Manning the Dead Zone (Part II)

Sep 4, 2007 by

The first part of this piece is the August 4 entry

Rooftop outpost where Constantine Markides was stationed on Green Line

My rooftop outpost on the Nicosia Green Line

THE OTHER CONSCRIPTS in my outpost, many of whom had been stationed on the Green Line months before I arrived and who would be there months after I left, were understandably blasé about the pristine surroundings.

“When I first came I was always staring out there, moving the spotlight around every time I heard a sound,” one of the conscripts told me as he motioned towards the Buffer Zone.  “Now I don’t even look over there anymore.  There’s nothing there.  That’s why it’s called the Dead Zone.”

No doubt the boogeyman notion that elite Turkish forces might anytime come crawling over, knives clenched in teeth, in the first midnight wave of another invasion was ludicrous under current conditions.  The only human activity in the buffer zone was the UN van that would drive by on patrol every few hours with the blue flag fluttering off the back and the occasional UN soldiers in blue tracksuits enjoying a morning jog.

But contrary to the conscript’s claim, the Dead Zone was very much alive.  Both sentry posts, but especially the one on the rooftop, were fine spots from which to observe birdlife.  Considering that our mission was to ‘monitor and report all enemy activity over land and airspace,’ it’s obvious that each sentry post should have been outfitted with a pair of high-powered binoculars.  But not surprisingly, there were none, and so I soon began bringing my own personal pair.  Though my binoculars were handy for identifying the various types of Turkish helicopters that occasionally flew along the Kyrenia mountain range (we were supposed to phone in all Turkish military activity to army camp headquarters) I primarily used them to watch kestrels, hooded crows, and the other abundant smaller birds like flycatchers, buntings, and sparrows.

The snakes were still hibernating, but hedgehogs, hares, foxes, and Agama lizards were a common sight, and in the evenings, before the bats and owls emerged, the peeper frogs performed in the neighboring marsh.  The Green Line was also the roaming ground for countless stray cats and dogs, which accounted for the unsettling sounds of snapping twigs that occasionally pierced the night silence.  Now and then you might even see a kill.  It was no African safari, but I did witness a number of cats stalk and successfully pounce upon hapless songbirds that had made the mistake of leaving the safety of their treetop perches.

But by far the most abundant Green Line visitors and inhabitants were the dogs.  Several conscripts in my outpost had taken quite a liking to a stray retriever and would toss her the uneaten army rations and bring her up with them on their rooftop sentry duty.  This soon developed into quite a problem with the camp commander since dogs were forbidden on the sentry posts or near the outposts.  The conscripts protested to the commander that they never fed her and claimed that they even threw rocks at her to send her away, but the truth was obvious enough.

Eventually an officer came by, loaded the retriever up in a van, and dropped her off a dozen or so miles away.  A few days later she was back.  A week later they dropped her off over a hundred miles away in the Troodos mountain range.  As far as I know she never returned.  It really was too bad.  Soldiers all too often torture animals (just last year a number of conscripts set a puppy on fire and filmed its yelping death-throes on their cell phones) and it seemed a shame that the conscripts in my outpost had to be reprimanded for showing some affection to a stray dog.

But the retriever may in the end have found itself a better life after the relocation.  She was the only bitch in the neighborhood, and all the other dogs were constantly mounting her, or trying, to like the friendly terrier that never gave up despite the fact that without a stepladder he was attempting a physical impossibility.  The terrier was harmless enough and offered comic relief for the sentries, but there was a large aggressive mutt in the neighborhood that was constantly offending our adopted friend.  One day while I was standing guard on the ground-level sentry post, the mongrel mounted her on the UN road.  Anyone who has ever witnessed dogs mating knows that the male cannot withdraw immediately after ejaculation: his member swells up and a period of time must pass for it to contract.  But this mutt seemed to think otherwise.  Upon finishing, he turned around to leave, but of course could not.  The two dogs were now facing opposite directions but still attached at the critical point.  The mutt tried yanking forward a few times, which was not only ineffective but also surely painful to both of them.  Finally, and I will never forget this sight, the mutt tore off at a sprint down the path, towing behind him the poor bitch, who helplessly clawed at the dirt, yelping, as she was dragged several hundred yards by his swollen penis.  In my two months on the Green Line, I was never more tempted to use my gun.  I was only sorry I had not pegged him with a rock, although he was the sort of dog that may well have lunged at me if I had.

