Monday, 13 April 2020
Living in the Border Lands - Part 1
It became quite obvious to me after just a short time in the army that much of my military career would be spent guarding, patrolling and living at times in some strange places - and no stranger than the 'Border Lands' , or often described as 'no man lands', 'green zones'. Various names, but all similar in ways.
A recent book, “Off the Map” by Alastair Bonnett has a whole chapter on them, from a strip of land that exists between Guinea and Senegal to Nahuaterique via a traffic island in Newcastle. All places that we know exist but not sure who owns them, lives there, runs them.
My time in the Green Jackets would take me to many places like this and to borders on a map that politicians may thing exist but in reality very other few people take any notice of.(Irish border) Or the dependencies that live beyond a border and exist and flourish but may not if the border was removed (Gibraltar) .
We (as the military) have occupied, worked and lived in these often strange zones, from the partitioned Berlin (1945-89) to more recent Green zone that exist in Baghdad. Even when working (and living in Germany) we existed in some sort of limbo land – part of the UK, with some British laws that existed in another European sovereign country, not that we acted like the Americans and made their bases feel like a cross between ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and the town square in ‘Back to the Future’ and used dollars rather than the German Mark. It must have been the same for those garrisoned in Hong Kong.
Then there was Gibraltar, argued over with Spain but the border is now open, with many of the locals now moved onto the Spanish mainland but Gibraltar still exists as some British enclave, but what would happen if Spain took control, I am sure the peak and the apes would still be a tourist attraction, but would the airport survive? Would the ferries to Tangiers bother pulling into the harbour, would British tourists bother taking the coach trip from their Spanish resort to just another Spanish resort? So in fact it benefits both Gibraltar and Spain to leave it as it is.
However my first taste of these strange 'Border lands', was in Cyrus in 1980, when as a member of 3rd Battalion Royal Green Jackets, we were to spend 6 months on this Mediterranean Island, we were to spend 3 months in the Eastern Sovereign Base at Dhekelia, then 3 months as part of a United Nations force to the west of Nicosia.
Dhekelia was ( like the Western Sovereign Base at Episkopi) also a strange place in its own right, part of the UK, our own police force but with a Cypriot road going through it as ( in those days, very few) tourists made their way from Larnaca to Aya Napa. The road still exists, however a new dual carriage way now by-passes the base to the north. Plus within the Sovereign Area were three Greek Cypriot enclaves (one is the local power station) and then to add to the confusion, most of the civilian workforce were bussed in from the Turkish controlled zone to the north.
Not all work - Regimental birthday on the beach in Dhekelia - Sgt Smith - Provo Sgt- to be avoided!
We knew that when we went to the United Nations Force we would be living in, operating in and guarding a buffer zone between the Turkish Army in the north and the Greek Cypriot Army to the south, but what we did not know that even whilst working in Dhekelia we would end up living and operating in a green zone.
The buffer zone in Cyprus was created by the British Army in the early 60’s to help stop feuding between the Greek and Turkish population, after the Turkish Army invaded Northern Cyprus in 1974 it became to responsibility of the United Nations, the zone is known as the Green line ( Turkish often call it the Attila Line)
The UN resolution that created the buffer zone – the Green Line:
A security zone of a size to be determined by representatives of Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, in consultation with UNFICYP, was to be established at the limit of the areas occupied by the Turkish armed forces. This zone was to be entered by no forces other than those of UNFICYP, which was to supervise the prohibition of entry. Pending the determination of the size and character of the security zone, the existing area between the two forces was not to be breached by any forces.
— Tripartite Conference & Geneva Declaration,
The Green Line stretches for 112 miles, and includes a small Turkish enclave on the west coast of the Island, but what I did not know ( might have been told but probably was not listening- was only 18) is that part of that Green Line does not exist as a buffer between Turkish and Greek Cypriot forces, there was part of that line where Turkish troops faced directly British troops, not in UN Blue berets, but in our Green beret and it was Turkish controlled Cyprus bordering the UK – as the Dhekelia sovereign base may have had Greek Cyprus to the east and west of it but to the north it was Turkish controlled – I think at that time the closest UN troops were Swedish both to the east and west of us ( now I believe it is a Slovakian force) and there we were 90 British troops protecting just one small part of the sovereign area- Ayios Nikolaos a small piece of Britain that jutted out to the north east.
