NICOSIA — Cyprus has long touted its pristine beaches as the perfect holiday escape. It can also boast hosting the world’s longest-serving U.N. peacekeeping force.
It’s been 50 years since the first international troops turned up to keep ethnic Greeks and Turks from plunging the newly independent island into a bloody civil war.
But with the most recent deadly clash happening nearly 20 years ago, tensions have waned to the intensity of lapping waves on the island’s white-sand beaches.
With Cyprus no longer offering the kind of rugged training that keeping the peace in the world’s new hot spots requires, some have even taken to nicknaming tours of duty here as “Club Med” assignments.
But that doesn’t mean the peacekeepers — many of whom came from pacifist Canada — haven’t played a strong, and at times highly perilous, role.
When the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus — UNFICYP — was established in March 1964, the island was on the brink of descending into an ethnic bloodbath.
Four years earlier, Cyprus had gained independence from Britain, and soon ethnic Greeks and Turks in the fledgling republic were locked in deadly clashes for control. The U.N. peacekeepers’ role was to keep the two sides apart.
Those efforts paid off for years until July 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus following an ethnic Greek coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece.
Advancing Turkish forces tried to seize the strategically important airport in Nicosia hours into their invasion — and Canadian soldiers serving with the UNFICYP helped to repel the advance.
A gutted Cyprus Airways passenger jet near Nicosia’s old airport terminal serves as a reminder of the fierce battles that raged here 40 years ago. These days, the once bustling terminal stands vacant in the buffer zone that runs across the divided island, its doors chained up and its window panes smashed.
It also stands as a testament to how one of the world’s most intractable conflicts has eluded numerous peace drives over so many decades. Another round of peace talks aimed at reunifying the island began last month.
“It’s a no-man’s land in the worst sense of the word,” said former Canadian peacekeeper Larry Gollner, a 75 year-old retired Brigadier General who was visiting Cyprus for 50th anniversary commemorations. “Look at all this land not being utilized.”
Since the Turkish invasion that split Cyprus into an internationally-recognized Greek half and a diplomatically-isolated Turkish one there’s been little real threat of a resurgence of violence.
Peacekeepers have been limited to menial tasks such as patrolling the border and monitoring any violations of the “status quo” — among them unauthorized construction, encroachments by farmers’ inside the buffer zone or game-hunting by poachers within the no-man’s-land.
For Canadian, Swedish or Finnish peacekeepers accustomed to long, harsh winters, a six-month stint on a holiday paradise is certainly a welcome interlude.
Thousands of soldiers from 32 countries have donned the UN blue beret here. There have been longer U.N. observer missions — such as in India and Pakistan — but no peacekeeping missions involving armed troops as long as the one in Cyprus. Some 178 peacekeepers have lost their lives on the island.
Gollner and nine other veteran Canadian UNFICYP soldiers made the journey to Cyprus this week to attend a series of memorial events organized by the Canadian government, including visits to cemeteries where some of the 28 Canadians who died here are buried.
Canada was one of the biggest contributors to UNFICYP, with more than 25,000 of its soldiers serving in the force between 1964 and 1993. The country is still represented here by one officer.
“We’re very proud of what we have accomplished and we know that we have made a difference by being here,” said Major General Alain Forand, whose assistance to wounded fellow Canadian soldiers earned him one of his country’s highest honors for bravery.
Canada joined countries such as Sweden and Finland in answering the peacekeeping call with contributions to a standing force that at its height swelled to nearly 6,500 troops. Their presence pulled the country back from outright civil war.
“With or without a settlement, even with significantly reduced security concerns, the U.N. presence has its value in Cyprus,” said Constantinos M. Constaninou, a professor of international relations at the University of Cyprus.
Forand recalled only one shooting in his sector during his first tour in 1969. He said that despite lingering mistrust from earlier killings, “there seems to be a willingness” for peace.
The Turkish invasion deeply complicated peace efforts. With the island divided — and a 1983 Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence recognized only by Turkey — conditions calcified.
The conflict has outlasted no less than five UN Secretaries-General and nearly two dozen UN envoys to Cyprus.