Being a Reservist Peacekeeper: Part Five

20161017-pte_houghton_photoArmy 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.

Christmas is fast approaching here at the United Nations Protected Area in Cyprus. Spontaneous outbreaks of Christmas sing-a-longs and jingles that beckon you to join in as you walk or drive along, or to buy something pretty, expensive and completely outrageous, but that is Christmas these days isn’t it?

At work, the endless resourcefulness of the British Army soldier is pushed to its limits with decorating our work and living spaces with trees, tinsel, lights and angels. Santa could never miss us even if he tried and thanks to the good work of the Royal Air Force and the military logistics personnel that move so many parcels at this time of year, on Santa’s behalf, we are filling the empty spaces under the Christmas tree and in our rooms amazingly fast. With the sun still shining brightly outside but with a little frost, my body tells me it doesn’t quite feel like Christmas.

Whilst chatting here one day, we noticed that everyone’s prayers and seasonal greetings at this time of year tend to reflect or follow the lyrics of many of the songs that we hear on the radio or watch on YouTube, hoping for world peace and an end to war, famine and disease. Many of my own echo these sentiments and I long to be back with family in Blackpool. What is it about Christmas that makes us want to be closer to family and friends than probably any other day of the year? I would give up all offers of gifts to sit around the dinner table with those I love and cherish, if only for that one day.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Cyprus!

The reality here in Cyprus is different. Even on Christmas Day we still do the duties of guarding gates and patrolling the buffer zone but we have a very filling Christmas dinner planned with turkey and even the dreaded or beloved sprouts, depending on how you view them. There will be Christmas hats, crackers, pudding, chocolate, fizzy drinks and maybe even a responsible alcoholic beverage for those lucky enough to be on a rest day. There will be sports to work up an appetite in the morning and then in the evening there will be board games and the like to allow a quiet digestion of all that we’ve eaten. The Wi-Fi will be tested to destruction as everyone uses Skype and FaceTime to talk with loved ones at home, so overall it will be good fun and we are all looking forward to it.

Working Christmas and New Year at home is something I am quite used to, because there are always patients that need looking after, regardless of what time of year it is. As a student nurse in the National Health Service (NHS) you see so many families affected by Christmas, whether it be a poorly cooked turkey that causes upset stomachs or the results of a road traffic collision that wrecks the holiday for some unsuspecting family. And just like in the Army, we always do our best in the NHS to keep people upbeat, focused on what’s important and to remember to enjoy and celebrate the occasion as best you can.

So, this year I will be lucky enough to celebrate Christmas with the many other nationalities that are here as part of the United Nations and hopefully partake in some of their Christmas traditions. The Slovakian contingent believe it is Jesus that gives you the presents at Christmas and not Santa, so we have been learning so much about how everyone else celebrates and how we can bring all of this together to make it a great day for all.

But before Christmas actually arrives and those New Year resolutions are made and broken, I must mention the military skills competition that we had earlier this month and how all the extra physical and military training thankfully paid off. The day of the military skills competition started nice and early at 4:30am, but luckily we didn’t have to travel far (unlike some in the other sectors) as it was held in Nicosia.

We got off to a flying start in the first event which was the 2.5 mile loaded march carrying a 25kg log between the team, which we won by a rather large margin, but that did not stop the aches in my legs throughout, but they disappeared like a Christmas miracle once I realised we had done so well. Later on in the day we also won the shooting competition and I’d like to think my one shot on target made all the difference. The rest of the day wasn’t as successful but everybody put 100% effort in. Our team which was made up from four different nations did well – we came fifth. The winning team were from the international military police. The opportunities of being here and serving in Cyprus is one of the best Christmas presents I could ever have wished for. I will never forget any of it.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Being a Reservist Peacekeeper: Part Four

20161017-pte_houghton_photoArmy 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.

Oh my goodness, time has really flown by. It is hard to believe that I have been here almost two months already and that is almost a third of the tour over. I feel like I haven’t even seen or done anything yet and soon I will be deciding about where to go on holiday when I get back home next year.

The last few weeks have been really busy with patrolling and preparation for our military skills competition. I am the only girl on the team of eight Infantrymen but I surprise them and myself at times with my ability to just get stuck in to it all.

Balancing my daily work routine of guarding and patrolling whilst managing to get time to fit more military and physical training in is exhausting, but in a fun and motivating way. I found that although there are real physical elements to everything we do here, the more I do the more I want to do.

I love that my job allows me to get out most days into the sprawling open countryside around the United Nations Protected Area (UNPA), where I am based in the West of Nicosia. The area surrounds the old Nicosia Airport and has largely open fields now used by authorized farmers to graze their animals. One of my many responsibilities is to ensure that no unauthorized civilians are entering these areas without permission, as the lands are either contested or administered by the United Nations and therefore out of bounds.


Illegal hunters, unauthorized farmers and even opportunistic quad bikers will sometimes deliberately stray into them as they are fertile grounds for prey, soil and off road tracks. As for the authorized farmers, I actually have to count the number of sheep in their fields to ensure that there are only the correct number herded there. The jokes about counting sheep in your sleep are endless, as you can imagine. Quad bikers, taking full advantage of the very inviting and almost bespoke ‘all terrain’ nature of these areas, can often be seen blazing a trail at breakneck speeds.

