Manning the Dead Zone (Part I)

Aug 4, 2007 by

(see Three Months in the Life of the Cypriot National Guard for a preface to this piece)

IN THE CYPRIOT National Guard, all of the conscripts except those serving a reduced three-month term undergo a one-month training after boot camp known as ‘combat school.’  Combat school is where, as my training camp company commander put it, “you learn what it means to be a soldier—to run from morning to night, to go on treks, to go shooting.”  Since their service time is so short, three-monthers bypass combat school and are instead sent directly to their assigned army camps after basic training.

Few of the conscripts in my boot camp actually wanted to attend combat school.  It is only natural that conscripted soldiers—who are compelled to enlist by law not choice—will generally be averse to training of any kind.  Eastern Mediterranean peoples also as a rule avoid physical exercise as much as possible, possibly a genetic leaning that evolved out of the draining heat.  But since I was in the army, I felt I may as well, in the commander’s words, “learn what it means to be a soldier” and so I requested—along with four other zealous three-monthers—to stay on and attend combat school.

The request was eventually granted, although once the training started, some of us began regretting the decision.  On the first day, our cadet officer had my platoon form two parallel lines, one on each side of the training camp’s main road, where we all assumed we were going to practice scrambling into the ditch in the case of an approaching enemy helicopter; instead he told us to start walking at a slow pace and pick up all the trash in sight.  It was constructive activity for a change but nevertheless an uninspiring way to begin a school of combat.  Our training in the afternoon consisted of scrubbing the barracks walls.  Either our officers had been recently inspired watching The Karate Kid or combat school was to follow in the same surrealist vein as boot camp.

Most of the next day was spent at the firing range, or rather idling away the hours in the shelters over the range.  We each shot a total of twenty bullets—ten in the morning and ten after dark—and spent the rest of the time lounging in the tall grass and against the shelter walls.  When I descended for my nighttime firing practice I could faintly see the illumined target but my rifle sight and barrel were indistinguishable in the pitch darkness.  No one had told us that you had to shine a flashlight onto the sight for the yellow dot to glow.  Instead the only advice the sergeant gave me was to “just send ’em” so there was nothing to do but shoot blindly into the mountainside.

The following morning a corporal told me that National Guard Headquarters had sent an order that we five three-monthers were to leave combat school that same day and go directly to our assigned army camps.  No reason was given.  The corporal speculated that one of our soon-to-be commanding officers who was pressed for manpower had complained to headquarters.  But I knew that the Defense Ministry Spokesman had recently found out, due to a blunder of mine, that I was now in the army.  Although we were not on bad terms I suspected that he did not want any journalists snooping around in combat school and so he simply yanked me out of there (along with the others so that the intervention would be less obvious).  Whether or not this was true, I wasn’t especially incensed by the relocation.  Of the little I had seen of so-called combat school, I wouldn’t miss much.

I had been assigned to infantry and my army camp was located in the capital, Nicosia, a 90-minute drive from the Paphos training camp.  The army camp itself was not located on the Green Line (also known as the Buffer Zone, Demilitarized Zone, or Dead Zone), but it staffed and oversaw three companies and dozens of sentry posts along several miles of the Green Line in the Nicosia center.  The army commander had left for the day by the time I was dropped off there, and so the deputy commander signed me an overnight furlough and told me to return at seven the next morning.

The morning meeting with the camp commander was brief.  When I walked in he told me I should stomp to attention and state my name.  I did, although like a true arphas I for some reason stomped with my left foot instead of the right.  He did not seem to notice.

“Bravo,” he said.  “I’m going to put you on the Green Line for sentry duty.  One of the soldiers there is afraid of the Turks so I’m sending you on over to take his place.  Okay?”

I replied that it was fine and he nodded approvingly, as if he had expected objections.  “When will I go?” I asked.  I had been told that infantrymen fresh out of boot camp always spent a week or two at their army camp before being assigned to a Green Line outpost.

“Today.  They’ll come pick you up in the next hour or so.”

They came six hours later.  I passed the morning waiting in the office, talking to several 18- and 19-year old conscript officers.

