Wednesday, April 14, 2010

SNATCH

Every time I look back on that night nearly fifty years ago – and I often do – I still feel a pang of shame about our brief, violent act. And I see the startled, fearful eyes of the little girls, huddled in their nightdresses, trying to hide behind their mother. I hear the woman’s screams as we left the house and, when we drove away, the engines of our trucks reverberating against the walls in the narrow, unlit street.

It was December, 1955, in the island of Cyprus, then a British colony. For years, the Greek Cypriots had dreamed of Enosis – union with Greece – and breaking away from British rule. But while the island’s population of around half a million was seventy percent Greek-speaking, the remaining thirty percent were Turkish speakers, and bitterly opposed to the idea. Historically, Greece and Turkey have always shared a mutual antipathy, and since Cyprus is forty miles from Turkey and at least four hundred miles from mainland Greece, Britain’s support of a status quo made good sense.

But that year, being a part of Greece had become more than a romantic dream, and in the summer there were sudden outbreaks of violence. Young British soldiers died or were wounded in drive-by shootings and bomb attacks, and in ambushes on mountain roads. Some had been shot in off-limits bars in Nicosia, the capital. These were the early rumblings of what turned into an ugly, four-year terrorist action that few Americans know about, and the violence quickly flared out of control.
My battalion was flown into the island from Egypt that summer, followed by others from Britain and the Middle East. Not long after we arrived, the British Institute, a cultural and arts center in the middle of Nicosia, was gutted by petrol bombs, and police stations were attacked and destroyed. The death toll was rising, and there were riots on the streets.

Throughout the year, the word EOKA was daubed on walls, the name of a newly-formed group led by George Grivas, a Greek partisan who, with an underground force, had caused havoc among the German and Italian troops in Axis-occupied Greece a dozen years earlier. Now Grivas was training a local force against us in the island’s rugged Troodos mountain range. The locals dubbed EOKA national heroes, patriots and freedom fighters, but to us they were terrorists.

Then another set of initials began appearing on walls all over the colony – AKEL, a Communist group. This was two or three years after the peak of McCarthyism in America, and six years before the building of the Berlin Wall. In December, wary of what could well be an emerging red menace, the Governor of Cyprus secretly ordered the immediate arrest and imprisonment of one hundred forty members of AKEL. The colonial police’s Special Branch knew exactly where they lived, though EOKA and Grivas were invisible.

The first we knew of this was when, one afternoon, as the fifteen youngest officers in the South Staffordshire Regiment – and similar groups in other infantry and police units posted around the island – were summoned to a briefing. We sat around Major Richard Dick Stuckey, one of our company commanders, on a rocky hillside in our camp by the road to Nicosia Airport. Each of us was given a detainee’s name and his address. Our orders were to pick six men from our platoons and, with a jeep and a light truck, to make an armed snatch of our AKEL member that night from his home. The raid would be simultaneous, at precisely three a.m.

Before we dispersed, we all synchronized our watches and, an hour or so later I took my second-in-command, Sergeant Murtagh, on hasty daylight reconnaissance patrol of our snatch site, in a village called Ayios Dhométeos, a few miles from Nicosia. The home was a single-story place in a contiguous row of about half a dozen others, in a street that was only wide enough for one vehicle to pass through. Without pausing as we passed it in our jeep, we checked out the door, a crude assembly of unpainted vertical boards, and agreed that, if we had to break in, it wouldn’t be a problem. We turned at the bottom of the street and again up the lane behind the house, deciding where we’d position two men to cover the dwelling’s rear. Finally, we checked the route to a point about five miles away, where the area’s prisoners would be collected in a police compound before being driven to the detention center.

I was woken by my batman at two a.m. with a mug of tea. Cyprus can be cold at night in the winter, and outside a chilly half moon hung bright in a sky, pulsing with stars. Walking down the slope from my quarters through the sleeping camp, I could see little groups of soldiers heading silently for the armory. Farther down, in the vehicle park, the engines of two dozen vehicles were already running. A few minutes later we inspected weapons, loaded them, and boarded a jeep and a light truck. Our group, like the others, was made up of a sergeant and two corporals, each with a sub-machine gun, and three privates with rifles, one of whom also toted a hefty axe.

The column moved off, and the sentries hailed us as we passed through the raised barrier at the guardhouse. With a number of groups we turned east onto the main road toward the city, while others headed west to their targets. Ayios Dhométeos was only a few miles from the camp and, as we approached it we turned off our headlights, driving in the moonlight. Just before the turning into the narrow street we parked under trees by the side of the road. We had, of course, done a "dry run" on the previous afternoon, so only needed to mutter a few last-minute instructions to send the corporal and rifleman to cover the rear of the house. I led the four others round the corner and down the lane. Our canvas shoes made no sound as we approached, and when we reached the house next door, we stopped. Knowing what to do, the two men detailed to cover the entrance crept across the street to their positions.

The remaining rifleman and I stood with our backs to the wall beside the door, while Sgt. Murtagh did the same on the other side. We’d been told by Stuckey at the briefing that, since there was no evidence that AKEL had used any violence against the British, we were to break the door open only if we deemed it necessary.
I picked up a rock in the road and beat on the door with it, shouting “Anikse tin porta,” ‘open up’ in Greek.

No light came on in the house.

I struck the door again.

“Anikse tin porta!”

Lights flickered on in two other homes nearby.

“Anikse –“

Nothing.

I turned to the rifleman. “Give me the axe.”

