Manning the Dead Zone (Part IV)
To read the first part of this piece about guard duty on the Green Line click here
AN ANTI-TANK gun exercise took place six weeks into my sentry duty. There was some form of firing practice every month or two. One might imagine conscripts would look forward to these trainings, if only for a change of scenery, but the only one interested in my outpost was me, and I was not even scheduled to go, since the military only trained three-month conscripts on rifles. But my camp commander accepted my request to participate in the firing exercise, and so on the scheduled morning—a cold overcast one that prompted even more grumbling among those required to attend—I found myself jam-packed along with twenty-five other conscripts in the back of an army truck heading south-west of the capital.
The training was in the mountains, a forty-minute drive from Nicosia. It had been steadily drizzling there and the dirt roads leading up to the shooting arena on the peak had mudded over and made further driving impossible. Instead we had to slog all the equipment and ammunition by hand a half kilometer uphill through the rain and sucking mud.
Moments after we had assembled several of the guns and weighted the bases down with sandbags, the wind and downpour began. We crammed under one of the shelters, shivering and soaked through, as most of had neglected to bring a rain jacket. Beyond the slanting sheets of rain the sky was a uniform shade of gray and the hard patter on the aluminum rooftop was not letting off. I at least had some whiskey in my water bottle (a strategy for making frigid night shifts more tolerable) and though it was no substitution for a rain jacket, it was the next best thing.
After a half hour it was decided to call the exercise off and so we began lugging all the crates of ammunition that we had just hauled up back down again. We had transported most of them to the trucks when the rain abruptly stopped and it was announced that the exercise would resume. To a mutinous outcry, this was followed by the Sisyphean order that we had to carry the crates back up the hill again.
Training exercises generally involved hours of waiting around and then several minutes of actual target practice. It was no exception with the anti-tank gun, which I handled for thirty seconds at most. Because of the rain interruptions, only four of the guns had been assembled. The officers—which included my outpost’s camp commander, colonel and brigadier—were lined up imperiously on an elevation immediately behind the firing range.
I collected a belt link of ten rounds and waited my turn. Eventually the directing officer called me up. There was a conscript officer beside each gun who then took the belt clip and loaded it. The directing officer, who was delivering his orders through a megaphone, then told me to bend down so that the other conscript could place the ear muffs over my head. There were hundreds of 50mm shells scattered about the base of the gun—shells that dwarfed the standard 7.62mm assault rifle shells, shells that, with the ends sawed off, would make a fine slide for bottleneck guitar. I realized that if I wanted a memento this would be my only chance. So while leaning over I snatched a shell up from the mud and slipped it into my pocket.
There seemed to be a long moment of silence, broken finally by an order from the megaphone that may as well have been a slap across the face: “Take the shell out of his pocket…”
I didn’t want the conscript groping through my pockets so I retrieved the shell myself and handed it over. “You think you’re real smart don’t you?” came the megaphone voice.
I turned around and looked up at the tribunal of officers staring down severely at me. I shook my head. Having just tried to sneak a shell under the direct scrutiny of a half dozen members of the stars and stripes club, I wasn’t feeling particularly clever. There was nothing else for me to do but turn back around towards the gun and await my ejection from the training. But instead he gave the order for me to aim and fire at the targets on the opposite peak. To my surprise, he even made a muted comment of approval when I hit the center in my final burst of rounds.
As I was leaving, my camp commander called out my name. I walked up to him. “Why did you do that?” he asked, without giving me a chance to respond. “For a souvenir?”
“Well then next time, ask, don’t take.” He then held up a shell and threw it at the feet of one of the conscript officers nearby. “Give it to him,” he told the conscript and then walked off.
A few days later a conscript from another army camp was sent to our outpost to assist with manpower for a few weeks. It was the first time I had seen someone go to pieces in the army. At boot camp I had witnessed a few episodes of kids losing it (screaming fits, weeping, hurling themselves against lockers) but it always blew over. His case was less dramatic but more unsettling: he arrived garrulous and upbeat but after two weeks had sunk into a deep silent funk; I remember days when he seemed perpetually on his back in his bed, usually awake, grimly staring at the underside of the bunk bed mattress above him.
“Man, I can’t take it anymore,” he would murmur. It seemed to be the only thing he would ever say anymore. “And all these guns everywhere… I’m losing it in this place.”
The deciding moment that broke his spirit was when all his furloughs were annulled for a week after an inspecting officer noticed an empty beer can in the trash. He had simply not bothered to conceal the can under the other garbage. It was just a run-of-the-mill punishment, but he had gotten used to slack living at his other station—medic barracks—where he used to be on leave four times a week and where a night’s sleep was never interrupted.
It surprised me to hear that our outpost was among the strictest in the National Guard. Another of the conscripts who was at the end of his two-year term and who had been re-stationed here after ten months away told me that a year ago it was rare for anyone to actually go out and man the sentry posts and unheard of for anyone to wake up for the two am or four am shift. That all had changed with the new camp commander.
