NEW YORK – Achilleos Argyros. Yiannis Zouvannis. Those are the first and last names on a notorious list: the 1,587 men and women missing after the illegal Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.
The names of every single one of those people whom the Turkish government has never accounted for – whether they were killed immediately, or after they were dishonored or enslaved – are listed in the appendix of Gus Constantine’s novel about the horrors of the invasion and the fate of its Greek Cypriot victims.
“I cannot and will not complete this book without listing their names. I owe them at least that,” Constantine told TNH. He said he has begun to receive phone calls from people in tears who saw their relatives’ names.
The first sentence reads like a news flash being pounded on an old typewriter like a sledge hammer: “Cyprus, 1974. The Turkish Invasion.”
The words that follow tell the tale of a 12 year-old boy, Haji, who was about to witness the brutal murder of his parents and little sister in their kitchen, and of his teacher, the beautiful and courageous Rebecca, who like his mother, was raped.
“He was awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of screaming, Help! Help! Help! He thought he was dreaming. Suddenly he realized it wasn’t a dream.”
When the Turks fled in fear of approaching Greek Cypriot soldiers, Rebecca helped him escape.
Constantine said “I don’t know,” when TNH asked why he chose that topic. “I decided to write, and I’m Cypriot.”
The book is historical fiction. It is based on accounts of actual events he encountered during his research, but the story and the characters are his inventions.
“It just came to me,” said the budding author with a great imagination. But some things he did not have to imagine.
“The words ‘barbarian’ and ‘atrocity’ appear in the book over and over again,” he said, founded on the historical record.
He knows Cyprus well for family and visits. His parents were childhood friends born the village of Vavla in free Cyprus. “They never hooked up, but they married when they accidently met in America in 1950.”
Looking for a better life, “My father jumped ship, and my mother was brought over a few years earlier by her older brother.”
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Constantine moved to Throggs Neck in the Bronx when he was five. He is now retired after 29 years as a driver for UPS, but continues to be involved in charitable organizations, including St. Paraskevi Church in Greenlawn, N.Y. where he served as Parish Council President.
His parents firmly planted him, his older sister Alexandra, and younger sister Ioulia in the community.
“We only had one car and my father worked on Sundays. He would drop us of at St. Demetrios, go to the diner, pick us up and go to the diner for breakfast, and he would have his half a day off a week.”
It is the classic immigrant story: Not knowing English, his father began as dish washer, but eventually opened the Broadway Diner in Astoria. He was hard working and successful, but ended up losing the diner. He never owned the property and the landlord burned him at lease renewal; again, an old story.
A product of New York’s public schools, Constantine did not study to be a writer, but he bore for years in the back of his mind an experience from his one writing class. After an assignment, the teacher told the class to read two papers – one was Constantine’s.
“The teacher asked, ‘Which one did you like better’ and 99 percent liked mine.”
The teacher then pointed out that the other paper was technically flawless, but added “For me it was a boring story.” Then he held up Constantine’s paper and after pointing out its errors said, “He knows how to tell a story.”
At St. Paraskevi, Constantine spoke to Gus Leodas – who is about to publish his ninth novel. ”I like to write,” Constantine told his fellow Gus.
As PC President he loved writing the monthly newsletter, and when Leodas saw his writing samples, he told him, “You have the talent,” and began to teach him the basic and finer points of the craft.
Leodas coached him through the process of beginning the novel, but Constantine told TNH: “Once I began to write Escaping Cyprus, I’ve never once, for a second, had writing block.”
The approach that works for him is to wing it, no notes or outline.
The story flowed naturally, and his biggest challenge was learning Microsoft Word.
Constantine wrote about 120 pages for a second novel, on a completely different subject, “But I stopped, because I had an idea for a sequel,” he said.
Escaping Cyprus is dedicated to the Cypriots who did and did not escape, to his wife Georgia, whose roots are in Nisyros, their children Christina, Jackie and Charlie, and to Constantine’s niece Eleni Lacas, who helped him with the word processing.
The pain and hope for Cyprus continue 41 years later. During one trip to Cyprus, Constantine accidentally bumped into Congressman Gus Bilirakis – he sometimes does speak to people not named Constantine – who brought two Congressmen to see the reality of the occupied areas.
“They destroyed the northern part of Cyprus,” Constantine said, and wiped out its historic Greek and Orthodox character. “Famagusta, one of the great resorts of the Mediterranean is now a ghost town, still fenced off and untouched since 1974. There are signs that say “Enter at your own risk – you will be shot on sight.”
But the struggle continues, and Constantine’s book is the latest Greek declaration of “Never forget!