For peacekeepers in Cyprus, danger was never far away.
A Canadian peacekeeper’s memories of Cyprus.
On December 6, 1974, a group of soldiers from the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR) boarded a plane in Trenton, Ontario. It was freezing, and we were en route to a six-month peacekeeping tour in Cyprus. Within this group was a naive twenty-one-year-old private who had never been out of Canada — me.
We landed in Cyprus — an island located off the south coast of Turkey — at a brand new airport that was totally devoid of life. Its emptiness was creepy, like a scene from a horror movie. In intense heat, we walked through the airport to a line of waiting buses.
Only five months earlier, the Turkish army had invaded Cyprus to overthrow a Greekled regime installed in a coup d’état. Canadian peacekeepers had been killed in the initial invasion while trying to keep the belligerents apart. A ceasefire had been called several weeks after the invasion, but by the time we arrived there was no peace to keep.
The ceasefire was broken on average three times a day. Many of the incidents were quite serious.
I was lucky enough to be assigned a room at the Ledra Palace Hotel, in downtown Nicosia. Once this had been one of the nicest hotels on the island, replete with marble floors and crystal chandeliers. Unfortunately, it was situated on the Green Line — the buffer zone that separates the Turkish-Cypriot north from the Greek-Cypriot south. The whole building was pockmarked with bullet holes, with new scars added nightly. Peacekeepers who bunked on the upper levels slept on the floors of their rooms, with their backs against the inner walls and their mattresses piled in front of them as shields.
I was still at the hotel when April 1, 1975, arrived. April 1 was a very important day for the Cypriots. Known as National Anniversary Day, it marked the start of the 1955 rebellion against British rule. The RCR brass strongly advised us to avoid the downtown area that day. But it was my first day off in a long time — and so my associates and I decided to head into the bar district for a drink.
At around 11:00 p.m., the city erupted in celebratory gunfire. Hundreds of people — Greeks and Turks alike — were shooting firearms into the air.
Time to go home, I thought — but there were no cabs in sight. We carefully walked back to the Ledra. When we arrived, we went to my room on the second floor and had another drink. We sat on the balcony ledge with our feet hanging over, watching the tracers in the night sky. Quite spectacular!
In retrospect, it was not the smartest thing to do — we could hear rounds hitting the walls on the hotel’s higher levels — but we were young and felt invincible. Reality hit home the next morning, when we learned that someone on the other side of the hotel had been shot and killed the night before while standing on his balcony. It could just as easily have been one of us.
On another occasion in Nicosia, a fellow soldier and I were pulling guard duty on top of a downtown building. It was a beautiful night — the kind that makes you feel like you are the only living creature on earth.
Around 3:00 a.m., we were standing close to each other, speaking in low voices. Suddenly we heard a whoosh as a single bullet passed between our heads. Six inches either way and one of us would have been dead. To this day, I wonder whether we had been targeted or if it was just a random shot. Luckily, I made it back to Canada in one piece.
More than twenty-five thousand Canadians have served as peacekeepers in Cyprus since the mission began in 1964. Twentyeight have been killed in that time. The mission continues today.
Frank Reid served in Cyprus from December 1974 to May 1975.
Canadian peacekeeper Frank Reid, back row, third from right, with fellow members of the Royal Canadian Regiment.