When we catch them, we ask them to leave. Most understand that they need special permission to be there, but occasionally illegal farmers or hunters will protest that they do not need permission and refuse to move. Illegal hunters especially are stubborn because they are armed and we are not. The anxiety and tension in the air can at times be cut with a knife. Not that they would use their weapons against us but trying to get an armed person to do something they do not want to do, when you are unarmed, can be really tricky.

But we are trained for exactly this type of ‘person to person’ engagement, and so we negotiate with them professionally and courteously. This will generally elicit the same response, and so we can talk effectively to them about the constraints on the movement of non-authorized individuals, in a grown up discussion, which they almost always react positively to.

Funnily I have many of the same types of conversation with patients that I see as a student nurse back in Lancaster. I love the human interaction that both jobs provide. People are just so diverse and interesting but essentially human. Just like our famers and hunters here in Cyprus, patients at home often have to be negotiated with in order to get the best results for them in their recovery. I think many people could see this as stressful and tiring but it is a genuine pleasure to help if it pays off for them in the end. You just have to believe that they really do appreciate your help even if they do not show it immediately.


There are a number of abandoned buildings and houses in my patrolling area so we will routinely get out of our vehicles and have a look around to ensure the properties are empty, and that wild dogs are not using them. Would you believe I am at far more danger from a dog with rabies than I ever am from anything else? I have Armies north and south of me and the real danger is a mad dog!

As the military skills competition approaches I find myself training harder and harder. I must at least be as capable as the men in the team, although we all have different roles and strengths. I am the team’s combat medical technician which is a grand term for a battlefield paramedic, of sorts. In the simulated helicopter crash that will be one of the testing events in the competition I will be the subject matter expert when dealing with casualties, triaging them into the correct medical category based on their injuries and then ensuring that this information is relayed as effectively and efficiently as possible to the team commander.

We actually use a system that is not too dissimilar to the one I use as a student nurse. It allows me to quickly assess and categorize each casualty in order to ensure that the individual requiring life-saving treatment gets it according to their need and in relation to the needs of the other casualties. The parallels with my civilian work really allow me to play to my strengths.


The other events in the competition include cross country driving, command tasks, which are effectively practical puzzles that we attempt to solve as a team (think ‘of 90s quiz show The Crystal Maze) and shooting. It is all good fun but also intensely competitive. We compete against the other United Nations contributing forces from Argentina, Hungary and Slovakia.

To give you an idea of how competitive it is, we had a football tournament a few days ago with the same nations and you would have thought the World Cup had come to Cyprus. It all makes for really great banter and allows us to cooperate and communicate on a level that we all understand. Not everyone here speaks fluent English and the British personnel do not necessarily speak fluent Spanish, Hungarian or Slovakian but we do all understand ethos, team spirit and performance. Maybe I could get the nurses at home to get stuck into these types of events when I get back. Anyway, the football ended as it always does with Argentina knocking both our teams out. No ‘Hand of God’ this time, more like feet of Messi!

I will let you know how the military skills competition goes.

Being a Reservist Peacekeeper: Part Three

20161017-pte_houghton_photoArmy 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.


Private Belinda Houghton pays her respects during Remembrance.

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.

20161118-remembrance_blog_3_6In 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.

Being a Reservist Peacekeeper: Part Two

20161017-pte_houghton_photoArmy 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.

A month into our operational tour of Cyprus and we are all settling in nicely here on Blue Beret Camp. Originally named after the famous light blue colour of the United Nations head-dress, we really couldn’t ask for a much better place to live. Perched on high ground in the vicinity of the old Nicosia International Airport, it towers above and dominates the surrounding countryside and west of Nicosia. Each morning when I get out of bed and head to either an early morning exercise session or to work, I can observe the beauty of the sun breaking through on the horizon. Cyprus is a really rugged, dry and beautiful country and therefore the sunrise is a lot like those you might see in the desert.

Watching the BBC News here most days and I see that the United Kingdom is becoming cooler and wetter as they move into winter from autumn. I can imagine the dark and cold setting in and that extra effort needed to get out of bed each morning. In contrast Cyprus has light and warmth in abundance and it seems like a genuine waste not to get up and meet it. I am loving the Mediterranean winter sunshine!

Work means switching between sentry and life-guarding duties most days but I am getting a good amount of ‘down time’. This has allowed me to do a bit of exploring into the centre and specifically shopping areas of Nicosia.

Shopping opportunities are plentiful here and there’s the usual Debenhams, Top Shop, Zara etc. But the real bargains are to be had on the North side of Nicosia. There are so many little boutiques with hand-made tailored outfits and so inexpensive.


A shopping day in Nicosia.