“You’re 30!” one of them exclaimed.  “The commander shouldn’t be sending you to the Green Line!”  He pursed his lips and shook his head.  “You should be here, in an office in headquarters, coming in from seven [am] to one-thirty [pm] and then going home.”

But I was pleased enough.  I dreaded the office as much as most of the others craved it.  Sentry duty on the Green Line seemed a far more appealing way to pass my remaining two months.

Many of the high-ranking permanent officers there seemed to have nothing better to do than harass the conscripts.  “Do you know what scalping is?” one large permanent officer growled in the face of one of the corporals as I sat waiting for my ride to arrive.  He grabbed the conscript and made as if he were scalping him.  “Like this, that’s how we’ll treat the Turks… Indian style.”  It seemed to give him great pleasure to play the genocidaire.  “If I find a Turkish commander, you know what I’ll do to him?”  With thumb and folded forefinger he pulled on the right cheek of the 18-year-old conscript, who was laughing uncomfortably. “I’m going to take his skin and start shaving it off slice by slice.”  It was obvious that the martial spirit was alive and well in him, especially in the presence of defenseless acquiescent teenagers.

My ride finally came at around two pm and the two conscripts who came to pick me up drove me to my outpost after a minor detour so that they could gawk at high school girls spilling out of school in their stockings and skirts.

The outpost was a small house in a residential neighborhood at the end of a dead-end road that ran flush along the Buffer Zone.  Twelve conscripts had been stationed there prior to my arrival; since the conscript I was meant to replace did not in the end leave for several weeks, the outpost force rose to thirteen with my presence.  They were glad to have me there because the larger force strength decreased the frequency of their sentry shifts and increased their number of monthly furloughs.

But I later found out that the prospect of a 30-year-old in their midst initially left them uneasy.  All twelve of them were between the ages of eighteen and twenty.  Was I going to be a stern father figure, all frowning admonishments and disapproval? At thirty, I was a dinosaur to them.  I remember when I was eighteen all twentysomethings appeared irrevocably old, all thirtysomethings downright geriatric.  Of course, it is only when you approach your thirties that you realize that, aside from the inevitable maturing that comes from a decade of drifting, botched relationships, unrequited dreams and wounded ambitions, your spirit has not aged any, and if you do feel older in some essential way it is only because you have resigned yourself to the implacable effect of time’s passage on the body or confused responsibility with respectability.

The army camp commander certainly hoped there was a disciplinarian in me.  He made that clear later that afternoon during a surprise visit to our outpost.  “This man is thirty years old,” he said to the others who were lined up against the wall on each side of me.  He paused as if that fact was something they needed to dwell upon deeply.

“Mr. Markides,” he continued, now addressing me personally.  “I am going to give you my mobile number and if they do anything stupid—if they’re shouting at the Turks, making trouble, anything—you call me, okay?”  In the end he never did give me his phone number, probably because he knew from the start how futile it was to ask me to be a snitch.  He merely wanted to impress upon them the notion that there was an adult in their midst who would not tolerate their customary delinquency.

For a day or two my presence did have a subduing effect on them.  I was particularly struck by how differently conscript officers treated me.  In boot camp there had been little differentiation between those of us who were in our late twenties or thirties and the teenage conscripts.  But here many of the conscript officers, at least at first, addressed me in the plural (comparable to the Spanish ‘usted’ or the French ‘vous’) and went out of their way to accommodate me.  But I did not want any courtesy or special treatment and it was not long before the other conscripts, both officers and regulars, all realized I could be just as foulmouthed and juvenile as the rest of them.  From that point on all niceties were dropped and like equals we communicated exclusively through insults and curses.

Ping Pong in Nicosia Cyprus Army outpostI had come straight from the austere environment of the training camp barracks so I was surprised at how cozy the house was.  Instead of toilet stalls with holes in the ground there was a proper bathroom with a sit-down toilet and a bathtub; there was a kitchen with a stovetop oven and a refrigerator stocked with food; and there was a living room with couches and a TV.  Aside from the sleeping quarters—you could not call it a bedroom—which consisted of lockers and a row of identical bunk beds, and aside from the fact that we harbored twelve fully automatic assault rifles (soon to be thirteen), several machine guns, grenade launchers, rocket launchers and enough munitions to blow up the neighborhood, the house looked like it was a college student rental.