It was tedious standing in one place for two hours, and often cold, especially during those February night shifts, and I soon improvised an anaerobic exercise routine.  There were no weights available so I made do with the equipment on hand.  The bullet proof vest, which was hanging on an iron coat hanger, was handy for curls and front raises.  The ammunition box sufficed for triceps kickbacks and lateral raises, while the helmet was fine for triceps extensions.  Shouldering the vest in one hand and the ammo box in the other was handy for shrugs and made for tolerable squats, though it was more effective for lunges.  The pushups and calf raises were best done at night when one was weighed done with multiple layers of clothing.  But the greatest challenge proved to be exercising the back since there was no bar or ledge anywhere on which to do pull ups, so I resorted to high repetition sets of one-arm bent over rows with the bullet proof vest.  Despite the crude makeshift nature of this gym, I ended up putting on more muscle during sentry duty than I had during boot camp.

I would also frequently pace along the rooftop or the yard (depending on the sentry post), which would sometimes prompt one of the Turkish sentries to train his binoculars on me.  They were very unabashed about it and would keep the binoculars on me even when I was looking directly back at them.  My initial reaction, which now appears absurd to me, was indignation at their impropriety: perhaps we belonged to enemy armies, but one should not forget one’s manners.  I too would often train my binoculars on them but initially tried to be discreet about it.  If they looked over at me, I would instantly lower them or shift my magnified gaze elsewhere.  It was of course ridiculous to behave as if I were spying on a woman undressing—after all, we both had the same job: to watch each other—but I could not get over the peeping tom feel of it.  It took a week or two, but eventually I overcame any self-consciousness and it was not long before I was staring openly back at them through my binoculars without the slightest shame or resentment.

Soldiers standing guard on a ceasefire line suffer from boredom more than anything else and so any movement or activity among the enemy sentries is always a subject of great interest.  One morning while standing sentry on the ground level post I noticed that a couple of military jeeps and a black Mercedes with a small Turkish flag attached to the hood had pulled up alongside the Turkish sentry post.  The two sentries were up on their feet and bellowing out what I have no doubt was their name, rank and mission. It was astonishing just how loud they could yell.  We too had the same procedure, but none of us ever hollered out our mission at the top of our lungs as the Turkish sentries did.  The no-nonsense nature of the Turkish army—and this does not include the Turkish Cypriot forces, which from what I’ve heard share laxness with the Greek Cypriots—would manifest in all its grim severity at times like these, although I suspect this disciplined barking was exaggerated along the Green Line to intimidate those of us who were watching.

It was obvious that a high-ranking officer—perhaps a brigadier—had arrived on an inspection.  It was of course a welcome break in the monotony for me and after phoning in the inspection to headquarters, I leaned against the sandbags to more comfortably enjoy the show through my binoculars.  After the sentries had finished yelling, a group of four officers climbed up onto the guard post.  It was clear by the red insignias on the collar and shoulder of one of them that he was the top officer. A man with a red clipboard was accompanying him.  The two sentries meanwhile were facing my direction, cradling their guns, and hollering out answers to questions that the officer was posing them, presumably about the landmarks and army posts south of the Green Line.  It was all very theatrical and silly, as army protocol always is.

A few olive tree branches were partially blocking my view so I decided to walk out into the yard for a better view.  The only problem was that they too now had an unobstructed view of me from there.  It was not long before the inspecting officer saw me staring at him through the binoculars, and he immediately darted behind a wall. He would not come out again into the open, so I again returned to my sandbagged post.  Eventually he did emerge for a brief period, but he could tell I was still spying on him and he again took cover.  He remained up there, hiding himself away for another fifteen minutes or so before he and the others finally drove off.  It proved to be my most satisfying sentry duty.  I may not have warded off an attack, but I had at least disrupted an inspection and forced a senior military Turkish officer to cower away like a jittery criminal for a good fifteen minutes.

As much I loathed the Turkish military presence on the island, I never felt any hatred for the Turkish sentries.  The only essential difference between them and the Cypriot conscripts is that they happened to be born in Turkey.  Like us, they too were doing their mandatory service.  It has always astonished me how so many otherwise decent and reasonable people can glibly resent and blanket-condemn millions of others simply because they happen to have been born on a different chunk of land than they were.  It is only a sensible prejudice if, like Hitler or the Rwandan genocidaires, one holds the view that there is some vile national trait (in this case “Turkish barbarism”) which is inherited by an entire people at birth and which of course stands in stark opposition to the shining national trait of one’s own beleaguered clan.

I had heard many stories of rock throwing across the Green Line, including cases of spotlights being smashed out and sentries being knocked unconscious by rocks (I was told that one Turkish sentry within the walled city was paralyzed after falling from his post when a rock struck him in the head).  I also knew there had been stone-throwing across the Green Line from and at our ground-level post.  But I never had any such belligerent exchanges with the Turkish sentries.  The most hostile thing any Turkish soldier did while I was sentry was to wave and yell “Good Day” in Greek to me one sunny morning.


But relations were not always so warm.  One afternoon, when one of the conscripts came to relieve me at the end of my shift, the Turkish sentries began to curse at him in Greek.  “It’s because they recognize me,” he said as he raised his middle finger at them.  “Faggot Turk!” he then shouted back, also in Greek.  “Fuck your mother!”