The north side is also home of the world famous Umbrella café with its great atmosphere, food and opportunity to get a great selfie. In Cyprus, coffee shops are the place to be in on an evening. They look very much like bars do in the UK, are full of the same hustle and bustle, but surprisingly sell cappuccinos or expresso instead of Sambuca shots. It seems to be the way of the Cypriots and you know what they say, “when in Rome”.

In day-to-day life the Cypriot people seem to be more laid back. Shops don’t open till late morning, the streets don’t get busy until the afternoon or evening and they aren’t rushing about as much.

I have a feeling that this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is just so much to do in Nicosia that I would not be surprised if I didn’t get to see the rest of the island by the time we return home in a few months. I suspect I will see it all though. I have the energy and time to do it so it would be rude not to.

Back on camp our social calendar is quite full as well. There is a real ethos of work hard, play hard. The Officers and Sergeants are great at getting things organised and getting us all involved. I suspect they might be trying to mould us as a team but it is great fun so I really do not mind. We have regular BBQs with the Argentinians, Hungarians and Slovakians. Unfortunately, I’m a vegetarian and although meat does smell fantastic I’m happy with the meat free options and extra dessert.

Getting ready for the Halloween party, where I intend to dress up as a Zombie nurse, which I thought was very fitting due to my student nursing background, is another opportunity to have a laugh with my friends here. My platoon also has trips planned to Kyrenia, Ayia Napa and Farmagusta, so I will have the opportunity to explore a bit more of the Island in the run up to Christmas.

We have Remembrance Sunday approaching so I better get working on my uniform so that it looks good for the commemoration.




Being a Reservist Peacekeeper

20161017-pte_houghton_photoArmy Reservist Private Belinda Houghton (25) from Blackpool is currently serving with 4th Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment as part of the United Nations Forces in Cyprus (UNFICYP) mission.

Leaving my family in Blackpool and my nurse training in Lancaster behind as I started my journey to Cyprus was difficult, but I was also filled with a lot of excitement. This is my first operational tour with the Army Reserve but it is exactly the type of stuff I joined to do. I only joined 18 months ago and can’t believe this opportunity was open to me so early in my career.

When I stepped off the plane at Akrotiri airport in Cyprus, the heat that greeted me was pretty impressive. In excess of thirty degrees Celsius and with a humidity of around fifty percent. It didn’t take long for me to start sweating, but I was used to it.

Over the last seven weeks I have been training across the United Kingdom in a record breaking summer heat, so I know how to deal with the sun. In the Army this deployment to Cyprus is known as a ‘sunshine’ tour and I can see why.

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A brief pause for thought

Corporal Si Longworth

Corporal Si Longworth

Corporal Si Longworth is one of 38 trained British Army photographers.  He left a career in aviation to pursue his passion for photography; capturing everything that military life has to offer. He has recently returned from Afghanistan where he was the Task Force Helmand Photographer.

‘More time off than Clint Eastwood’s safety catch’

That was how a co-worker chose to describe my work/holiday routine. To be fair, I had just returned from a two-week holiday to the US and Caribbean prior to skiing in Austria for a week. So, it was harsh but true. In my defence, when I got back from Afghanistan I had a huge chunk of leave to use before the end of the financial year and I was determined to give it my best effort! I think I succeeded.

In order to restore the balance of things on my return, I needed to get some work done and quickly. Quick diary check: Cyprus? Suits me, so here I am writing you another blog from a seat in an Airbus A330 (somewhere over Eastern Europe), having just completed another week-long photo assignment. Hey come on, it’s still work.

When I got the assignment to go to Cyprus, I thought it would be a Civil Servant Army Press officer from the Exeter office and me, so I was surprised to see the Senior video camera guys from the Army News Team at HQ Army plus three civilian members of the press at RAF Brize Norton when I arrived for check in. I knew I was going to be busier than expected. I wasn’t wrong.

My pictures were going to be sent in several directions; the British Army social media channels (including Facebook, Twitter, tumblr), regional press newspapers and also some news websites. Plus I was supposed to be putting together a multimedia presentation.

It’s always been a great incentive to get better pictures when you are pretty much guaranteed to have some kind of output with them besides throwing them up on Twitter or Facebook. Don’t get me wrong; some of my pictures have had great success on social media. This one for instance had all the ingredients to be a success: It has a dog and it has an interaction of some kind between it and a human. Very simple ingredients, but a very powerful recipe. It’s not the record for Army social media but, as I write this, it has close to 10,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook. I am happy with that.

Pictured: Lance Corporal Ryan Millican  shows affection to his search dog, Otis during an Exercise in Cyprus.

Pictured: Lance Corporal Ryan Millican shows affection to his search dog, Otis during an Exercise in Cyprus.

So, knowing I had a lot of outlets to cater for meant I was hyped about getting on that plane. With introductions complete we set off. Well, I say that. What I meant was that we finally got off once we factored in the seemingly obligatory delay that comes with airline travel. Even the RAF is not immune.

Run for the hills

We landed in Cyprus late in the evening but were quickly assigned our accommodation. I was with some senior ranks from 6th Battalion The Rifles in the transit rooms, but I was lucky to have one all to myself.