“Not that I mind it so much,” he said. “We used to just sit around, bored as hell, all day in front of the TV. At least now you’ve got something to do.”
As for the depressed conscript, he returned again to his old station about the same time that I was discharged. His cloudscape of glum gradually lifted as the time neared, resembling the steady return to health of a man emerging from an illness. Despite the apparent authenticity of his misery, no one had much sympathy for him, first of all because he never had to do any sentry duty (there were ways of securing yourself a medical classification that rendered you “unfit” to carry a gun). His only duty was to sit in the living room for a set number of hours per night as the outpost guard, which really involved nothing more than vegetating in front of the television and waking the others up fifteen minutes before their shift, something he was rarely able to do, since he usually dozed off.
It isn’t strictly correct to say that conscripts are discharged from the army at the end of their term, because even though army life ends, one is still obliged—up until the age of fifty, I believe—to return as a reservist once or twice a year for a firing range session and an occasional nighttime sentry duty. Our camp commander began sending us one or two reservists on an almost nightly basis. An army truck would drop them off at our outpost at about seven pm and return to pick them up at the same hour the next morning. Each reservist would have to do a two-hour night shift—usually the 12 to 2 shift or the 2 to 4 shift—so that the rest of us had a six-hour interlude (instead of four hours) between our late night sentry shifts. A few times our outpost numbers were high enough so that, with the bonus boost of two reservists, we had the delicious luxury of eight hours between night shifts.
The reservists, especially the older ones who had been conscripts over a decade ago, were always amused at how cushy the army had become. For example, it used to be common practice for officers to beat the conscripts. My cousin, who had been in the army over two decades ago, once described how one of the conscript officers had punched him several dozen times in the stomach because he had refused to insult himself in front of his peers. The conscripts too had been of a more savage bent. One of them, my cousin told me, once put an Agama lizard (known on the island as a “kourkouta”), which can grow up to a foot long, between two slices of white bread and ate it raw. Another used to go around sticking his penis in the mouths of others conscripts as they were sleeping.
Sexual deviance and misconduct was perhaps one of the only aspects of army life that had remained constant over the last few decades. Just over a year before I conscripted, a video clip began circulating on mobile phones depicting ten soldiers in a Nicosia outpost lined up behind their officer taking turns at sex with an older woman (married, with three children) on a bunk bed. And while I was in boot camp, two teenagers in the second company gained notoriety after someone filmed one of them blowing the other in the barracks in front of several other conscripts. The one had apparently taken the pillow of the other and said he would only return it if he gave him a blowjob.
According to the reservists, one of the most significant improvements in the army was the quality of the food. Every day at around one pm and then again at six pm, a truck would drop off several pots of hot food—dishes like squid and potatoes, pasta and beef sauce, roast lamb, etc. I couldn’t imagine better army food, and yet to my—and to the reservists’—astonishment, the conscripts never touched it; instead they would order expensive takeaway (at a risk, since it was prohibited) or would fry up nasty preservative-laden frozen burger patties.
Their argument for tossing the rations was that the insulated stainless steel pots were disgusting. That was true, but there was a way to manage this problem: wash the pots. So the first day I dumped the food and scrubbed the pots with soap and bleach and from that day on I had all the hot grub I could manage.
The other conscripts looked on with horror when they first saw me serve myself a plate of army food. I was the butt of their jokes for several days, but I didn’t back down. In turn I called them fools for needlessly spending money on inferior takeaway and frozen patties. It had an effect on them. I noticed that as time went on they began gazing upon my lunches and dinners with appraising interest.
It was after about ten days—when the pots were delivered with spaghetti and two boiled chickens—when the first of them succumbed to temptation. “That looks good,” he confessed to me as I carved out several moist slabs of chicken breast.
I extended my fork with one of the tenders impaled on it to him. “Try it,” I urged him.
He paused, obviously wracked with inner conflict. Then, after casting a furtive glance about him, he reached for the piece and bit off half of it. “My God,” he whispered, chewing slowly with a guilty ecstasy. “It’s delicious.” He ate the rest and then attacked the chicken, tearing off strips of it with his fingers. “Don’t tell anyone,” he pleaded.
Within two weeks about half of the conscripts were eating regularly from the pots. Every few days another conscript would yield to the steaming appeal of the rations despite admonitions from those remaining few who remained steadfastly opposed to even sampling the food, still citing their groundless arguments that the pots were filthy and disease-transmissible. “But look at Markides,” the soon-to-be convert would say. “Nothing’s happened to him yet.”
It wasn’t until about two weeks before I left the outpost that the leader of the opposition movement—the most outspoken reviler and disparager of army food—finally gave in. I saw him one evening in the kitchen, serving himself from the pot. Our eyes met briefly but neither of us said anything.
