legs and sweat and fear, drove to the old house in Queen Friderikas Street. My auntie was in a state of hysteria and my uncle shouted ‘skase’ – Shut up – as he walked with force into the wood-chip filled hallway.
Yiannis and my dad began to have an animated discussion with flailing arms and raised voices. My little sister Louisa began to cry. I was feeling very unsettled. I had already realised in my young life that the adults who were in charge really did not know what they were doing. The house felt unsettled and disturbed. In the distance, we could hear anti-aircraft guns being fired and fighting. The radio was on and it was calling all men of a certain age to present themselves to their nearest police station or army barracks. Sirens then sounded in the distance, their high-pitched death wails hung in the troubled air.
We were suddenly startled by boots in the hallway. Half a dozen or so young men in military uniform entered. They were tanned and attractive and made a very strong impression on my adolescent self. They carried their guns in a casual arrogance and a couple had cigarettes hanging from their mouths. My father and uncle approached them as if they were an army of liberation arrived to save us. Then they promptly bombarded the poor men with questions until the lieutenant in charge raised his arm in a gesture of submission. One of them looked at me and I felt I had been bathed in sunlight. He was fair and did not look Cypriot at all. Tall with fine features and sandy haired with glacial blue eyes. My father called him by his name and said nice things about his parents. He asked for a glass of water and I ran to oblige. As I handed it to him and he thanked me I felt as if my legs turned to liquid. I had never seen anyone so beautiful in my young life. With his tanned arms and quiet authority it was like being in the presence of a Hollywood movie star to me.
They reassured us that they were containing the situation nearby in Kaimakli and along the Nicosia side of the Kyrenia mountain range. We were told to stay put and not venture out far. Finally they were persuaded and so took coffee in the courtyard with my parents Yiayia Florence and Auntie Maroulla, but, lingered no longer than it took to down a coffee and some homemade ‘koulourakia’.
They came from all over the island, most of them were no more than twenty years old. They had the arrogance of youth and did not seem at all concerned about the situation in comparison to my family. They did more to reassure me than my mum and dad, but maybe I was just dazzled by the their masculinity and the uniforms. Writing about them now all I can think is of their poor mothers and what they would have been going through knowing their boys would be embroiled in combat. National service was an inconvenience for most young men. Two years of cold nights on guard duty, hot day on maneuvers in the dusty scrub and very bad food. It did not mean killing other nineteen-year-olds who happen to be from another country.
And that fair haired boy, well I learned his name later.
They left with robust handshakes and my auntie ‘kapnistiri’ -a ritual of burning olives leaves blessed after they are gathered at Easter and burnt in a clay bowl and passed over an individual’s head as a blessing. Once they had gone, their long limbs and noisy boots left a massive gap within the house, I felt like the sun had gone behind a cloud. The reality of the situation hit us all once more and the radio with its military music and reciting of patriot poetry just reinforced the dire circumstances we found ourselves in.
By midday the heat was like treacle sticking to our limbs. There was no choice but to submit to the impossible summer warmth. There was an uncomfortable calm about the afternoon. I was grateful the radio was switched off for a while. We ate black-eyed beans and spinach. I laid down to read and fell asleep with my sisters.
I awoke in a musty sweat with my siblings arms and legs tangled around me. It must have been past five and no one was about. I felt a small flutter of panic as my memory came back to me. I got up stealthily as if Turks lurked around every corner. Voices could be heard from the kitchen. My bed-ridden Yiayia Eleni was asleep in the other bed snoring voraciously.
My eyes adjusted to the light as I crept out. My father’s cousins were gathered around a coffee table in the courtyard playing backgammon and smoking themselves into a fog. They startled as I opened the door, obviously on edge. Saying nothing but staring at them as I passed I went into the kitchen to wash my face. My mother auntie and other yiayia were cooking. One of my uncles shouted at us to make coffee. The radio was back on and the hideous music was playing. Every so often an angry round was fired somewhere outside the dusky streets and an explosion went off. It was impossible to ascertain how near or far it was. I hoped the young soldiers were correct about the location of the barricades where the fighting was taking place.