As soon as I arrived at Episkopi camp I was barraged by the smell of reminiscence. The flora of camp took me back to the late nineties when I was based in the same place. I will never forget that smell. Back in 1998 I lived in a transit block similar to the one I had been given. It hadn’t aged a bit in my mind or reality. The décor was similar to how I remembered it. Quite how I remembered those days is a little beyond me. I was nineteen years old and the streets of Limasol were alive with loud music and Cypriot vodka. In my days off I would party hard, but back then a hangover didn’t mean three subsequent days of recovery!

Back to today; and a Miami time zone meant it was a struggle to get out of bed the next morning, but we were straight up and out. The ‘cookhouse’ was up a hill about half a mile from where I was staying, so breakfast was bought in the café 200 metres away instead. We all headed for briefings by the officers of 6 Rifles, who were hosting us for the exercise. They are a reservist unit based predominantly in Cornwall, hence the reason we had ITV Southwest, Pirate FM and the West Briton newspaper reporters with us.

Once all the military jargon of the briefings had been decrypted and translated for the press, we made a run for the hills where a platoon of riflemen was storming a position. Being in uniform meant I could work my way through the patrols, capturing what I could.

A soldier battles with the hills and heat during an attack

A soldier battles with the hills and heat during an attack

A soldier pauses for shade

A soldier pauses for shade

Throughout the trip the press and I were allowed great access to see just how integrated the reservists were with their parent battalion, 1 Rifles. At times it was difficult to tell them apart. I never exercised like this in Cyprus and had forgotten what ‘mean bush’ the scrubland was. Literally everything that grows out of the ground has spikes. Trees, shrubs; even some of the grass was deadly. There are thistle-looking plants that would eat Scottish thistles alive. I have about four of them still embedded in my thigh. Needless to say that elbow and knee-pads were an absolute necessity.

The day after, my Cyprus dreams were all answered in the form of a pooch. Not the Royal Marine pooch you may be thinking of, which stores essential kit. I am talking about the Golden retriever kind in the form of Otis, the search dog, and his handler from the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, LCpl Millican. Those of you who have been following this blog will know that not only do I absolutely love dogs (even though I have never had one) but also they are my ‘gold dust’ when it comes to imagery. It’s fair to say that the social media-using public love to see them, and I am here to cater for that demand.

I learned very quickly that Otis loved his picture being taken, and it was as if he had attended doggy modelling school; the shots just kept on coming.

LCpl Millican and Otis

LCpl Millican and Otis


LCpl Millican and Otis

LCpl Millican and Otis

The team resting after a long day

The team resting after a long day

Nineteen year old me

The next couple of days I just bounced from attacks, to patrols, to night routine, to harbour areas and tried to get as much out of the trip as I could. During an afternoon of editing though, my mind began to wander again to my teenage years in Cyprus. The only camera I had with me then was a disposable. I didn’t really take all that many pictures in Cyprus. Not sure why; I cannot remember now, but I know I bought a couple of normal and underwater disposables. As I write this I am trying to think where all those pictures went. They must be somewhere buried under a mountain of old things in my house. I know I have them as, whilst thinking back, I remembered that when I first got onto facebook I scanned a whole load of images that I came across. One of them was a picture of me standing alongside a Military Police 4×4, outside the Cyprus Joint Police Unit in Episkopi. I must have been trying to be creative as I had it developed in sepia. (Lord knows why!). Anyway, a quick check of one of the first albums I posted to facebook and there it was. A 19-year-old me standing in the police station courtyard with the Isuzu Trooper. I downloaded it to my computer and had a thought. It was only 200 yards down the road from where I was now accommodated, so maybe I could go recreate it. So that’s exactly what I did.

The Military Police were only too happy to move a vehicle for me once I had explained what I wanted and had shown them the original picture. I positioned the ‘photographer’ where I wanted him and adopted the pose. I got it nearly right and here is the result of that shot, set alongside the original, now converted to black and white:

Younger and slimmer v older and fatter

Younger and slimmer v older and fatter

There are 16 years between these pictures. Now I have never been one to reflect on past times as I have always been happy about what I have done and achieved in life but staring at this set of two images got to me. It is while I write this that I recently lost two military ‘brothers’ and it has profoundly affected me and the way I view certain things. I never expected to grieve quite the way that I am. Their lives have unexpectedly been cut short, and their families will never be the same; something I have given much thought to.

I thought too about growing old myself. I thought about whether I had missed opportunities along the way. I thought about loss. I thought about making sure now that I do everything I have always wanted to.

This pair of pictures should represent achievement and progress along life’s conveyor belt, but instead they make me sad because I can’t slow it down to savour what I love. My body has changed, the people in my life have changed; some come and some go and I suppose that’s just ‘life’, but at times such as these … it’s hard to reconcile.

Hey, if you could see me now, it isn’t a pretty sight.

Being in the thick of it

I am not sure my inner thoughts on life have a place in this photographic blog. I have deliberated with my conscience at great length about their inclusion and in the end, here they are. Why? Well, because that’s the essence of what I believe photography should be about. Stirring up emotion; which these two images set beside each other did with me. I have always been passionate about looking at other people’s photographs, as I have mentioned in previous blogs. If a photograph moves you for whatever reason then it has impact and power and has achieved its aim.