About three or four of the sentries, himself included, had a habit of regularly cursing the Turkish soldiers, which would generally ignite a volley of insults.  The Turks always cursed in Greek, and though the Greek Cypriots had also learned a few curses in Turkish (“Fuck your mother” was beloved by both sides), they were far less proficient in bilingual cursing so they generally stuck to Greek.  The insults also took non-verbal forms.  One sentry in particular took pleasure in clambering up onto the sandbags that bordered the Dead Zone and urinating in direct view of the Turkish sentries.  I have a photo of this, although unfortunately the picture is not what it could have been because the Turkish soldiers had turned their backs by the time I got my camera out.

Usually the cursing was harmless enough—being only slightly more malicious than the invective that was bandied about between companies at boot camp—and one almost sensed that it was more for entertainment than out of spite.  But of course, one cannot get around the fact that everyone had a gun and plenty of ammunition on hand.  One late afternoon while I was sentry on the rooftop, I heard a loud explosion to my right that sounded like a rifle shot.  The Turkish soldiers were staring intently at our ground level post through their binoculars.  I was later told that the other sentry on duty—I will refer to him as Marios for convenience—had fired a bullet.  I questioned him about it afterwards, but he denied firing a round, claiming the sound had been a car tire blowing out.

It was not as easy for us to fire a bullet as one might expect.  Unlike the Turkish soldiers, who carried their guns loaded, we were not permitted to have the magazine clipped into the firearm; instead, the magazine was kept within arm’s distance and the loading compartment was taped over with plastic so that the only way you could clip the magazine onto the rifle was by removing the seal (the same was true for the other magazines stored in the ammunition box).  And even after that, you could not shoot unless you were fired upon or unless you received clearance from higher-ups.  Of course all this was very impractical from a combat perspective and, before conscripting, I considered the no-magazine-attached policy a ridiculous handicap.  But it did not take many encounters with my fellow conscripts before I changed my mind.  Eighteen-year-olds are prone to remarkable lapses of judgment and it only takes a couple of hotheads to start playing cops and robbers across the Green Line for an ugly situation to escalate.  The buffoon behavior of some of the sentries surely constitutes the greatest present-day threat of renewed conflict along the Green Line.

That following morning I was scheduled for guard duty on the ground floor post and so I checked the magazine.  It was obvious by the sloppy condition of the seal that the tape had been removed and then hastily slapped back in place.   I knew this happened on occasion, as some of the conscripts would load the rifle and point it at the Turkish sentries just for kicks.  But I had never heard of anyone firing a round.  As it had already been tampered with, I decided out of curiosity to remove the tape and count the bullets.  There were none missing.  It is of course possible that he had an extra bullet on hand and had replaced it but I suspect he never did fire a bullet.  I believe this only because the Turkish sentries barely reacted to the explosion.  If a real bullet had been fired (assuming of course they had seen him fire it) they would have grabbed for something else besides a pair of binoculars.

A few weeks later I happened to again be on the rooftop post while Marios was on the other post.  Although the two posts are only about 100 or so yards apart, the sentries cannot see each other as the ground level post is sheltered under a concrete overhang.  But at one point I glanced over and saw that Marios was pacing about on the rooftop above his post while talking on a cell phone.  If an officer on patrol came by, he would doubly punish him—for talking on a cell phone and for being on the roof unauthorized—but Marios did not seem in the slightest concerned.  He must have been on the phone for ten minutes, and I had returned my attention to a kestrel on a nearby treetop, when I heard shouting between him and the two Turkish sentries.

Marios had put the phone away and was now cursing at the Turkish sentries.  He picked up a piece of rubber hose that had been lying on the rooftop and, clutching it between his legs, he began to mock-masturbate while facing them.

deadzone5“Pezevenki!” the Turkish sentries yelled back, which translates to something between pimp and son-of-a-bitch.

“Come eat my cock!” Marios yelled.

“Pezevengi!  Fuck your mother!”

“And my balls too!”

“Come over here, why don’t you!”

The exchange went like this for several minutes.  On the rooftop was a flagpole from which the Greek flag and the Cypriot flag flew side by side.  Marios suddenly rushed over to the cement base and lowered the Cypriot flag, unclipping it from the halyard.  He then held the flag out before the Turkish sentries and, still yelling, began to shake it violently at them.  I was somewhat surprised he had not lowered the Greek flag instead of the Cypriot: chest-thumping jingoist displays in Cyprus normally come wrapped only in Greek or Turkish colors.

deadzone9After some time Marios reattached the flag and, upon raising it back up, he climbed down the metal stairs and returned to his post.  The yelling, however, continued.  I could not see Marios, but I knew that he was up to something, because the Turkish conscripts had suddenly grown very animated and they were gesticulating angrily at him.  Suddenly I heard a loud yell and I saw them duck.  Moments later one of them popped up with his rifle and aimed it at Marios.

