Cyprus was a place I always wanted to visit since my father had served there in the 1960s and 1970s. The UNFICYP (United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus) mission was established due to the outbreak of violence between Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities following several constitutional crises after Cyprus gained its independence from Britain in 1960. In the spring of 1964, the UN sent a peacekeeping force to the island headed by Major General Peter Young. The general drew a green line on a map of Nicosia separating the Greek and Turkish areas of the capital, thus forming the ‘Green Line’, which would go on to divide the entire island. Many Turkish Cypriots moved to enclaves around the island separating themselves from the Greeks.
From April 1964 to October 1973 two Irish battalions and a series of infantry groups served with the peace mission until the 25th (Irish) Infantry Group were transferred to UNEF II (United Nations Emergency Force) in the Sinai to assist with the supervision of the ceasefire between Egypt and Israel following the Yom Kippur/Ramadam War. My father, Corporal Jim Durney (Naas, Co. Kildare), served as a medical orderly with the Medical Platoon, 8th Infantry Group, from March-September 1967, under the command of Lt.-Col. James Beary. They were based in the Lefka district which had three Turkish enclaves separated and independent of each other, each surrounded by Greek Cypriot National Guard positions.
Because there were three distinctive confrontation areas the 8th Infantry Group wisely deployed a company in each area – Lefka, Kato Pyrgos and Limnitis – to be rotated at two-month intervals. The Medical Platoon comprised fourteen all ranks, including two officers. Supplies taken over from the 7th Group were augmented by others sent from Ireland. Transport for the platoon was two Landrovers and one Ford 3-ton, 4-berth ambulance. There were several ‘special deliveries’ in their time in Cyprus – the inevitable crop of ‘Landrover babies’ delivered en route from Kokkina to Lefka Hospital. Three of the births were normal but one was stillborn. I recall my father saying he helped deliver a baby at the side of the road and that, on one occasion, his transport was shot at in the darkness. The Medical NCOs also helped many sick Cypriots – Greek and Turk alike – in the remote villages of the District. Most of their time was devoted to routine medical duties, advising and helping in Camp sanitation and providing a Medical Orderly at the Rest Centre in Famagusta.
Lt.-Col. Beary wrote in the unit history: ‘I think that all ranks may feel assured that we take home with us the esteem and genuine friendship of the people. I have been assured that the Unit has made a worthwhile contribution to peacekeeping and the betterment of conditions in Cyprus.’
On 6 October 1970 Jim Durney, now a Medical Sergeant, returned to Cyprus with the 19th Infantry Group for his second six-month tour this time for duty in the Larnaca District. The official unit history stated: ‘Cyprus! This lovely island in the sun seemed to be known to all and when we arrived the weather was at its most beautiful. Caribbean blue skies and balmy nights, an island paradise marred only by an unexpected menace – mosquitoes.’
The Medical Platoon consisted of two medical orderlies, one company sergeant, one sergeant, three corporals and five privates. According to the unit history the high standard of performance of the medical personnel contributed to the excellent health of the Infantry Group. Emergency treatment was also given to members of the civilian population when requested, which were usually as a result of traffic and other accidents, and in some medical emergencies. The 19th Infantry Group tour was quite uneventful as ethnic tensions had abated somewhat, and they returned to Ireland in April 1971.
Jim Durney came home to Ireland with a fondness, and understanding, of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots, a love of tinned pears and peaches and a deep affection for the Greek singing star Nana Mouskouri and her music. When I remarked to the barman in our hotel that my father ‘loved’ Nana Mouskouri, his reply was ‘So did everyone else!’
In 1974 the Turkish Army invaded Cyprus in response to a military coup on the island which was backed by the Athens government. The Irish rest area of Famagusta was abandoned by its Greek population in anticipation of the fast-approaching Turkish military. It remains part of the large uninhabited buffer zone and is today as it was in 1974, save for a few military outposts and UN patrols. The invasion also cemented the division of the island capital, Nicosia (Lefkosia), which has remained bisected ever since, supervised by the watchful, but increasingly weary eyes of UN peacekeeping forces. In 2003 crossing the Green Line was made possible for ordinary citizens and it is now on the tourist itinerary – the last divided capital in the world. It is the last remaining city in the world that is still physically divided, with a United Nations buffer zone between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot sections. Irish Officers and NCOs continued to serve with the UN mission staff up to 2005.