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.
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.
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 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.