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Turning tragedy into hope Patros Souppouris

 

A Greek Cypriot who was a victim of one of the worst atrocities on 1974 was recently awarded the European Citizen’s Prize. The way he has coped in the intervene is quite amazing finds THEO PANAYIDES 

 

The boy is 10 years old. He wears a striped green-and-white T-shirt and olive-green trousers with white stitching, topped by a belt with a big buckle, 70s-style. He has brown eyes and black curly hair. He looks at the camera with an open, candid expression. “My parents are dead,” he says simply, with his younger brother Costas beside him.

The boy is Petros Souppouris. The scene is from Attila ’74 by Michael Cacoyannis, still the best film ever made on the coup and Turkish invasion. Cacoyannis interviewed Petros in October 1974, just a couple of months after the events he’s describing. That was the first time he’d told his story on film, but by no means the last; every year around this time – today being the 38th anniversary of the coup – the phone rings in Petros’ home in a quiet Nicosia side-street, and some journalist invites him to tell his story. The events in the village of Palaikythro are among the most-documented atrocities of the Turkish invasion.

Palaikythro, a few miles north-east of Nicosia, was a ‘mixed’ village for decades, but the Turkish Cypriots – like most Turkish Cypriots – withdrew into nearby enclaves in 1964. Resentment festered for 10 years, then boiled over when the war started. By August 1974, between the first and second invasions, most of the villagers had fled, but Petros’ father – who owned a farm – stayed on with his wife and five children. Also on the farm were a neighbour family called Liasis (their father was working in Libya) as well as a few other relatives; around 20 people in all.

There had already been some trouble. Turkish Cypriot thugs had appeared, and stolen the family’s cattle at gunpoint. Two days later, a small group of Turkish Cypriots arrived. “Three or four young men, 17 or 18 years old,” recalls Petros now, “maybe 20 years old – the executioners, let’s say”. They herded the adults out into the garden, keeping the children indoors. Petros could hear shouts of panic – “‘Don’t shoot’, ‘let the children go’, ‘we’ll give you all our jewellery’, things like that” – then a hail of gunfire. Then a man with a stick forced the children out as well (Petros’ brother Costas had managed to escape, running off to his grandma’s); they were also lined up in the garden, and also shot. Petros’ three younger siblings – two boys, aged nine and four, and a three-year-old girl – were killed. He himself was shot three times, twice in the abdomen and once in the chest, lost consciousness, but somehow survived.

He tells the story without emotion, whether because he’s told it so often or because he’s not the type to get emotional. The face is fleshier, the black curly hair has grown thin and silvery in 38 years – yet he’s still the same open-faced boy who gazed so unflinchingly at Cacoyannis’ camera. When he regained consciousness, he recalls, the attackers had gone. The boy crawled to his bed, and lay there for about half an hour. He could hear someone moaning for water: two of the Liasis children had also survived, though the girl was badly wounded and spent months in hospital. He and the Liasis boy – who was older, around 14 – broke open a watermelon. Then they waited; soon after, the Turkish army arrived on the scene. Fortunately “the commanding officer was good,” says Petros, and took care of the young survivors. For a month they were prisoners, a tense time since those who’d committed the atrocities were known to be hunting down witnesses. Eventually the UN took charge of them, and brought them to Nicosia where he and Costas were raised by an uncle.

“Psychologically they feel it’s all a lie, and they’ll return to the village and find their parents and family alive,” says the voice of a woman (presumably a psychologist) in Attila ’74. There’s no doubt Petros was partly in denial when he spoke to Cacoyannis as a 10-year-old; what’s remarkable is that he seems to have maintained that distance from the tragedy even as an adult, and apparently never succumbed to despair – something of a miracle, given how many people find their lives irreparably damaged by much less serious childhood trauma. He didn’t even have nightmares later, he claims.

“I’ve been very lucky,” he says counter-intuitively. “I didn’t have any difficult years later on. No remorse, no problems. Neither did my brother. We got over it easily”. He was raised with much love by his uncles and aunts (his father had eight siblings), qualified as a pilot, came back and found a job with Cyprus Airways, where he’s been for 27 years; he also got married in 1990, and has three kids – Areti, who’s 21 and studying Law in the UK, 17-year-old Georgia and 12-year-old Andreas, who’s playing videogames in the next room as we speak. And there was something else, he adds: his father’s home had always been tolerant, totally accepting of Turkish Cypriots. The seeds of racism had never been sown in his mind, which is why they never blossomed after the invasion.

Did he never go through a stage of anger and hatred, though? “Not hatred,” he replies, “but perhaps incomprehension”. Why did the massacre take place? Why did they do it? He speculates that the youngsters who killed his family (now in their late 50s, if indeed they’re still alive) must’ve grown up in the enclaves; maybe they were harassed by Greek Cypriots who beat their fathers, or assaulted their mothers. And of course there’s something else: despite both sides’ strenuous efforts to paint themselves as victims, neither side was blameless during the invasion. Which of course brings us to Huseyin Akansoy.