A fractious day slipped into a tropical night and the air began smelling of explosions like bonfires. It reminded me of fireworks night back in London minus the crisp cold Autumn air. Some of the neighbours had called by and reported anecdotes of the invasion in Kyrenia. They told us that refugees were spilling south from Kyrenia and as far north as Apostolos Andreas that the Turks were ravaging and destroying churches. They were crying and crossing themselves and asking God to protect us and their sons fighting. I was in hell, truly in hell. I thought of my civilised London life. My life of Top of the Pops on Thursdays, Mr Reeds keep fit club on Tuesday lunchtimes. Fish and chips from my uncle Louis chip shops on Friday. How on this God’s earth had I become a homeless person about to be attacked by a marauding army? I felt quite nauseous. The jasmine scent mingled with the scorched air and overflowing dustbins. I wanted to run and keep on running until I found normality, until my sisters and I were somewhere cold and familiar watching TV and arguing about whose vinyl record belong to who. It struck me suddenly that we may not make it, we were in real danger. We may not get out of this as a family in one piece. A mortar exploded in the distance and I heard soldiers shouting in the street at the back of the garden.
I took myself to the large lemon tree that leaned outside the bedroom and I sobbed and sobbed until my eyes were sore and I had developed a strange series of gulps and convulsions. No one heard me, no one came. The sun was setting and the day was metamorphosing into night via an indigo sky. There was an eerie stillness to the dusk, the air had a malicious undercurrent. There was very little light pollution and the trees did not stir. I heard a feral cat scream and a ghekko scurry away at the noise. Moths and fireflies came out, their wings fidgeting in the still syrupy air. I felt grubby and festering, I needed a wash before bed but I knew I couldn’t have a shower, there was no bathroom in the old house, just a tin bath.
I lifted my head and was engulfed in a desolation I had never known. No one, not even the adults that were meant to be my protectors, had any control over the situation. I was intelligent enough to comprehend this despite my age and naivety. Not that my parents ever sugarcoated anything in our lives. I was resilient if nothing else. But how many twelve-year-olds brought up in Middlesex knew how to cope with war? Wiping my nose on a dissolving tissue that had been in my pocket all day, I rallied. I decided that the only option I had was to keep my wits about me and be prepared to run and keep on running. Then I thought of my sisters, I had to take care of them, we would hide find one of the many basements in Nicosia, stay low until it was all over. But what if it was never over what if we became like Poland or Vichy France? We had to walk about being stopped by the storm trooper-type Nazi occupying army. They would shout ‘papers’ at you and you would have to do their bidding. Like the war films we watched on Christmas day; Colditz and the The Damnbusters!
‘Elena …’my mother shouted at me and broke my train of thought…’come inside to eat’
I stood up belligerently, my skin clammy and tacky with sweat and followed my mother. My eyes were sore and my head throbbed.
Somehow my mother and aunt had managed to cooked ‘fasolaki with tiny pieces of pork and even the bread was fresh. My uncles ate with relish. After the initial excitement of seeing food I moved pieces of meat about my mouth and swallowed reluctantly…I couldn’t eat however hard I tried. My mother encouraged by pointing out it may be the last meal in a while but even this did no good. It was a sombre meal with very little conversation.
My aunt helped the old ladies to bed and my sisters and I helped to clear up. We played cards mostly Rummy and Snap and then we were ordered to bed. It was only nine o’clock but I had no decent light to read as we were told to avoid bright lights. I could see my father’s cigarette glowing like a fire fly in the garden as I lay in bed. The outside tap was hissing as my aunt watered her precious geraniums and gardenias and herb garden in the darkness. Then I smelt coffee being brewed, the grownups were murmuring in hushed tones. Their anxiety was enveloping the night and blending into the veil of fearfulness that had covered the house. They were talking about British passports and British bases and my uncles were calling my parents insane. I think they wanted them to leave. The conversation went round in ever-decreasing circles until I eventually fell asleep.