But there were also a few other subtler indications it was not a college rental.  First of all, the house was tidy, due to a daily chores list, which if violated could result in denial of furlough. Second, VCRs and video game consoles were prohibited from all outposts because the camp commander recognized that conscripts had as much potential for sloth as for squalor; instead, the commander furnished every outpost with a foldable ping-pong table.  There was almost always a game going, and if a day went by without a ping-pong being crushed, lost, or split open, it was a noteworthy day.  There was also a backyard in which we planted ten trees along the perimeter on my first afternoon there, again on the orders of the army camp commander.  For a high-ranking officer, he had remarkably good taste.

deadzone3

View across Green Line of Turkish sentry post

Our outpost was responsible for two sentry posts, one on the rooftop of an abandoned building directly across the road from our quarters and the other a two-minute walk down the road in another abandoned house.  This second post, however, was not on the roof but on the back porch, which had been fortified by sandbags and barrels.  The Turkish military sentry post was only sixty meters away from this ground level position—just a little over the length of an Olympic size swimming pool.  This was by far the most unpopular of the two among the sentries, partly because it was so secluded from our quarters and so close to the Turkish sentry post, which was manned by two soldiers, but mostly because it was on ground level on the backside of a gutted sandbagged house and therefore offered no view of the road and, more to the point, of officers on duty who might be approaching for an inspection.

I soon realized that for all the sentries, the real threat was not the Turkish soldier on the other side of the Dead Zone but the officer on duty who could punish them with a five-day denial of furlough upon catching them reading a magazine or snoozing.  In fact, I was the only one who actually faced the Buffer Zone from the rooftop sentry post. Everyone else stood—or more often, sat—with their backs to the Dead Zone and instead faced south, keeping a wary eye for any approaching officers in vehicle or on foot who might be making the rounds to check that all the sentries were properly keeping lookout over the Green Line and the occupation troops.

This pseudo-sentry duty was not just taking place at my outpost.  It was the norm along the entire 300 kilometers of the Buffer Zone, and not without reason.  The military situation had not altered since 1974, and with Cyprus now in the EU and Turkey vying to enter, any further aggression at the state level anytime soon was inconceivable.  This military impasse minute after minute, day after day, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, had eroded any sense among the conscripts that there was any sense to their sentry duty.  And the opening of several crossing points along the Dead Zone in 2004 had only introduced a new absurdist dimension.  Although Turkish soldiers and settlers could not cross, Turkish Cypriot conscripts and Greek Cypriot conscripts could now cross at will, which meant that on Tuesday you could be staring out behind camouflaged barrels and sandbags into the Demilitarized Zone with your fully automatic assault rifle and five loaded magazines and on Wednesday be standing on the other side with a digital camera in shorts and flip flops.

All sentry shifts were two hours long and you would either get four or six hours off between shifts depending on how many conscripts were on furlough that day.  In addition to the sentry post hours, each day you also had to do an additional two-hour shift as a guard over the weapons cages in the outpost (it involved nothing more than being present in the living room and keeping the area tidy) as well as morning and afternoon exercises and weapons training, which often involved nothing more than pulling out the rocket launchers or machine guns onto a tarp and then sitting around them in pretend training.

Occasionally the camp commander would assign our outpost a project, which might range from weeding and planting flowers along the perimeter of the front porch to building up a defensive U-shaped barrier of sandbags outside the front door.  It was fine for role-playing.  In the morning, as you gently lowered a geranium into the flower bed, you might imagine you were a cheerful homesteader, while in the afternoon, as you crouched experimentally behind the sandbags you had filled and then stacked a half meter from that very same geranium, you might think you were under threat of imminent assault.  And since this was Cyprus, the schizophrenic combination was nothing unusual.

It was mandatory to keep your G3 assault rifle hanging diagonally across your chest at all times during sentry duty, but no one ever did.  Only when the officer on duty neared would the sentry lift up the rifle, which was resting against the sentry box, and strap it over himself.  The other conscripts would often shake their heads at me because I kept the gun draped about me most of the time during sentry duty, at least for the first few weeks.  It seemed too much work to be constantly on the lookout for patrolling officers.  I preferred to pace about the rooftop, looking off into the greenery of the Buffer Zone with a wandering mind rather than back at the roads and residential areas.  I grew lazier with time, but at the beginning at least, I did not mind shouldering the ten-pound G3.

