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20 June, 2024
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Watching the Turkish paratroopers from my window

A diplomat's first-hand account of the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus



by Pavlos Apostolides

It was approximately 5.20 a.m. on the morning of July 20, 1974, when I was awakened by the ring of a telephone in my home in Nicosia. The correspondent of the Athens News Agency, and my personal friend, Georgios ‘Kokkos’ Leonidas wished me good morning and advised that I look out the window. The sky was clear and I could easily make out the paratroopers jumping out of Turkish aircraft north of the city. What we had been expecting – but hoped we would be spared – was taking place in front of my very eyes. 

I will never forget Nicosia after it had been evacuated by most of its inhabitants...The howling of dogs that had been abandoned by their families pierced the night as the city lay in darkness.

I had been assigned to the embassy in Nicosia from the embassy in London in December 1973. I was the third-ranking member in my new post, after the ambassador (E. Lagakos) and the counselor (D. Sermpos). Manolis Kalamidas was my junior. During the first half of 1974 relations between Athens and Nicosia had deteriorated, with the Greek military regime, under the direction of the true governor of Greece Dimitrios Ioannidis, supporting and guiding the EOKA B paramilitary organization against Archbishop Makarios, completely ignoring the Turkish factor. The activities of the illegal EOKA B continued until the coup, despite the influx of information that units of the Turkish military were gathering on the coast opposite Cyprus.

The coup found the Greek Embassy without a leader. The ambassador had been summoned to Athens for a supposed meeting on Monday, July 15, to give the impression to Cyprus that it was business as usual. Instead of a meeting, there was a coup. The ambassador did not return, because it would obviously be deemed internationally as approval of the coup. Five days later, on Saturday, July 20, the invasion took place.

From the moment that hostilities broke out, the role of the embassy was limited to recording and transmitting military developments, as they were conveyed to us by the National Guard of Cyprus, to the Foreign Ministry in Athens. We worked night shifts with my colleague Kalamidas because the hostilities did not cease after dark. The Turkish forces were being reinforced and gradually pushing back our own. Waves of refugees from the villages near Kyrenia began gathering in Nicosia. The accounts given to the police revealed the brutality of the Turkish soldiers, who fanned the flow of refugees. 

We were relieved to hear of the first ceasefire on the evening of Monday, July 22, but we quickly understood that the Turkish forces were not respecting the agreement and were constantly seeking to improve their positions.

A few days later, on July 24, we found out from the ministry’s teleprinter that people were gathering at Syntagma Square in Athens and that there were rumors that Konstantinos Karamanlis was returning to Greece. We were overjoyed, relieved! The next day I was on call during the evening when the president of Cyprus, Nikos Sampson, appointed by the leaders of the coup, came to the embassy alone and looking worse for wear to inform us that since Athens was telling him to resign, he would do so. He pointed out that all he had wanted to do in accepting the presidency was to help his homeland. His resignation allowed the President of the House, Glafcos Clerides, to temporarily assume the presidential duties as set out by the constitution. The restoration of constitutional order deprived Turkey of the argument that this was a legal invasion, that it was acting in its capacity as a guarantor power to restore constitutional order. However, it was too late. The Turkish military was on the island – and it had no intention of leaving.

The impasse at the Geneva conference led to a new Turkish offensive on August 15. The battles were now coming very close to Nicosia. The Turkish Forces in Cyprus (TURDYK) had been reinforced with tanks and were being supported by the Turkish air force. The last day of hostilities was the most critical, as the Turks sought to gain control of Nicosia’s airport. The Hellenic Forces in Cyprus (ELDYK) were given primary responsibility to repel the attack, supported at the last minute by forces from the Cypriot National Guard (who, with a few accurate shots with their anti-tank recoilless rifles, stopped the advance of the Turkish tanks). It was also the only instance in which the British forces, who maintained a military airfield near the airport, assisted the defenders by refusing to give up their position. 

A few days later, I met with the United States military attache (codenamed “Red”), who, full of admiration for the ELDYK, told me that ought to honor them with every medal we had! We had a small unit of ELDYK forces guarding the embassy whom we decided to send back to their unit where they would be more useful. I will never forget the city of Nicosia after it had been evacuated by most of its inhabitants, driven by fear of the potential arrival of the Turkish army. The howling of dogs that had been abandoned by their families pierced the black of night as the city lay in darkness.

Turkey achieved the shift of populations with the invasion, expelling Greek Cypriots from the occupied territories and pressuring Turkish Cypriots to move from the south to the north. It may claim that it reduced friction between the two communities by doing so, but as evident from the countless failed attempts at reunification, it made finding a solution more difficult. The failure to find a solution continues to be a burden to relations between Greece and Turkey.

Pavlos Apostolidis is a retired diplomat, former director of Greece’s National Intelligence Agency and a former interim minister of administrative reform and digital governance.

watching-the-turkish-paratroopers-from-my-window0In this July 24, 1974, file photo, Turkish soldiers advance during the fighting that followed Turkey’s July 20, 1974, invasion of Cyprus.  [AP]

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