“Back to the pretty pictures” I hear you say. Ok then.

Before the exercise was declared over, the soldiers of 1 and 6 rifles had their final testing phase. I was there to cover it all. Some of the terrain meant our minibus couldn’t make it, therefore I had to lug my kit into position. It was hot. Not as hot as Afghan, but I hadn’t had any time to get used to it, so water intake was a must. Running around in the heat, however, reminded me of Afghan and how much I enjoyed being in the thick of it.

Soldiers discussing their next plan

Soldiers discussing their next plan

It wouldn’t be my blog without a silhouette

It wouldn’t be my blog without a silhouette

In less than a week I was back on a flight home. As always; spending time editing and writing this blog [which incidentally I have only just got around to finishing]

I was happy with my imagery from Cyprus. I didn’t have long to revel in it though. Two days after landing I was heading to Devon for a few days to watch hundreds of kids yomp over the moors. I’ll save that for another blog.

More TC

Read Si’s other blogs here: Life Through a Lens…

Living in the Buffer Zone, the Ledra Palace Hotel

Capt Peter Singlehurst.

Capt Peter Singlehurst.

Captain Peter Singlehurst is from the Media Operations Group(V) and is currently serving as the Media and Ops Info Officer, with 17 Port and Maritime Group in Cyprus.

Hello from Cyprus!

In this blog I am going to look behind the scenes at where we in Sector 2 actually live during our tour here in Cyprus with the UN.  Our camp is made up of the former Ledra Palace Hotel, a small part of the former colonial period Wolsey Barracks and some other buildings. All of this is in the UN Buffer Zone, the area controlled by the UN that separates the 1974 cease fire lines of the Republic of Cyprus National Guard and the Turkish Forces.

The Ledra Palace Hotel was once really quite famous, and was known as the most glamorous and luxurious hotel in Nicosia.  Originally built in 1949, the hotel in its heyday had 163 bedrooms, together with a conference room, library, card room and ballroom with orchestra.  There were two restaurants, two bars, a café and several small shops. In the garden there was a swimming pool, paddling pool, children’s playground and tennis courts.

In 1974 following the military action the Ledra Palace Hotel found itself isolated in the newly established UN Buffer Zone, between the Turkish and Greek Cypriot cease fire lines and during the fighting the hotel suffered superficial damage that is still visible today.  As a result the hotel became a base for UN peacekeeping troops, first the Canadian contingent and now, following their withdrawal, the British.

Sweet smell of washing powder

So let us enter the hotel, we walk in through the main entrance, the old reception is the guard room, around us the décor is frozen in the 1970s.  Looking up we see some old grand chandeliers set into intricate plaster ceiling roses.  The walls are richly decorated with architectural features and the floors are marble.  All however have suffered over time and now the reception is a shadow of its former self, as the passing of time and thousands of UN peacekeepers have taken their toll

As we walk around the ground floor we find the various messes, the old ballroom has been divided and is now the main cookhouse and our gym.  Where once the notice boards would have told of holiday excursions there are now military notices and everywhere are signs of the military use of the former hotel for the last almost 40 years.

As we climb the main staircase around us there is constant activity, this after all is the the centre of a military operation that goes on 24 hours a day seven days week.  On each floor is both living accommodation and the Troop offices from which the Buffer Zone patrols are organised.

Walking down the corridors the way is illuminated by harsh strip lights.  An industrial electrical system has been added with trunking attached to the walls.  There is a constant hum from the electricity.  We walk past one of the rooms that has been set aside for washing machines and smell the sweet smell of washing powder.  Looking up the hotel’s old plumbing has been replaced with an industrial system.  The pipes are exposed the same as the trunking, this is a building that has lost its refinement and has become utilitarian.  As we continue to make our way to the roof we can hear and see Cypriot builders gradually refurbishing rooms that have fallen into disuse.

Europe’s last divided city

Looking north from main gate of the Ledra Palace Hotel

Looking north from main gate of the Ledra Palace Hotel


As we arrive on the roof we emerge into the bright sun, and the heat is reflected back off the flat roof, under a lazily flapping UN flag, we can look out over the city.  To the north we see the Turkish cease fire line running near the old tennis courts and in the distance the Kyrenia Mountains, with the massive iconic flag of the Turkish north on the side of the mountain.  To the west we look into the buffer zone and agricultural land with the Troodos Mountains beyond.  To the east is the old bastion walls of Nicosia and the roof tops of the old town with the minarets of the Selimiye Mosque prominent.  South we see the modern buildings of central Nicosia that reminds us we are in Europe’s last divided city.

Ledra Palace Hotel

Ledra Palace Hotel

Returning to the ground floor and the outside we walk across the car park on one side are war damaged buildings; on the other side is the Greek Ambassador’s residence.  As we walk across depending on the time of day the cicadas are chirping or the bells of the Greek Cypriot churches are ringing or the call to prayer from the Turkish Cypriot mosques rings out.  At the main entrance we can see Cypriots and tourists making their way to the Buffer Zone crossing beside the Ledra Palace Hotel, but if we look behind us there is the Buffer Zone, overgrown and quite, frozen in time since 1974.