At that particular moment, I was standing on the northeastern corner of the rooftop, where I had the best view of the Turkish conscripts.  With no war going on, it was very easy to forget there was ever any potential for conflict along the Green Line.  But when somebody pulls a gun out, you quickly remember where you are.  Of course, I had not participated in the row and the gun was aimed at Marios not me, but I suddenly became very conscious of my lack of coverage.  I briskly made my way back to the guard house, where I had a more comfortable view of the unfolding events.

But nothing more unfolded.  Eventually the rifle was lowered and the yelling came to an end.  Later that evening at the kitchen table I asked Marios why they had trained the gun on him.  “Because I loaded mine and aimed it at them,” he answered nonchalantly between bites of souvlakia, as if he had only been doing his job.

Marios then began to tease another one of the conscripts who I learned had been keeping him company down at the sentry post when he had pulled the gun on the Turkish sentry. His friend had apparently ducked away when the Turkish sentry turned the rifle on them.

“You went hiding away like a girl,” Marios mumbled through a mouthful of kebab.

“I didn’t want to get shot.”

Marios swallowed forcefully and slammed the rest of his pita down.  “And so what if you were shot.  If God wants you to die, then you’ll die.  It’s not up to you.  So why worry about it.”

Religious fatalism was of course a convenient excuse for his antics, but I had no doubt of his sincerity.  Unlike Turkish Cypriots, Greek Cypriots are very religious.  Though much of their outward Orthodoxness is often no more than hypocritical posing or herd-behavior—the by-products of organized religion found in every country—Greek Cypriots still as a rule have a strong inward belief in God.  At boot camp the only time the conscripts were well-behaved was during prayers, and it was not uncommon anytime we were traveling in the army trucks to see a conscript cross himself silently each time we drove past a church.  It was also not unusual for conscripts to greet each other on Easter Day with the words “Christ has risen,” although I admit I was not expecting to hear it at two a.m. on Easter morning while relieving one of the conscripts from his midnight shift.

It would be wrong to give the impression that Green Line sentry duty was dangerous. The last Buffer-Zone related killing was on August 14, 1996, when a Greek Cypriot was shot dead while climbing a Turkish flagpole to pull down the flag.  His death came a few days after the Turkish nationalist group Grey Wolves had clubbed to death his cousin during a controversial demonstration in the Green Line.  That was a bad year along the Green Line, as a Greek Cypriot sentry had also been killed earlier in June when he crossed the Green Line to talk to a Turkish Cypriot soldier (unconfirmed reports say it was to exchange army caps) and another soldier shot him.  There had been a few other similar cases throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s in which Greek Cypriot soldiers who had befriended Turkish Cypriot soldiers entered no man’s land to deliver a gift of brandy or cigarettes and were shot down on the way by other soldiers, who obviously did not trust any gift-bearing Greeks.  There was plenty of suspicion to go around.  There was even a sign in our outpost with the black and white photographs of seven sentries who had been killed in the Green Zone or on their posts, under which was a warning that we should not be deceived by friendly gestures because the Turks had evil intentions.

The possibility for a fresh incident was always there, but the days of Green Line violence seemed to be over and the fracases were now all hot air.  Not that that was any great consolation to the residents whose homes lay on the Green Line and who still had to endure daily exchanges of obscene yelling and cursing.  I often felt sorry for them, but there was one time I was tempted to contribute to the daily disturbance of the peace.  The Turkish army maintained another sentry post that was only thirty yards away from our ground level post, although it was always unmanned.  One afternoon while I was on sentry duty, I saw that four Turkish soldiers had climbed onto the roof.  It was not long before I realized that they were trying to free the Turkish flag, which the wind had tangled in the halyards.  They shook and pulled on the halyards for some time but the flag remained knotted stubbornly around both ropes.  Finally they had no choice but to push over the flagpole, which was anchored in a barrel of cement, and untangle the flag by hand.

I was sure that the soldiers thought nothing of what they were doing—after all, it was routine procedure for untangling flags—and neither did I, but at the very moment they had successfully pushed the Turkish flagpole over to a horizontal position I was overcome by an urge to start wildly clapping and cheering.  But I did not, partly out of respect for the frail old man who lived down the road and who had come over to our outpost just the day before, shaking with anger for having been roused from his nap by all the yelling and obscenities, and partly out of concern that some of those soldiers, who were quite literally a stone’s throw distance away, might consider any jocular disrespect of their flag as an act of war against them.

In retrospect, though I did the sensible thing by keeping quiet, I regret that I did not at least shout out a bravo.  It is not often that a Cypriot is given the opportunity to applaud Turkish soldiers for toppling a Turkish flag on the Green Line.

Manning the Dead Zone is continued in the October 4 entry.

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