The recent United Nations attempt to restore relations between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots on the divided island of Cyprus, brought me back over 30 years to 1972, to the peace talks that began that year, and to the opportunity that gave me to encounter one of the legendary figures of the post-war anti-colonial movement, Archbishop Makarios.
I was an Irish army NCO working in the United Nations Force HQ in Nicosia and In June of that year, the then Secretary-General of the UN, Kurt Waldheim, arrived to inaugurate the talks process on the divided island between the President of Cyprus and leader of the Greek Cypriots, Archbishop Makarios, and Rauf Denktash, the Vice-President and Turkish Cypriot leader.
I was assigned to work on the operations duty car, whose task it was to shadow the Secretary General’s every movement and to report back to the UN Force HQ any deviation from his precisely planned schedule. As we drove next in line in the Secretary-General’s cavalcade, armed with a Nicosia street map and the car’s radio transmitter, I chanted off the street names over the air-waves to the planners tracing his every move back in the UN Force Operations Centre.
It was when Dr. Waldheim went to pay his courtesy call on Archbishop Makarios, that I got my opportunity to stand close-up to the renowned figure I had seen so often on the television and the newsreels. The cavalcade arrived at the Presidential Palace; a sandstone, colonial style building set on a Nicosia hilltop that had formerly housed the British Governor General. The Operations Officer was determined to ensure that we HQ types maintained a high profile, and as we exited our car, immediately after Dr. Waldheim had stepped from his to be greeted by Archbishop Makarios, I found myself standing a few feet away from these sharply contrasting personalities.
Makarios greeted the Secretary-General in clear and faultless English; Dr. Waldheim’s halting delivery, had a heavy central-European accent. Waldheim, a tall gangling figure, was dressed in the ubiquitous dark-grey suit of the diplomat. Makarios, a seemingly incongruous presentation of President and Archbishop, was dressed in the black robes of a prelate of the Orthodox Church; the magnificent pectoral cross and chain suspended from his neck heightening the impression.
After the leaders had entered the Palace for their brief talks, we waited in the bright sunshine of the forecourt for their return. When they emerged and Waldheim bowed his formal farewells to Makarios, I little thought that the next time I would see the Archbishop he would be lying-in-state in St. John’s Cathedral in Nicosia, awaiting his funeral.
I had returned to a very different Cyprus in 1977. In 1974 a group of right-wing extremists had overthrown Makarios and attempted to unite the island with Greece. Although Makarios escaped the attempt on his life, the beautiful Presidential Palace was burned to the ground.
The coup gave Turkey the pretext to invade and partition the island and create the division that has lasted to this day.
The Cyprus I had returned to was an island divided by barriers of barbed wire, machine gun posts and minefields. Many of the Nicosia streets down which we had followed the Secretary General on that memorable June day, were burnt-out ruins across which Greek and Turkish sentries faced each other, kept apart only by the blue-helmeted soldiers of the United Nations.
Makarios’ resumed the Presidency but in August of 1977 he died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 64. His body lay in state for a week of mourning, and I was only one of more than a quarter of a million people who filed past his coffin in the Cathedral. They ranged from leaders and representatives of over fifty nations, to old men and women from the Troodos mountains, still clad in the traditional Cypriot peasant dress.
On the morning of the funeral I was at work in the UN HQ in Nicosia. It was a scorching summer day with the temperature nearing 100 degrees fahrenheit and we had moved our desks out on to the porch to escape the heat of the building. There was not the usual bustle in the HQ, as most of the senior staff were part of the miles- long funeral cortege of cars that wound its way four thousand feet up into the Troodos Mountains to the Monastery of Kykko, where Makarios had started as a novice and had requested to be buried.
Suddenly, out of a clear blue sky, dark clouds appeared and rain poured down over Nicosia scattering us back into the building. We were astonished. Old Cyprus hands could not remember rain in August. Metrological records in Cyprus date back only to 1939, and they revealed no record of August rain over Nicosia. Old Cypriots whose memories dated back further, shook their heads and said it was a miracle.
The next day, a Greek Cypriot newspaper referring to the extraordinary event of the rain, said it had proved an old Greek proverb, that when a good man was buried, even the heavens shed tears. A Turkish Cypriot newspaper however, said that the unseasonal rain had proved an old Turkish proverb, that when an evil man was buried, the heavens tried to wash away his misdeeds. Out of such interpretations, or misinterpretations, is revealed the tragedy of divided people.