When I Got Caught Up in the Turkish Invasion of Cyprus
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because things can go from perfect to perilous remarkably fast.
By Candida Watkins
It was 1974, I was 19, and I thought it would be an adventure to spend the summer working in Kyrenia, a beautiful little port town in the northern part of Cyprus.
I found a job as a waitress in one of the harborside restaurants, living with my then-boyfriend, my time off spent on boat trips or sightseeing around the island in an open-top jeep. Life was good.
This was way before the internet, mobile phones or even, in my little rented apartment, a television, and I was in no hurry to take time away from the beach to check the news. Turns out that while I was enjoying my little bit of Mediterranean paradise one day, the Cypriot president was overthrown in a coup d’état and Turkey took the opportunity to invade. The first I knew of it was waking up one morning to armed soldiers running past my bedroom window.
My 19-year-old self must have either been very naive or a lot braver than me now in my 60s. We came up with a plan to escape …
We ran down to the harbor, a few yards from where we were staying. The whole place was in chaos. Thankfully we saw a fellow English couple we vaguely knew and the four of us took off in their rental car, not really knowing where we were heading.
We ended up in a mountain village about 20 minutes’ drive away, where there turned out to be a few British-owned homes. We could see planes flying overhead and dropping bombs around us — the smoke from the bombs seemed terrifyingly close. All the Brits, about 10 of us, had gathered at one of the houses while the locals were running up the track, I suppose to take cover in the mountains, but for some reason, we decided to stay. We leaned mattresses and cushions around the walls of one of the small bedrooms, where we all hid when we heard the planes come overhead — though in hindsight, I don’t think our makeshift bomb shelter would have offered much protection should the worst have happened.
We had no idea what to do next. The village was now deserted except for us. We didn’t have that much food. We had no idea how long this would go on. Our only contact with the outside world was a radio that we kept permanently tuned in to the BBC World Service. I can’t remember how long we were there, but the whole time we were either all gathered around the radio or taking shifts through the night to listen for updates. It told us that most of the fighting was taking place in the capital, Nicosia, and that the Turkish army was battling for control of the airport, so no civilian planes were able to leave. It also told of the rescue of other British tourists who were being taken to the safety of the U.K. Air Force bases on the island. Evacuations were taking place from many of the popular resort towns, but no mention of Kyrenia except to report that Greek Cypriot forces were still trying to defend its coastline.
My 19-year-old self must have either been very naive or a lot braver than me now in my 60s. We came up with a plan to escape Kyrenia. We had about four cars so we painted red, white and blue Union Jack patterns on the roofs and grabbed some white sheets that we planned to wave out of the windows as we drove. We were all set to leave at dawn. I’m not even sure where we planned to go or how much fuel we had. Thankfully we never had to find out — that night the BBC World Service gave instructions for a potential rescue from a nearby beach.
At first light, we walked down to the beach. One of my more vivid memories is of putting out all our remaining food and filling every container, including the bath, with water for all the animals left behind in what was now a ghost town — we untethered several donkeys and goats that had been left behind by their owners.
Quite a few of us were waiting on the deserted beach, all with no possessions other than the clothes we stood up in. The sight of a helicopter coming in to land with the words “British Navy” emblazoned on it was when all the emotion of the last few days came flooding out. I felt immediately safe, though we later learned that the sand dunes were rumored to have been mined and some British sailors had been turned back at gunpoint from a different beach nearby.
We were loaded onto the helicopter, women and children first, and it careered away from the beach, turning almost on its back as it took off. We were taken aboard HMS Hermes, which sailed up and down the coast for most of the day to pick others up from a few different beaches. Finally, the ship picked up speed and went farther out to sea — the rumor on board was that it had been threatened by the Turks and the temporary cease-fire had broken down. I found myself exchanging stories with Golden Globe–winning actor Edward Woodward, who had also been stuck in Kyrenia.
A military aircraft from an RAF base in the south was the last leg of my unconventional journey back home.
The invasion led to the partition of Cyprus along the Green Line in Nicosia, which still divides the island today — with de facto Turkish control in the north and the Republic of Cyprus controlling the south. Fifteen years later, I went back to a tourist resort in the south but took a day trip to Kyrenia, now known by its Turkish name of Girne. To pass into the north, you have to cross a no man’s land past the once glamorous Ledra Palace Hotel, where there are still bullet holes in the walls.
And Girne? Nothing now when compared, maybe not so surprisingly, to what Kyrenia used to be.
- Candida Watkins, OZY Author Contact Candida Watkins