I raised the axe above my head; ready to smash it down on the timbers around the latch with all the strength I could muster. But at that moment a faint light shone from under the door, and we heard a heavy scraping, as though someone on the other side were drawing back a bolt or a bar. I lowered the axe and drew my revolver while, behind me, the rifleman focused a flashlight at the point on the door level with our heads.

The door opened slowly and there, blinking into the light, was our target, Stavros Joannides, an astonished man with a bloodhound’s eyes who, when he spoke, seemed to have no teeth in his head.

Under the circumstances, what he said was remarkable. “Kalimera.” (‘Good morning.’)

He wore a striped nightshirt that hung below his knees. Beside me, Sergeant Murtagh thrust the stubby muzzle of his Sten gun into the man’s chest.

“Put up yer ‘ands!”


The man’s arms shot up. "You speak English?” I asked.

“A little,” he said.

“Bring him inside,” I told Murtagh, who marched the man backward into the house, where I patted him down to check for a weapon, but found nothing. Over his shoulder I could see through the open door of a dimly lit bedroom. A woman with long black hair sat bolt upright in the big family bed, the bedclothes pulled up to her neck. Two small girls, who might well have been twins, cowered behind her, crying hysterically.

We were in a living room, where a low-powered electric light revealed a few basic items of furniture: easy chairs round a stone fireplace, a threadbare rug, a few toys here and there, and a table that seemed to have been set for breakfast on the evening before. A loom stood in one corner. The place looked more like the house of the Three Bears than that of a political activist who was dangerous enough to be imprisoned.

Murtagh had stepped back a little, though his Sten was still slung at the ready, pointed toward Joannides, who stood staring at us, shivering in his skimpy nightshirt. He seemed not to know what to do with his hands.
“I’m going to search your house,” I said.

I left him with Murtagh and, with the rifleman, made a quick tour of the house. There were only three rooms, the living room, the bedroom and a kitchen. We began with the kitchen that, because it also served as bathroom, laundry room and storage space, was almost the size of the living room. The soldier and I pulled open closet doors and drawers, rummaged inside them, lifted the wooden lid of a wood-burning copper used for boiling clothes, peered in the oven, and looked around a cramped root cellar under a trap door.

We’d searched scores of houses of EOKA suspects in the months before. There were weapons, ammunition and documents hidden in a number of them, and we’d arrested their owners. But here there wasn’t a scrap of evidence. When we searched the bedroom, the woman was still in bed with the children, who had lapsed into silence. I called out to Joannides, who told his wife to wait in a corner of the room with the children while we searched the bed. There were several boxes and battered suitcases under it, but nothing significant in them. One of the frightened children had wet the bed, and we pummeled the thin mattress with no result.

Apart from clothes, a large wardrobe in the room seemed to contain stacks of never-unwrapped bed linens and blankets, probably wedding gifts from years ago. When we were done, I gestured to the woman and the girls to get back into bed, and it was only then that I noticed the only evidence that this family was different from most other Greek Cypriots. There, on the bedroom wall, instead of the usual image of Archbishop Makarios, was a framed photograph of Nikita Krushchev, and Nikolay Bulganin – incongruous partners to the crucifix on the opposite wall of the room.
There was nothing in the living room. There was only one other place to look.

“Where’s the toilet?” I asked the man.

“In the yard.”

I left the rifleman with Murtagh and went outside, where the two soldiers detailed to cover the back of the house lurked in the shadows. The privy was a small hut like a sentry box built over a pit and here, too, we drew a blank. Earlier we’d searched some of these more thoroughly, an activity that involved prodding the noisome contents of the trench with long bamboo canes. Fortunately, we had only a few minutes left, and I was glad to give the procedure a miss.
It was time to go.

“We’re going to take you away,” I told Joannides, “and I have to tell you that anything you say may be used in evidence.”

The man seemed perfectly calm.

“I have some questions,” he said.

“No questions,” I said. “ The sergeant here will accompany you while you pack some things. You’re allowed to bring two cases of clothing and washing things, essential medicines, a bible, no food and no other books.”

“How long do you think – ” he began.

“You ‘eard what the officer said,” Murtagh said.

The wife seemed agitated, and asked her husband what sounded like a question, to which he replied quietly. His answer caused her to let out a piercing scream, and this started the children crying again. The sound of their anguish and its volume intensified during the few minutes it took our prisoner to collect his things together.

I was unmarried then and, looking back, I find it incredible that I gave the man no opportunity to embrace his wife and children at that last moment. He had taken the arrest well so far, and it was hard to credit that this allegedly dangerous troublemaker was so mild and dispassionate.

It wasn’t Joannides who needed restraint as we led him to the door; it was his wife. Leaving her two little girls screaming uncontrollably on the bed, she staggered toward us and locked her arms tight round her husband’s body, clinging to him with unbelievable strength. So strong was her grasp on him that, struggling to get her man and his baggage through the door, we were forced to wrench her from him, taking care nor to break her thrashing arms with the sudden final slam of the door. The man said nothing during the six or seven minutes drive to the compound where he was united with his fellow detainees.

I never saw him again, but this isn’t quite the end of the story. Something remarkable and almost laughable happened within a month or two of the mass arrest and imprisonment of nearly 150 members of AKEL. The British Government discovered to its extreme embarrassment that AKEL, while it sympathized with other Greek Cypriots in their wish for union with Greece, treated the right-wing terrorist leader George Grivas with derision, and denounced violence as a means to achieve it. All but a handful of the Communist detainees were returned to their homes in a fleet of buses manned by the Cyprus Police Force.

Oddly, there seems to be no record of the snatch and its outcome in Her Majesty’s archives.



oo0oo

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