Robin Olsen has lived for half a century. No experience is a bad experience unless we learn nothing from it.
Some background info on Cyprus and the UN.
Mission name: United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP)
Capital City: Nicosia
The third largest and third most populous island in the Mediterranean and a member state of the European Union. It is located south of Turkey, west of Syria and Lebanon, northwest of Israel, north of Egypt and east of Greece. Invaded by Turkey on 20 July 1974, the northern half of the island has been occupied since then.
Buffer Zone: A buffer zone is located between the Turkish and Greek speaking people, patrolled by the UN – whose role it is to monitor the cease fire and ensure both sides adhere to the truce. This buffer zone is divided up into several sectors all occupied by one UN participating nation or another. At the time of my tour, Sector 3 was Canada’s responsibility. It is illegal to make any repairs or alterations inside the buffer zone or to construct anything next to the buffer zone which may offer tactical advantage for one side or the other.
Ledra Palace: At one time a 4 or 5 star hotel, it was caught in the buffer zone that halted the Turkish invasion and has since been used exclusively to house UN troops, mostly Canadians. It is battle worn and the sides are littered with bullet holes testifying to the intensity of the combat in that area.
Ledra Palace Checkpoint: the crossing in Nicosia located just to the north of Ledra Palace. At this stage of the mission the checkpoints were mostly closed except for those with valid work permits or on diplomatic missions. They were closed with barb wire fences and oil drums filled with concrete as well as some concrete dividers to direct the flow of traffic through the checkpoint.
And Now for the Rest of the Story...
It was a pretty standard day in Cyprus that morning. The sun was shining, the mosques on the Turkish side of the buffer zone were calling the faithful to morning prayers and it was warm already and working it’s way towards hot.
I was the duty driver, my 4th time in as many days as I was burning off extras for a drunken mishap I had gotten myself into one evening when I had some time to myself. Most of that morning was pretty standard; go pick this up from here, pick up that guy from there, and I was making my way through the day in a pretty casual manner. Around noon I was summoned to the front desk of the Ledra Palace, which is where Sector 3 was headquartered, and informed that I was to go to Ledra Palace checkpoint and pick up an official letter notifying us of an upcoming protest at that checkpoint, one of the two crossing points in Nicosia. I didn’t think anything of it beyond my normal reactions to this or that tasking. I had a few minutes before so I decided to have a quick cup of coffee while waiting for the pickup time to arrive.
As the time of pickup approached I began making my way to the checkpoint. As I was leaving the Ledra Palace all seemed fairly normal. The duty NCO informed me he wanted me to check in when I returned, pretty standard stuff.
The trip to the checkpoint was short an uneventful. I crossed into the Turkish side of the island and parked the vehicle just outside the Turkish guardhouse. As I would normally do when interacting with the Turkish police stationed there. I walked into the guardhouse and that is when the first hint of something abnormal hit me. There were four police in the guardhouse that was usually occupied by only two.
Thinking this was strange I proceeded to announce why I was there and asked for the letter I was to pick up that day. That’s when oddity number 2 was presented. I was told to wait for the letter and that it was on the way and would arrive within the next 10 minutes or so. This was not part of the plan as far as I was told. I was told the letter would be at the guardhouse waiting for me to pick up and bring back to my commanders. I asked them why the delay and they just stalled me and said it was on the way and that I was not to worry. Problem #3 – I hate being told to ‘not worry’ – usually this means I should worry. I informed the Turkish police at the guardhouse that I was specifically instructed to pick up a letter that was to already be waiting for me at the checkpoint and that I was not instructed to delay or to wait. More stalling was the result of that. ‘Just wait’, they said. ‘It will be here any moment now’
I was about to leave the guardhouse and get back in my vehicle to return to Ledra Palace when the situation turned worse unexpectedly. Well, unexpected by me that is. What started out as a dull noise soon grew louder and I could make out chanting and voices in the din. They became crystal clear before I could actually see the first row of the crowd that was forming up between me and the exit into the relative safety of the buffer zone. The crowd moved in so unexpectedly fast that they seemed to emerge from every back ally and side street leading up to the crossing point on the Turkish side. At one moment the area was relatively empty, just me and my vehicle along with 4 Turkish police and the next moment the area was flooded with a sea of humanity.
What had been a mission to pick up a letter announcing an upcoming protest was turning into the protest itself. Illegal and unannounced and I was caught in the middle of it with nothing but a blue UN beret and work dress uniform to protect myself with. I did not have any weapons with me as the duty driver is not normally armed and I had no escorts. The crowd surged around the guardhouse and in the checkpoint area in general. The exit had been closed by the Turkish police without any effort to allow me to leave first. The crowd continued to grow and I was becoming fairly nervous at the prospect of being on the wrong side of the barb wire. Nervous, I started looking around for a way out, anything at that moment would have been welcomed. I could not see any opening in the barb wire fence that had been dragged across the checkpoint to close it and I could not see anything to the left or right of the checkpoint opening that would have offered me an escape. My nervous gaze fell upon the four Turkish police officers who were at the gate when I arrived. They returned my stare with a simple smirk and a comment that ‘kids will be kids’ – they made no effort to offer me a way out and no effort to control the crowd in any way. They just stood there leaning up against the wall of the guardhouse with silly looking smirks on their faces. No help from that direction.
