Updated: Sep 10
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This essay was selected a winner nominee in the Adelaide Literary Magazine's "Best of 2020 Essays" contest. It was first published by the Adelaide Literary Magazine in February 2021.
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Just 40 miles off the coastline of Turkey and 70 miles from the Syrian coast lies a piece of paradise—a beautiful island fringed by sandy beaches and surrounded by crystalline waters. It is the perfect setting for the legend of Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, who was said to have been delivered by the spume of the sea on a beach near Paphos. Indeed, the island of Cyprus used to be paradise for its inhabitants, who reveled in its tranquility, mild weather, and pristine natural surroundings. Sadly, however, this island paradise—the third largest in the Mediterranean—has been a stage for political turmoil, bloodshed, and endless internecine conflict for more than 60 years. Such difficulties continue to this day, with no solution in sight.
I was once a part of this island—delivered in 1955 not by the sea, but by my Turkish Cypriot parents to the small village of Potamia, 13 miles south of the capital, Nicosia. The idea that I would one day be in the capital of the United States, living a life of peace and relative comfort, was as far from my mind as the likelihood that Cyprus would one day become a bastion of peace and stability for all its inhabitants.
On February 6, 1964, I had just turned eight years old. Serious political hostilities had erupted between the Greek and Turkish citizens of the island about two months earlier, starting in the capital city of Nicosia and quickly spreading to the rest of the country. Our hometown, Potamia, was a mixed village then, with Turks and Greeks living side by side. When the approximately 300 Turkish citizens of Potamia heard that five citizens of a neighboring Turkish village had been killed that morning and the village set on fire, we feared for our own safety. By that afternoon, we had decided to migrate to the neighboring Turkish town, Lourijina, where we believed we would be safer.
When it was time to leave, the women and children would go first while the men remained behind to assess the situation once again. It took us surprisingly little time—only a few minutes—to leave the house where we had gathered after hearing of the latest developments. Soon we were all on the road, walking toward Lourijina in our own chaotic nightmare. Screams and tears were abundant.
Gathering her four children by her side, my mother was determined we would get to Lourijina safe and sound. It was the first time I had seen my mother wearing her “fight or flight” face, which expressed a total commitment to preserving her life and the lives of her children. Unfortunately, it would not be the last time. We all walked as fast as we could, my mother holding my sister, Duyal, and me with one hand and my two brothers, İsmail and Kâzım, with the other hand. I remember her grip being so tight that my wrist hurt. I suppose she did not want to risk losing us in the crowd and tried to keep us as close to her as possible.
Meanwhile, both my maternal and paternal grandmothers were in the crowd, but my mother, my siblings, and I were so preoccupied with our own journey, if I may call it that, we did not see where either of our grandmothers or any other relatives were. Grandmother Dudu was accompanying Aunt Nazime’s family, with whom she had been living. She had knee problems and rheumatism in her legs, so could not walk long distances but on that day everyone forgot about any knee problems or other ailments that would have prevented them from walking a long way. I later learned from my cousins that Grandmother Dudu had so much difficulty walking that, in the end, Aunt Nazime had to physically support her to make it to Lourijina.
My mother was experiencing difficulties of her own. Her youngest child, Kâzım, who was just five years old at the time, was barefoot. We had left in such a hurry that we had failed to notice his lack of shoes until we were well into our journey. After a while, it became clear Kâzım could not continue without shoes. The dirt road was unsuitable for walking even for those of us wearing shoes! My mother let go of our hands and took Kâzım in her arms to carry him, all the while telling us to stay close and walk as fast as we could. We did as we were told.
Our departure from Potamia that day was the most tragic and unforgettable of all my experiences. Although the details are seared into my memory, at the time it felt as if I were dreaming. I kept telling myself that, when I woke up, the nightmare would end. But the pain on my wrist due to my mother’s tight grip was real, and I knew this was not a dream. We were homeless. Mothers in cozy suburban homes across America were packing sandwiches for their kids’ school lunchboxes before putting them on the school bus while we were trudging five miles through the dirt, homeless and desperate to save our lives. We had absolutely nothing. I did not like what was happening to us at all, but I could not change any of it. There was no going back. We were no longer regular, normal people.
We were refugees.
I hated that realization until an even worse one dawned on me: We could be orphans. Every time I turned back to look at Potamia, I wondered what would happen to the Turkish men, including my father, who had stayed behind. The thought of becoming an orphan distressed me deeply. I promised myself that, if the Turkish men made it safely out of Potamia and I was spared from becoming an orphan, I would not complain or feel sorry for myself about becoming a refugee. I think I was trying to strike a deal with some higher authority.
It took us two hours to arrive in Lourijina, tired and worried about those left behind. We encountered other refugees pouring into the town by the hundreds from other neighboring villages, and soon there was not enough space to accommodate everyone. A few families from Potamia who had relatives in Lourijina moved in with them, but the majority of us settled in at the crowded and noisy village mosque. It was cold, and there were not enough blankets or any other covering to protect us.
Later that day, just as the sun was setting, the Turkish men of Potamia, including my father, arrived in Lourijina. They had learned of a sizable and well-armed Greek force preparing to attack Potamia the next day. The very few Turkish men of Potamia were unarmed except for a few hunting rifles, leaving them no choice but to abandon Potamia just as their women, children, and elders had done earlier. As twilight fell and we saw the Turkish men arriving, we knew there would be no going back to Potamia any time soon. All our remaining hopes evaporated.