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Modern city to deserted landscape

Capt Peter Singlehurst.

Capt Peter Singlehurst.

Captain Peter Singlehurst is from the Media Operations Group(V) and is currently serving as the Media and an Ops Info Officer, with 17 Port and Maritime Group in Cyprus.

Hello from Cyprus!

The day-to-day work of Sector 2 is patrolling our part of the Buffer Zone here in Cyprus, as I have mentioned before this is carried out in four ways, namely in vehicles, on bikes, on foot and in the air.  This blog will describe a recent vehicle patrol I accompanied in the west of our area.

Normally patrols consist of two soldiers, either two Privates or a Lance Corporal and a Private.  For this patrol they were joined by me and some army media personnel from the Media Operations Group, who were in Cyprus to gather material to help tell our story.  For this blog however I will concentrate of the patrol itself, so that you can get a flavour of what the patrols are actually like.

We set off from our base at the old Ledra Palace Hotel, in the centre of Nicosia; our objective was to patrol the western end of our operational area.  To get there however first involves a drive through the city.  We leave by our main gate and join the busy traffic at the well-known “Billy the Bomber” roundabout.  So called because in the centre is a statue of an EOKA member throwing a grenade.  A constant reminder of previous troubled times and the British Army’s long standing presence here.

Watching us watching them

We drive through the city towards the old airport, the Cypriots do no give us a second thought we are part of their everyday lives and the sight of the white Toyota Hilux pick-ups we use with the large black UN letters on the side is an everyday occurrence.

After a few minutes we arrive at the main entrance of the United Nations Protected Area, as the old international airport is now known. Here we pass through a UN manned check point and receive a salute from the Argentinian soldier manning the gate, immediately we turn off the main road and on to the patrol track.  We have entered the Buffer Zone and the change is immediate.  We have gone from a modern busy European city to a deserted landscape.  Around us are a few scattered damaged buildings and old defensive positions from the 1974 fighting, as we drive on we see our first Greek Cypriot National Guard Observation posts and Turkish Forces Observation posts.  Some are manned but many are not due to the progress that the UN has made in de-escalating tensions between the two opposing sides.

We wave at the soldiers and sometimes get a friendly wave back, sometimes though they are indifferent and continue watching us watching them.

Our first stop is AD crossing, this is one of three places in Sector Two where the two communities can cross the Buffer Zone that divides them.  It also marks the boundary between our West Troop and our Centre troop.  Just before we get there however the patrol track takes us past one of the most unexpected parts of the Buffer Zone, when we drive past what are now the back gardens of a row of houses where people still live.  The edge of the Buffer Zone is the edge of their property and the patrol track used to be a normal residential road.  On the other side of the track are derelict houses.  This means the Cypriots living in the houses can just walk out of their property and straight into the buffer zone.  Today though nobody is about and it is all quite.

Wayne’s Keep

Our next stop is an old UN patrol house. In the past up to a company of men were based here and the area was once a problem area.  On top of the patrol house is a UN observation point and soon we are watching the Turkish and Greek Forces watching each other and us.

Nearby is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery of Wayne’s Keep that is located in the Buffer Zone.  The cemetery is one of the unexpected jobs that we in Sector Two have, for we conduct visits to it on behalf of the CWGC.  Nearby is also an old school, high on a hill that commands the whole area and which has a Turkish Observation point on it, we look to see that all the opposing forces have the right number of troops in their observation posts and they do, so it is time to move on.

Caption Wayne’s Keep Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the Buffer Zone Sector 2 UNFICYP

Wayne’s Keep Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the Buffer Zone Sector 2 UNFICYP

Poo lagoon

We set off again driving west and the Buffer Zone opens up here the land is dry and parched.  The ground is stony with only the hardiest of plants growing, it is deserted and the Turkish and Greek Observation posts are now in the distance.  We continue our drive west to visit a pig farm that has been given permission to operate in the Buffer Zone.  We need to monitor the activities of the farmer to see that he is sticking to what has been agreed.  This includes inspecting his pig slurry lagoons. The smell is unbelievable and it is not a pleasant task.

Caption On Patrol West AO Sector 2 UNFICYP

Caption On Patrol West AO Sector 2 UNFICYP


The patrol is also on the lookout for fly tipping, this has been an issue for many years as Cyprus like most countries charge for commercial rubbish disposal and therefore dumping rubbish in the UN controlled Buffer Zone is a cheap, if illegal solution.  Near the pig farm some fly tipping is spotted and so we stop and take pictures.  In due course the Municipality will be informed and they will remove the rubbish.

Our final stop of the patrol is at another UN observation post that is in the far west of our patrol area; here the OP is on the edge of a long ridge that means we look out far to the west and north of the Turkish Cypriot area.  The land is dry grassland with a strong hot wind blowing.  Nothing is moving and in this part of the Buffer Zone we are quite alone.  It is only in the distance that the nearest town with its large mosque with twin minarets and a silver dome glistens in the sun.