So there I was a young soldier finding myself armed, and patrolling this arid land or living in a small hut on a road from Ayios Nikolaos to what seemed nowhere- a couple of buses passed in the morning, bringing in the Turkish work force and then in the evening it took them home, this little hut (home) was called Black Knight – fortunately a small shop was next to it, to keep us supplied with cold coke and water melon.
We knew we would be doing something similar when on the UN part of the tour but could not understand why we doing it now, then it slowly dawned on us but also at the same time threw up many strange questions that were never fully answered. Ayios Nikolaos was a Signal base, many large masts, with their job to listen into the Soviet fleet as it left the Back Sea – listening in on behalf of NATO – which we like Turkey were /are a member of – so we guarding a NATO base from another NATO member country, even stranger (maybe an urban myth) we were told that the NATO General responsible for the Eastern end of the Mediterranean was Turkish, so he was probably the beneficiary of the reports and intelligence collated at compiled at this small part of the UK, surrounded by his own army!
It was still fun, one young officer had an idea of patrolling this arid land on horses, luckily for me not our officer, and as the Royal Signals soldiers were very well trained/ paid and so well looked after, we found the food far better than what we were used to- a big shock was that you were even allowed to fry your own eggs on a griddle at breakfast!
I enjoyed living at Back Knight with 12 other mates, it cost us some money as game of street cricket on the road ended up with a broken shop window – however we also had to patrol the Green line by vehicle coming across deserted villages and as you came over a small ridge, in front of you was Famagusta, once a modern Mediterranean resort, high rise hotels, beach bars, but now deserted, the Greek citizens were living (in 1980) in refugee camps outside Larnaca, and the Turkish army stopping local Turk Cypriots from moving in – now you can see it from the sea as just the other side of the buffer zone a once deserted coastline is now full of hotels – with mainly UK and Russian tourists that has stretched up the coast from Aya Napa.
It was on one of these patrols that we came across a small group of Turkish troops on the other side of the barbed wire, and we were beckoned over by a loud voice with what seemed a cockney ( or as we often described the accents of those in our own regiment who came from Hertfordshire/Essex- as Mockney) accent, we found then that this young Turkish soldier was in fact from North London, dual passport and whilst on a business trip to the land of his parents, he had been conscripted! His father said he had to spend his year on national service as he did not want to lose his business interest in Turkey!
He gave us his father’s address and we sent him a letter and then for the next few weeks we delivered him cigarettes (by the hundreds) that his father had paid for and other gifts – as this young soldier did not have a great grasp of his parents language, at least being flush in both cigarettes and other luxuries- it could make his life much more bearable!
So this was my first experience of living in the ‘Border lands’ - a place that was governed by no one , ownership was disputed and we often found ourselves as the only inhabitants but that did not mean that we did not see anyone, for a place that no one lived in, we still had many people making their way across this border that was not really a border, the deserted villages were now full of flora and even if no one was meant to visit, you often found some family had made their way back to their ancestral home, often to remember a late relative or celebrate some anniversary.
40 hears on I guess it may be very different, the border is now open in a number of places, the border is now a tourist attraction, those Greek families who fled Famagusta in 1974 now live in small towns and villages that service the tourist industry and coastal resorts, Famagusta is no longer deserted but still no where near having the 40,000 population it had in 1974 and the British still operate out of Dhekelia and Ayios Nikolaos but not sure if Black Knight and the little shop (and the broken window from a stray cricket ball) is on the little used road into Famagusta. – Heard since, that it still exists, and now is used by locals from both sides and tourists to cross the border, it looks busier and not sure a game of street cricket would be possible now.!
Black Knight 2019
After our stint operating on the Green Line between ourselves and the Turkish forces, we would now move north to work and live in a real buffer zone, the Green Line, west of Nicosia, between the Turkish Army and Greek Cypriot forces. To be continued in part 2.