Sticks and Stones on an Island of Strife

Diplomats tangle this week over place for Cyprus in EU. Along the divide, a study in petty provocation continues.

Boredom has always been a defining element of soldiering, and keeping an eye on the static Green Line that has divided Cyprus for nearly a generation would test the patience of even the most enthusiastic men at arms.

But Turkish and Greek Cypriot troops here - the vanguard of powerful military forces that face off uneasily, cheek-by-jowl on this small eastern Mediterranean island - have found novel ways to vent their frustration and pique their counterparts.

These day-to-day incidents reflect regular strategies of provocation that are also routinely carried out at the highest political levels, by both sides. With talks on the entry of Cyprus into the European Union getting under way this week, diplomatic skirmishing is taking on a more heated tone. (See story, below.)

Along the militarized strip dividing the island, the skirmishing has often been intense. Take the state of play that once dominated life along an alley called Konstantiou Drive, where the gap between the two cease-fire lines narrows to just 10 feet.

British United Nations troops giving a rare tour of the Green Line recount the childish antics: First Turkish and Greek forces tried to claim that the balconies jutting out over the street were part of the cease-fire line, then they shouted, spat, and threw stones at each other.

Finally, they took to tying bayonets on the ends of broom handles and jousting with each other, aiming to topple their target off the opposing balcony into the buffer zone, where they would be fair game to shoot with their rifles.

"They will do anything and everything to anger the other side," says Lt. Mark Powell, troop leader of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, who is known locally as "the sheriff." Though Cyprus has been divided between ethnic Turks in the north and ethnic Greeks in the south for more than two decades, UN peacekeeping troops still report more than 1,000 incidents a year.

"They have thousands of troops and warmaking hardware, but they can't use it," says Lieutenant Powell. "So here are professional soldiers, complaining about stone throwing and shining search lights in each other's eyes."

A walk along the zone that divides the capital, Nicosia, comes complete with the tales of bravado, attempts to manipulate UN troops for even the smallest advantage - and just plain youthful stupidity - that have kept this line a regional flashpoint.

The lethal games along Konstantiou Drive have been defused since 1989, when UN commanders arranged for both sides to "un-man" some positions. But that has not kept a lid on small provocations that keep adding to the lore of the line.

Part of the problem for the 1,200 UN troops in Nicosia is that the mud-brick and plaster walls that often form the line are collapsing. Take, for instance, the wall that fell down in 1995 on the Turkish side. The Turks rebuilt part of it, then formed several top layers with empty tea chests.

Greek Cypriots complained that the Turks were reinforcing the wall, by filling the tin tea chests with concrete. Despite UN assurances, the Greek side was not happy until the UN turned the tea chests around, so that the Greeks could see that they were, in fact, empty.

In other places, UN officers have had to act like schoolteachers, imposing discipline on unruly students that neither follow rules, obey orders, nor always act in their own best interest.

UN troops have been forced to paint circles on the ground on the Greek side at the base of barrels, to make sure that they did not creep forward in the night. Similar moves were required on the Turkish line, at a place now called "10 Plus Wall."

Greek Cypriots noted that this wall had been "growing" by a layer or two of bricks added every night. To stop this practice, the UN painted a white line across the top line of the wall. But to keep Turks from removing and then replacing the white line after adding more brick layers, the UN counted ten layers down from the top, and painted a new, easily policed line there.

"It's pathetic, pushing barrels back and forth," confirms UN force spokesman Waldemar Rokoszewski. "They have the UN master maps, but daily they contest this. They obstruct our patrolling, test us when troops rotate, and add sandbags here and there."

Another case of deviousness is the large map of Cyprus painted in front of one Greek position, in Greek colors and in full view of the Turkish side. In the late 1980s, it began as a splash of paint, then expanded as much as four inches every night, despite UN efforts to contain it.

Now called the "Magic Map," the script implies that Greeks will reclaim the third of the island occupied by mainland Turkish forces during their 1974 invasion. It reads: "Our borders are not here."

LIMITS of the UN writ on such small, niggling things are also evident at the smartly painted "Tourist Bunker" set up on the Greek side. A soldier stands at attention and tourists are encouraged to climb on to a platform to view the dilapidated Turkish Cypriot position, 50 yards across the buffer zone.

The Greeks once charged tourists to see the "enemy" and throw stones at the Turkish guard post. Today that post is voluntarily vacant, and the view is free.

So tourists take snapshots of the Turkish post, and of the UN "No Photos" sign in the middle of the zone, with the blessing of the Greek soldier. "Hey, no photos here," reminds British UN Capt. Simon Keymer, half-heartedly. One joking voice emerges from the wall of camera-wielding tourists: "Don't worry, these aren't photos."

The best illustration of bravado may be evident at the base of UN position 72, a tall, blue-painted observation tower. Last year heavy rains caused one old mud and wattle house near it to collapse.

Fully exposed inside: a secret array of bunkers built by the Turks, just feet from the UN tower. UN officers believe that such illegal and hidden encroachments probably also exist on the Greek side.

"The key to quietness on the ground is the commanders," says Powell, the UN "sheriff." Turkish misbehavior is usually easier to deal with, he says, because young soldiers usually don't act without orders from above. Greek Cypriot units, on the other hand, have more latitude.

That freedom can be dangerous. In 1983, one Greek Cypriot soldier tried for three days to get the attention of his stony-faced Turkish counterpart. The soldier jumped up and down and made catcalls. Finally, he pulled down his trousers and turned his back. The Turk took notice, and shot the Greek soldier dead.

This point of the Green Line tour is known as the "Monument to the Moon."

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