Our patrol has reached the edge of the area of operations and now it is time to head back to Nicosia, another patrol complete.

Looking West Sector 2 UNFICYP

Looking West Sector 2 UNFICYP

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Flying with the Argentine military

Capt Peter Singlehurst.

Capt Peter Singlehurst.

Captain Peter Singlehurst is from the Media Operations Group(V) and is currently serving as the Media and an Ops Info Officer, with 17 Port and Maritime Group in Cyprus.


The military currently serving with the United Nations in Cyprus is made up of service personnel from a number of nations that you would not expect to usually work together.  Not many people realise that here on the island we, the British Army, work very closely with the Argentinian military who, after the UK, contribute the second largest contingent to UNIFYCP.

Argentinian helicopters on service with the UN

Argentinian helicopters on service with the UN

The Argentinians patrol Sector 1, which includes the mountainous Buffer Zone in the west and they also operate the only helicopters the UN has with this mission.  This therefore means that when we in Sector 2 patrol from the air we are flown by the Argentinian Air Force in their helicopters.  Recently I joined one of these air patrols and have also spent a day with my Argentinian counterparts to see how they carry out their work and the challenges the UN face in Sector 1.

In Sector 2 we patrol on the ground, on foot, by bike and by vehicle.  This however limits what we can see and we need to monitor what the opposing forces are doing immediately behind their respective cease fire lines.  The answer therefore is to take to the air and fly along the Buffer Zone. 

The air patrol

One morning recently I  joined two other British soldiers for an air patrol.  First we had to report to the Argentinian UN Flight for a briefing.  The helicopters operate from a corner of the old Nicosia International Airport.  This has been closed since the fighting of 1974 and remains frozen in time slowly deteriorating, as nature recaptures the land and the buildings crumble.  Here in a corner sits one hanger and a small office where we are briefed on the flight and I explain that I want to look at an illegal rubbish dump that is being used by Greek Cypriots from the south and some building work being carried out by the Turkish Forces in the north.  Finally I will be looking at the farmer’s crops in the Buffer Zone and how much they have harvested so far.

Once the briefing is over we are taken out to the small Hughes 500 helicopter for our patrol.  I sit in the front right hand set next to the pilot and the other patrol members sit behind.  Soon we are off and I am looking out through the plexi glass dome at the deserted airport.  We fly over the old runway and see the long abandoned remains of an old Royal Air Force Shackleton below.

On aerial patrol

On aerial patrol

As we climb it is now time to be thinking of work, I have to get my bearings and look for the edge of the buffer zone so I can find the rubbish dump.  I see it and take some pictures before we fly on to the northern side of the Buffer Zone to check on the construction we have been asked to look at.  Everything is in order so now it is a quick flight across the old town before we can see the east of our sector opening up before me.  I note the progress of the farmers before it is time to return to the airport.  Suddenly we are coming into land and the patrol is over.

Nearly an hour has passed and though I have flown in British military helicopters many times I have never been in one so small and noisy.  As the pilot shuts down the ground crew are there to escort us out but not before thanking the pilot.  It has certainly been an experience.  Now it is back to Ledra Palace to download my pictures and file my report.

The Buffer Zone Nicosia

The Buffer Zone Nicosia

The ground patrol

On Tuesday a small group of British personnel joined our Argentinian colleagues for a familiarisation tour of their sector.  Our sector, Sector 2 consists of the Buffer Zone passing through Nicosia and some flat rolling agricultural land either side.  It is therefore the narrowest part of the Buffer Zone and also the most populous area.  Sector 1 lies to the west and the Buffer Zone quickly opens up into a wide area several kilometres across.  Initially the land is farmed and it is green with orange and lemon groves unlike the parched fields we are used to where cereals are grown.  The Buffer Zone then rises into the Troodos Mountains before meeting the northern coast away to the west. The two sectors therefore are very different and the UN peacekeepers face different challenges.

We join our Argentinian hosts at the UN Headquarters and set off for Sector 1 in convoy, our first stop is in the Buffer Zone, near the northern edge, by a Turkish Cypriot village which lies just outside the Buffer Zone and further north.  Here we are standing on the site of a serious disagreement last year with one of the opposing forces that ultimately was resolved after some prolonged negotiations by the UN Force Commander, Maj Gen Chao Liu, but the area still remains contentious.

Polite discussions and negotiations

Soon after our arrival and as our Argentinian host is explaining the past problems to us an officer and private soldier from one of the opposing forces approach us.

Our visit has just become a patrol and we are witnessing a violation of the status quo agreements.  This means that troops from either of the opposing forces can only enter the Buffer Zone with prior UN agreement and that is not the case here.  To start with we observe, photograph and report the incursion.  Meanwhile the officer observes photographs and reports us!  Our Argentinian host begins to discuss the situation with the officer but an Argentine patrol arrives and we are able to hand over the incident to the new arrivals.