When my father found us in the mosque, he was crying—loudly. It was quite shocking, as I had never seen my father cry before. He was holding his hunting rifle in one hand and carrying our family photos wrapped in a piece of cloth with the other. That was all he could rescue from our home. My father had always been fond of photos and periodically arranged for our family’s photos to be taken. He cherished those photos a great deal. That day, when the Turkish men finally decided to leave Potamia, my father had stopped at our home to rescue those photos and his hunting rifle, which was also important to him. He had then joined the other men and walked the road to Lourijina.
On that day, our lives as refugees began. For some, including me, the scars of this experience never healed. I doubt they ever will. I was eight years old when the day started, but by nightfall, I had become an adult.
Our stay in Lourijina lasted about a month and was extremely unpleasant. We lived in the village mosque with hundreds of other refugees under the most inhumane conditions. There was very little food. Most of us slept on the floor, with no blankets, even though it was February and quite cold. As a community, we felt shunned and abandoned by the rest of the world. From one day to the next, we waited hopelessly to see what might happen to end our precarious situation and bring some normalcy to our desperate lives.
I had an interesting experience—or perhaps an experiment—while staying in the mosque. The residents of Lourijina had brought us all the chairs they could spare (old style wicker chairs) thinking that we might be able to sit on them during the day and perhaps sleep on them at night. One night, I tried sleeping on those chairs, pushing two chairs next to one another but each facing the opposite direction so I would not accidentally roll off. It didn’t work. My makeshift bed was incredibly uncomfortable, and in the morning I woke up in a lot of pain, almost as if I was paralyzed. That morning, I gave my two chairs away so someone else could try it. For the rest of my stay at the mosque, I slept on the floor.
Soon the mosque reeked because of the hundreds of people forced to live in poor sanitary conditions. We worried about catching some dreadful disease in these sub-human conditions and knew that, if there had been an outbreak of any disease, it would have been difficult to control or contain as medical supplies were non-existent.
As the days passed, my family made small adjustments and accommodations. After living in Lourijina for a few weeks, my mother noticed that the dialect of my younger sister, Duyal, was changing to the local dialect (which was slightly different than ours in Potamia). My sister was always more social than I was, and she quickly made new friends. I remained too upset and disturbed by the circumstances to think about new friends. I mostly sat around, preferably in a quiet spot, which was not easy to find, and diligently weighed the options about what might happen to me and my family. There were no good options in sight. We were indeed in a precarious situation.
Just as we were beginning to lose all hope, a breakthrough occurred in international efforts about a month after our arrival. A UN peacekeeping force would be posted in Cyprus to help stop the hostilities. This agreement was reached on March 4, 1964, and the first UN peacekeeping force arrived in Cyprus on March 27, 1964.
However, the situation in most Turkish communities, now enclaved and restricted in movement, was so bad that an interim arrangement was made to send desperately needed humanitarian aid without waiting for the arrival of the UN forces. On March 5, British forces already stationed on two British military bases maintained on the island, began to deliver humanitarian aid to the Turkish communities in Cyprus. They arrived in vehicles flying UN flags. When the first UN truck arrived in Lourijina, the mosque erupted in celebration. For the first time, we had hope that we might survive this nightmare after all.
The truck brought aid supplies as well as a few messages for refugees from their relatives in other parts of Cyprus, mainly Nicosia. One of those messages, delivered by hand to my parents by one of the UN soldiers, was from Uncle Kâzım, who said the family in Nicosia was fine and he was doing everything he could to move us from Lourijina to Nicosia. I cannot describe how happy we were to receive this message. The UN soldier who gave us the letter said another UN aid delivery would arrive the next day, and we hoped for more good news.
We were not disappointed. When the large UN humanitarian aid truck arrived the next day, the driver found my parents and told them he had the necessary authorization papers to transport my family to Nicosia that very day. Uncle Kâzım must have come through for us. After the aid supplies in the UN truck had been handed out, we got into the back of the empty truck. Three other families joined us as their relatives had also arranged for them to go to Nicosia. We were cautiously happy. We had heard reports of many Turkish citizens being picked up by the Greek police while traveling from one place to another, even while the British soldiers observed, never to be seen again. We had to take our chances with the UN soldiers and hope to get to Nicosia safely.
The truck bed was not covered, and it got pretty windy. My long hair, which I normally tied in the back, was not tied that day (I had lost my only rubber band at some point), and it was constantly being whipped around my head. We all sat in silence for the duration of the two-hour trip. We were stopped several times for inspections and questioning by the Greek police, and each time worried that this would be place that we would disappear. But somehow we finally made it to the Turkish quarter of Nicosia. When we crossed the border from the Greek to the Turkish side, near Omorphita, we could finally let go of the breath we’d been collectively holding.
My family and I spent the next seven years as refugees, enclaved and living under the harshest of conditions in the Turkish quarter of Nicosia. In time, Potamia became only a distant and pleasant memory. To date, the political disputes between the Greeks and Turks in Cyprus have not been resolved, and the UN peacekeeping forces first placed there in 1964 have set a record as the longest serving such forces anywhere in the world.
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If you found this essay interesting, you may wish to read "Chaos Behind the Green Line" as well.