Despite the chores, weapons training, and occasional morning exercises at company headquarters, our only relatively taxing responsibility was the outdoor sentry duty.  It was the monotony that made it taxing.  When you must stand guard over a field of olive trees for two hours on, four hours off, around the clock, the novelty of being an armed soldier on a UN-monitored ceasefire line eventually wears off.

There were ways of course to combat the monotony; some of the conscripts took spank magazines or crossword puzzles, which they would shove under a rock or toss onto the guardhouse roof anytime a permanent officer approached.  Portable PlayStations were also popular among sentries, although if caught with one you would get a minimum of ten days “jail time.”

“Jail time” meant you lost your furlough for x number of days and additionally that you had to serve that same number of days in the army once your conscription term expired (those serving two years were allowed up to thirty grace days of jail time before accruing additional days).  Conscripts who were court-martialed for especially severe offenses usually faced a minimum of 25 days jail time.

For the first few weeks of sentry duty I merely took with me a few loose sheets of paper for taking notes.  I later grew bolder and began taking pocket-sized books of poetry.  I briefly attempted to work my way through a novel but that did not last long.  Poetry, which can be ingested a few lines at a time, is much better suited for illicit reading.  During my second month I took advantage of the endless hours to edit the manuscript of a novel I had recently finished.  I only took a few sheets at a time with me so that I could fold them up and stuff them in my pocket if need be; consequently, it turned out to be the most thorough editing the manuscript had ever received.

I also always had a harmonica on hand and I spent an hour or two each day either playing or singing.  Some of the Turkish soldiers also passed their time in similar fashion (I could tell by their badges that they were Turkish, not Turkish Cypriot, although I also recently heard that Turkish Cypriots adopted the Turkish uniform some time ago).  One of them was an especially talented vocalist whose mournful Phrygian melodies drifting across the Dead Zone perfectly complemented the abandoned garrisoned landscape.

There is something inherently depressing about barriers of any kind, especially when they bisect cities and divide people.  But as far as separation barriers go, the Green Line must rank as one of the world’s most beautiful.  One of the consequences of the military impasse subsequent to the 1974 coup and invasion is that developers have not been able to get their hands on numerous sizeable parcels of land throughout the island.  And there is no larger stretch of inaccessible terrain than the UN-monitored Green Line, which is 300 km long and up to several kilometers wide in places.  There has been no construction there for more than three decades, which explains why you can be a mere five-minute drive from the city center and yet feel like you are in the countryside.  The rest of the olive groves and lemon orchards in Nicosia have been bulldozed and replaced with cement.

The Dead Zone has consequently become a well-guarded (though not for preservation reasons) relic of what the topography of Cyprus looked like three decades ago.  For example, unlike the rest of Nicosia, on the stretch of the Green Line I was stationed on there was breathing space between the homes: fruit orchards, olive groves, extensive yards in which the chickens would roam, and so on.  Of course, cities must grow along with their populations and there is no point in pining over a past that cannot exist in the present.  But at the same time, just as every building needs a concrete mixer, so too does every city dweller need a green refuge in which to occasionally escape from the tedious bustle of city life.

Since the concept of a central city park has not yet made it into Cypriot consciousness, the Green Line is now the closest thing Nicosia has to a centrally located green space (not open to the public perhaps, but at least mine-free as of last year, which is surely a safe step in the right direction). In every bad situation one can find some good, and although it is scant consolation for the displaced residents, it is still worth remembering that the barbed wire has also kept town planners out.

It is for this reason ‘Green Line’ is a fitting name for this verdant swath of land, especially if one considers it from a bird’s eye point of view, although it was not foresight but a stroke of chance that it was not called something else like the Red Line or the Blue Line.  The name ‘Green Line’ originated soon after the intercommunal fighting of 1963 when a British General drew a line across a map of Nicosia to delineate the boundary between the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, who had already segregated within Nicosia at that point.  He happened to use a green pencil.

Manning the Dead Zone is continued on September 4.

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