I started moving, almost instinctively, towards the crossing even though it was sealed with barb wire and I could not get through it. I ignored the vehicle as it was trapped behind the bulk of the crowd. The crowd surged around me as I moved and before long I was up against the barb wire fence with a mob forming a semicircle around me, chanting in a strange language (Turkish) and it seemed they were focusing all of their energy in my direction. In fact they were. All the anger they felt towards the UN was focused on the one unarmed UN soldier standing trapped before them. The Turkish police officers could be seen in the background, still standing by the guardhouse with smiles on their faces, watching my situation but making no efforts to lend any assistance at all.
The crowd would surge like a tide, forward towards me a little, then back again, as if the crowd were breathing. Chanting and waving clenched fists at me, I was beyond nervous now…I was scared and feeling enclosed, trapped like an animal with no hope of escape.
It was strangely calm feeling though. I could feel the fear in me but my reactions were not that of panic. I felt like I was at the end and that I would not get out of this unscathed for sure. So I began scanning the crowd for someone I could ‘take with me’ so to speak. I was feeling like I didn’t want to die alone there on some island far away from where I came from. I was thinking, and I don’t exactly understand why I thought this way or where it came from, that if I could find someone roughly my own size I could quickly focus my efforts on that one individual while the crowd basically tore me to pieces. A strange thought, but this is what went through my head. It was a very calm process, no panic even though there was fear, just a calm decision to not go alone if I could help it. To this day, almost 25 years later, I still am surprised by the thought process I went through on that day. Perhaps it was the military training that helped me relax when everything around me told me to be very worried and on edge. If it was then that training was so well done I did not even realize the stabilizing effect it can have in this type of scenario.
Just as the semicircle began to close around me slowly I heard rifle bolts being pulled back behind me, more than one too. I turned to look over my shoulder as by now I was flat up against the barb wire and could not retreat any further. To my great relief and surprise I was presented with ‘City Patrol’ – a five man foot patrol that operated daily in the buffer zone. These were Canadian soldiers and I was never so happy to see my own people as I was that day.
The Master Corporal in charge of the patrol motioned to me both in gestures and verbally to ‘drop to the ground’ (apparently I was directly in their line of fire) and I did so with no hesitation at all. After I was safely in the prone position the Master Corporal screamed out over the din ‘Open the barb wire and let him out or we will fire into the crowd!’ All of a sudden the Turkish police remembered that they actually had a job to do and were suddenly very concerned for my welfare, pushing the crowd back and opening a hole in the barb wire to let me out. It would have all been very touching if I had not just witnessed those same police laughing at my predicament not 10 minutes before.
Once I was out and my mind started to unwind I started expressing concern for my vehicle, that it was being trashed. One of my brother soldiers just slapped me on the back and said ‘Don’t worry about the vehicle just be glad we got you out in one piece’. Truer words have never been spoken, that night, in the Junior ranks, I bought every member of that patrol a drink.
The whole affair started to wrap up once I was out of there. TV cameras that I hadn’t actually noticed before were suddenly in front of me as well as media photographers. Unfortunately, since photos were not allowed in the buffer zone or next to the buffer zone we spent the next 20 minutes or so confiscating film and ensuring cameras were turned off or pointed away from the buffer zone all together. The leaders of the protest, again unusually friendly with the arrival of reinforcements, wanted to present me with a letter of protest for the UN commander. A little late I guess but a letter none the less. We made the protest leader write his name, address and who he represented as well as who the letter was specifically for by name before we would accept the letter.
Once this ‘exchange’ had taken place the protest began to break up and move away from the buffer zone. The crowd was helped along by Turkish police and we ensured the barb wire fence, now that I was on the correct side of it, stayed in place until the area was vacated.
I thought that was it, the end of very unusual and unnerving run. When I arrived back a t Ledra Palace I was sought out by the Battalion intelligence officer who pulled me into his office for a debriefing. Apparently Battalion intelligence had been aware all along of the illegal protest that was going to happen that day and wanted to place an observer into the crowd to get some good intel on the size of the protest, the average age of the protesters as far as I could tell and how much support they appeared to have, how well organized they appeared to be, etc. Fair enough, I was willing to do whatever mission was assigned to me when I was a soldier and I had no problem with this one except that I wasn’t even told what I was doing and was just sent in with a BS story, no weapon and no escorts.
The debriefing was arduous. The officer kept repeating the same 5 or 6 questions over and over again using slightly different words to convey the same meaning. Each time he would record my answers diligently and when I asked him why the questions all seemed to be the same he told me that this was standard practice when debriefing, they did not think I was lying but they also wanted a calm and rational approximation of what I saw. They would ask these questions and then record the answers and then ‘average’ those answers out afterwards to come with numbers they thought were relative. When I asked him why I was sent in without a briefing he stated that this was also standard practice as they did not want anything to ‘impede’ on my ability to gather proper information and if I knew why I was going there it may have impacted my observations.
After the debriefing he smiled and said ‘Now that was kinda fun wasn’t it?’
He congratulated me on a job well done and told me not to discuss the matter or my involvement with anyone not directly involved in it. I held that peace for almost 25 years but now I can tell the story.
For further reading on Cyprus and the UN...
- United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) - Oxford Handbooks
This article focuses on the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), a peacekeeping operation launched by the UN Security Council in April 1964 in response to ethnic violence between Greek and Turkish Cypriots which followed an attempt
© 2015 Robin Olsen