Welcome to the UN Buffer Zone where instead of violence, it is polite discussions and negotiations over what might appear to be very minor incidents, but this is the world of the peacekeeper and it has worked for many years here.  Our success means tensions between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot sides have eased and now it will be the diplomats and politicians who must reach a solution through talk.

The rest of the visit passes without incident as we journey to the far end of the Buffer Zone to visit the large manned observation post there. This OP is on the top of a small mountain that looks out over the sea.  Here an officer and eight soldiers look out over the other peaks at the equally isolated Greek Cypriot and Turkish positions in the distance.

Argentinian manned UN Observation Post Sector 1

Argentinian manned UN Observation Post Sector 1

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Busy time for VIP visits to peackeeping team

Capt Peter Singlehurst.

Capt Peter Singlehurst.

Captain Peter Singlehurst is from the Media Operations Group(V) and is currently serving as the Media and an Ops Info Officer, with 17 Port and Maritime Group in Cyprus.

We are still busy here on Op TOSCA, this time it has been the turn of VIP visits.


My Last blog focused on a time of commemorations.  This time I will be focusing on visits and also a subject close to the hearts of many British people, the weather!  As I mentioned in my last blog we were due to have our Force Commanders Inspection on Tuesday 14 May, which duly took place.  Before that, however, we hosted the UN Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, Mr Hervé Ladsous and also a separate visit by the Officers of the 1 Wolf Regiment of the Turkish Cypriot Security Force led by their commanding officer.  This unit occupies the Turkish side of the Buffer Zone in Nicosia.

So, a busy time for visits and in the best traditions of the British Army everything was planned and rehearsed. However, after suffering from a mini heat wave with temperatures rising into the mid thirties we have been suffering from extremely heavy rainfall and thunderstorms.  This weather is again very unseasonable and has meant that plans have had to be adapted, and in the finest traditions of the Army we have adapted and overcome the problems caused by flooded roads and washed away tracks.

Lt Tom Murphy escorts Mr Ladsous, UN Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations on a tour of the Buffer Zone. Capt Singlehurst RE

Lt Tom Murphy escorts Mr Ladsous, UN Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations on a tour of the Buffer Zone. Capt Singlehurst RE

Putting names to faces

The first of our visits was by Mr Ladsous, he is a former French diplomat who now heads the UN Peacekeeping organisation.  His visit therefore was extremely important as it gave UNFICYP the opportunity to demonstrate to him the challenges of this mission.  Sadly, the weather intervened and so the tour of the Buffer Zone in the old city had to be cancelled, but we were still able to take him to visit the old French Embassy building in the Buffer Zone.

The following Monday the Officers from 1 Wolf joined us for lunch in the Officers Mess of the Ledra Palace Hotel.  This visit gave 17 Port and Maritime Group the opportunity to demonstrate who we are and what our previous experiences have been.  This lunch was important, for the CO 17 P&M Gp had decided to invite the Turkish Platoon Commanders and this invitation was accepted.  It appears this was the first time such an invitation had been made and meant that they would have the opportunity to meet their British counterparts, our Troop commanders.  Previous lunches and meetings have only involved the senior officers of 1 Wolf.  The lunch was a great success and of course means that names have now become people.  This was helped because many of the young Turkish conscript officers spoke English.

Omelette Challenge

The following day the Force Commander, Major General Chao Liu spent the day with us in Sector 2.  The purpose of the inspection was to give us the opportunity to demonstrate to him that we have completed our training and are now operating effectively as per his direction.

The Force Commander UNFICYP, Maj General Chao Liu on a bike patrol with Cpl Jamie Dougall 17 Port and Maritime Grp  S/Sgt R Chovanec  Slovakian Army

The Force Commander UNFICYP, Maj General Chao Liu on a bike patrol with Cpl Jamie Dougall 17 Port and Maritime Grp S/Sgt R Chovanec Slovakian Army

The Force Commander during his visit did many of the things that would be expected on such an occasion, including briefings, visits to the Buffer Zone and so on, however some light hearted elements were also included, such as the chefs challenging him to the “Omelette Challenge” from the BBC Saturday Kitchen Show.

The Force Commander is tested on his MHE skills under the watchful eye of L/Cpl Meli Salabogi 17 Port and Maritime Grp S/Sgt R Chovanec  Slovakian Army

The Force Commander is tested on his MHE skills under the watchful eye of L/Cpl Meli Salabogi 17 Port and Maritime Grp S/Sgt R Chovanec Slovakian Army

When Gen Liu visited the QM department he was met with a forklift truck challenge, before finishing his afternoon with a few games of table tennis.  The General met all of his challenges successfully and appeared to enjoy himself.  The inspection concluded with a social call on the Corporal’s Mess before Gen Liu was entertained to dinner by the CO and officers of Sector 2, in the Officers Mess.  The evening was rounded off with the General enthusiastically joining in some Mess games.

Meanwhile the daily work of patrolling and being Peacekeepers has continued 24 hours a day seven days a week.

In future blogs I will take you on some patrols so you can see the challenges the soldiers on the ground face, It is not what you will expect!

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