Around the same time as the massacre in Palaikythro, teenage Huseyin and his family were captured by Greek Cypriots in Maratha, a village further down towards Famagusta. The men (at 14, Huseyin just about fit that description) were taken to prison in Limassol; the women and children – around 120 people – were left behind, and took refuge in nearby caves. One day, four Greek Cypriots turned up in trucks, loaded all 120, took them to a riverbank and shot them dead (their remains have since been found at the site); the only survivor was an old man who’d been hiding in another cave. After their release, Huseyin and his father came back from Limassol to find their entire family obliterated.

Huseyin isn’t there when I talk to Petros, but his presence looms large over our conversation – because that was the final stage in his process of acceptance, after the borders opened in the past 10 years or so, when he encountered Turkish Cypriots and learned the whole truth. He’d always been happy to tell his story in the media, says Petros – but he’s changed his tune in the past decade, and now tends to decline TV interviews unless they’re done bicommunally; “If you’re just going to be one-sided, I prefer not to come,” he explains.

Instead, he and Huseyin are now a team, going to schools and other public places to testify about what happened. Sometimes their visits are blocked, or cancelled at the last minute, but audiences are invariably fascinated; young Turkish Cypriots are shocked by his tale, reports Petros, having been brainwashed to believe (like their Greek Cypriot counterparts) that all atrocities in 1974 were carried out against them. Two weeks ago, he and Huseyin were jointly awarded the European Citizen’s Prize by the European Parliament. 

It’s an honour he surely cherishes, as the EU carries great symbolic weight for Petros Souppouris – symbolising the Cyprus of the future, the Cyprus he’d like to see. It’s not just that it stands for peace and harmony; it also stands for supra-nationalism, going beyond our parochial small-island politics. It suddenly strikes me that it’s no accident he opted to become an airline pilot – a job that affords perspective (ethnic grudges look so petty from 36,000 feet) and reaches out beyond Cyprus to the wider world. One of his pet peeves, for instance, is education, the fact that children in Greek Cypriot schools (and presumably Turkish Cypriot schools) are taught such a narrow tranche of History, focusing on ourselves instead of other nations.

“Andrea!” calls Petros, to illustrate his point.

“What?” His son appears at the doorway, dragging his feet slightly, reluctant to leave his computer game.

“How many times have you learned about 1821 [the Greek Revolution] at school?”

“Six times,” says the boy, laughing. It’s obviously a familiar conversation.

“And how about the Second World War?” I ask.

“Once,” he replies. “We did it this year.”

That, in a nutshell, is Petros’ point. “Look,” he points out, “all countries have problems. Extremists always find ways to get ordinary people fighting among themselves. The point is, we have to decide. Do we want to live in Cyprus, or do we want to keep fighting forever?” It’s not just an academic question; our fixation on the Cyprus problem holds us back. Our society isn’t “the society we want”, he insists, not a society “that’ll be creative, and carry out research”. Instead, kids are bombarded with propaganda and grow up to be narrow, rigid adults. “I prefer my child to learn about the principles of the EU first – equality, human rights. Then they can learn Ancient Greek as well, no problem.”

Petros Souppouris is important, because he has moral authority. Someone else can say these things and be shouted down, but it’s hard for Petros to be shouted down when he calls, for instance, for an equivalent of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or asks for old injustices to be forgiven and forgotten – because he was there. He’s a victim. He suffered horribly, and has waived his right to revenge or restitution because he believes in the truth. “The truth creates a future,” he explains. “Everything else becomes the past, once you tell the truth”. 

What about justice, though? Isn’t it only natural to be angry at those who’ve hurt you? Maybe, he admits, yet “everyone I’ve met who suffered, who lost family, immediate family – on both sides – they think the same way I do. Ask anyone! Because you don’t want your children, or someone else’s children, or your neighbour’s children, to suffer like you did. It’s the perpetrators who feel injustice, [saying] ‘oh, I was forced to do it’ and so on.” The victims feel the weight of what happened – and all else is trumped by their desire to prevent it happening again.

Meanwhile, Petros lives his life, that black day in Palaikythro receding with every passing year. In a weird way, what happened that day opened up his horizons. “If the invasion hadn’t happened, I’d probably have grown up in Palaikythro,” he shrugs. “I might be a cattle farmer now!” Instead he flies jumbo jets, and is also big on self-improvement; he’s done a BSc in Economics and is now reading Law, taking in the occasional lecture at London University. He’s a serious person. He likes things to be orderly, hence perhaps his love for the detailed regulation of the EU. At one point he mentions how much it pains him to attend AGMs in Cyprus and hear everyone shouting, without any respect for the “rules of order”.

Back to Attila ’74, 10-year-old Petros and his little brother gazing into the camera. Right now they’re in shock, says the female psychologist, but soon they’ll have to face reality; “Perhaps their drama is only just beginning”. 38 years later, we at least know their drama wasn’t too onerous, ending in forgiveness and a kind of serenity. Against the odds, one of the worst atrocities of 1974 seems to have found a happy ending.

 

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