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Diary offers glimpse of 1974 Cyprus war through teenage eyes
July 17, 2014 / 10:42 PM / 3 years ago

Diary offers glimpse of 1974 Cyprus war through teenage eyes

A view shows the city across Turkish and Greek Cypriot-controlled areas and the United Nations (U.N.) buffer zone in central Nicosia March 12, 2014. REUTERS/Neil Hall

NICOSIA (Reuters) - On a balmy July morning in 1974, Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss was awoken by the sound of gunfire outside her childhood home in Cyprus’s capital Nicosia.

Aged 13, she started to document a defining moment in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts - a coup against a democratically elected government, engineered by Greece’s military junta, triggering a Turkish invasion five days later.

“Machinegun fire, bombs, mortars, guns ... fighting all round house. Only me, mam and Robert,” she wrote in neat script.

Her mother tried to go outside, a bullet whizzed past, and then she, her mother and her brother spent the next few hours huddled in the kitchen. The telephone went dead.

Butler-Sloss started her diary the day Greek Cypriot army tanks rolled into the streets of Nicosia.

Forty years on, and defying the best efforts of many mediators, this east Mediterranean island remains partitioned among its Greek and Turkish Cypriot populations, with Nicosia remaining the last divided capital in Europe.

“I’m still mystified as to why I started writing it,” Butler-Sloss, born on the island of Armenian and British parents, told Reuters. 

“I think it was my way of keeping calm,” said Butler-Sloss, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons, but frequently returns to Cyprus to visit her mother.

After years at the bottom of a drawer, the 45 pages of exercise book are now on display in Nicosia. Fittingly, the exhibit is just a few meters (yards) away from a de facto border hewn during those days of turmoil.

FACTS AND FIGURES

For all the emotional upheaval of those events in the summer of 1974, Butler-Sloss’s narrative remains purely factual.

Covering just over a month of conflict, it starts at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, July 15 when she was awoken by the sound of bullets from the presidential palace - just a few hundred meters up the road - and ends on Aug. 19, the day Rodger Davies, the American ambassador to Cyprus, was killed during riots.

Writing under curfew on the evening of July 20, the day Turkey launched its invasion, Butler–Sloss’s handwriting slopes across the page as she writes in darkness, “Very heavy bombs and fights around the house .. ack ack guns quite near us.”

She documents the heaviest fighting from 4:59 a.m. on Aug. 14, 1974. “There are hundreds of Turkish planes in the sky,” she writes. “A rocket from a plane almost burst my eardrums. It was so loud that little bits of plaster fell from the house.”

With hindsight, she acknowledges her diary could have been a defensive mechanism to buffer herself from fear.

“Reading the diary now, I feel the emotions that I didn’t at the time. At the time it felt very disembodied: ‘this is happening out there, it’s not going to hurt us’,” she said.

AIRLIFTED

Less than an hour after she started her Aug. 14 entry, British forces radio relayed a message for British citizens to evacuate to its bases – military compounds Britain has retained on Cyprus since granting it independence in 1960.

Her family was split up; not all of them had British passports. She, her brother and a cousin were airlifted to Britain, where she spent about a year before returning when her school reopened.

Tens of thousands of people were displaced in the conflict. War dead are still being buried after a decades-old stalemate allowed the sides to eventually locate and open unmarked mass graves for identification in an effort which started in 2007. 

Today, the gentle hum of cicadas under a carob tree in her mother’s back garden is interrupted by the buzz of a massive construction site a block away. It’s the new headquarters of a Russian online gaming firm, an indication of how much at least some parts of Cyprus have changed over the past four decades.

But for one 13-year-old, life was never the same again.

Some of her peers carried the trauma, turning to drink and drugs and dying prematurely.

“People sometimes don’t make the link, but it did have an effect. There was an innocence and freedom that we lost,” she says.

Editing by Louise Ireland and Michael Roddy

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