Army Reservist Private Belinda Houghton (25) from Blackpool is an Army medic currently serving with the 4th Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment as part of the United Nations Forces in Cyprus (UNFICYP) mission.
The dark nights are drawing in even here in Cyprus which means the summer is truly over and Christmas is looming. The Christmas songs play in the shops, Santa hats are appearing at our frequent BBQs and in truth I have started to buy my family’s presents already.
However, before all that merriment is Remembrance Sunday, a date seared into the British identity and one which allows us in the Army to remember all those who have died in wars and conflicts.
Luckily, I do not have any close friends that were killed or injured in Iraq or Afghanistan but many of my friends who I serve with here know someone they have lost.
My job in Cyprus gives us such a range of responsibilities and these are spread over an area of approximately 40km, so we also get a good opportunity to find out not just Cypriot history but also the British Army’s history on the island.
Each day I am out patrolling either on my United Nations mountain bike or in my Toyota Land Cruiser, monitoring the Buffer Zone between the North and South of Cyprus, passing a beautifully maintained British War Cemetery called Wayne’s Keep. It holds members from the three Services from World War II to more recent times and we always stop to have a look, read the headstones, wonder who they were as people and pay our respects. It seems hard to think that such a tranquil place as Cyprus could have experienced so much conflict from so many different places. It leads me to think of why I am here with the United Nations; in order to maintain a fragile peace. It makes me reflect about this thin strip of land we patrol with absolute authority, called the Buffer Zone or Green Line.
It is surely counter-intuitive to walk between heavily fortified, opposing military positions, neither of which belong to my own forces. I am sure that in every war movie I’ve ever seen or military history I’ve read, it never ends well for the person who places themselves in such a position! Well, not only do my colleagues and I do this, we do it more than five times every week.
The Green Line is, for all intents and purposes, a ‘dead’ place. Wild cats have made their home there and a few weeds grow and die in line with the seasons. There are no people, no children playing or cars passing. For a place in the middle of a modern European Capital it is as quiet as a remote mountain top. There are shops but they have long since been abandoned. In a typical 1960s building which reflects that generation’s architectural ideas of people living, working and existing in concrete layered blocks one above another, I see the signs of lives’ abandoned at a moment’s notice. Shops still have old television sets in them for sale. Car dealerships still have 1974 Toyota Corolla and Celica models on display, and overhead apartments still have cookers with pots and pans on them, having being rudely interrupted during dinner half a century ago. Almost all life is gone. Yet, only metres from most points along the Green Line you would be in either North or South Nicosia with all its shops and cafes.
The Buffer Zone or Green Line is a surreal place and it is our responsibility to keep it as it is, maintain the status quo. But how do you tell people at home about this place, the insanity of conflict and a long running distrust between two communities that ended in bloodshed? The answer is that you use the stories of people caught up in it all.
In one instance I explain how a soldier of one of the armies crawled through an anti-personnel minefield to steal the flag of the enemy! Well, not to be outdone, the soldier who lost the flag from his position then shot the other dead and so the circle of violence continued and at times spiraled out of control. In another instance, an elderly lady found that after the conflict of 1974 ended in the ceasefire agreement, her front door and street were now in the Buffer Zone and could not be used. Having no rear entrance or exit she had to be ‘adopted’ by the United Nations and escorted in and out of her house every day just to pick up food from the local shops. This continued till the lady’s death in 1991.
Like most of the service personnel now laid down in Wayne’s Keep, we do not get to choose where we serve but every individual must use their own moral compass and understand that putting themselves in harm’s way to maintain the peace must be one of the most responsible acts a person can do for another. So many have done so before; in all, 183 United Nations Peacekeepers have been killed here. Now I do my own little part.
Op TOSCA, as the British role here is named, has revealed so many unexpected things for me. I never knew of the issues that Cyprus had before I came here but it will never be far from my thoughts in the future. A truly humbling and rewarding experience. Lest we forget.