The army did not provide hot meals on Sundays, but a woman began driving up to our outpost every Sunday evening with jumbo containers of roasted chicken, pork and lamb, as well as beans, potatoes, rice, etc. Her son owned a restaurant nearby and always had excess food on the weekends. One of the inspecting officers came by one evening while we were eating in the kitchen.
“Where did you all get this?” he demanded, peering into the containers. We explained.
The officer then launched into a brief sermon on how we should not accept food from strangers. “There are some good people who bring us food and other things we need, but we should be aware that there are others who may want to harm us,” he stated solemnly (reinforcing Rule #7 under the “Sentry Guidelines” posted at both guardhouses: “Do not trust anyone”).
We all nodded through his paternalistic advice with full mouths. He milled about in the kitchen until most of the others had gone into the living room and then again peered into one of the containers. “Is that chicken?” he asked me.
“Pork,” I said. “Help yourself.”
He nodded with an averted gaze and reached for a plate.
I don’t recall anyone in my outpost ever getting caught eating takeaway food, but I know that some officers would occasionally amuse themselves by using imaginative tactics to catch conscripts in the act. I had heard stories how one captain once intercepted a kebab delivery boy, garbed his jacket and helmet, and rode the moped to the outpost, where he promptly doled out punishments along with the kebabs to the hungry money-in-hand conscripts. Another captain, who had also intercepted the delivery boy, inserted a signed slip of paper with the message “Five Days Jail” inside each of the kebabs.
Ordering takeaway food in the outposts was generally tolerated (no kebab owners lobby exists, as far as I know, but I would not be surprised if some informal deal making took place between owners and officers seeing that conscripts are among the most dependable takeaway customers). The only thing that was not tolerated—at least in my outpost—was absconding from sentry duty or leaving the outpost.
One of the reservists told me that his captain had once dressed up in black as an old lady, and came over to his outpost, stooped and hobbling, to catch him, literally, off guard. That time he had been lucky and was not reading a magazine or playing a video game. But he was less fortunate a few days later when he abandoned his sentry post for a drink at the bar down the street. While he was having his beer his mobile rang, with the Caller ID listing the sentry post phone number. When he answered, his captain was on the other line.
One night I snuck off for about an hour between my sentry shifts to a bar in downtown Nicosia to meet a friend who was leaving the next day for India. I was surprised to find out later that, had an officer come by and counted the sleeping bodies, I would have likely been court-marshalled and punished with twenty days jail time (even a brief truancy carries a greater penalty than skipping sentry duty) because the reduction in force numbers endangers the outpost, and by projection the neighborhood. Of course, war would have to break out—out of the blue, after a 33-year-interlude—for the charge to possess any real meaning but, never mind the real world, our job was to act out the lines given us, their job to ensure the show went on.
All things considered, I had it damn well. I was getting out of the army two, sometimes three, times a week. I had even been given a bunk bed in the chief sentry’s room, so my sleep was never disturbed by late night hooting or by the perpetual turning on and off of lights. The captain had not objected to me bringing my laptop in and I even had a desk to work on in my free time. I was eating better than ever, had no expenses, and was even given a monthly allowance of seventy pounds (whorehouse stipend for some).
Even my sentry duty—tedious as it could be—was in reality nothing more than a period of tech-free solitude and contemplation in a verdant setting. There are two ways of seeing the world: one is by traveling widely, and the other is by staying put. I stood sentry for two months in the same two posts, but the landscape was never the same. Each hour of the day had its own peculiar set design and actors: a white crane looping across the late afternoon marshes; a strange owl considering me from its midnight perch; the call to prayer echoing in time lag from different directions five times per day; the big dipper angling certain nights over the Turkish spotlight; the Sunday afternoon bursts of uproar from the nearby racetrack as the gamblers urged their horses on; the cone-shaped pirouetting of strobe lights and the distant thud of club music on Friday and Saturday nights; the orchestral peeper frogs performing their daily matinee before sunset; the morning ululation of the Turkish sentry; the crisp clarity of the Kyrenia mountains after a rain; the olive trees emerging in beatific illumination under the climbing morning sun, inducing an expansion of spirit that no sprawl of development can ever effect; the bees that had made a subterranean nest inside the dirt-filled camouflage barrels, emerging in the spring during the midday hours and buzzing around my head, their maddening offensive sometimes so persistent and in my face that I would finally lash out with a sideswipe which, if on mark, was always followed by a pang of guilt as I watched the stunned insect crawl about on the ground, gathering its dazed senses, before flying off with a receding drone.
But sentry duty would not have seemed such a lark had my time not been so brief. The anachronism and sheer stupidity of a two-year conscription, especially in its present decrepit castrated form, would have driven me mad. It was this pervading sense of absurdity in the Cypriot army that generated such cynicism and ennui among the conscripts.
I often wearied of the constant complaints of my housemates, their shrill daily squabbles with the chief sentry (who organized the furlough schedule) over who was to get on what days. I wearied of their torpor, their refusal to do the few chores demanded of them, which would have made life easier for everyone. But then again, who was I, with my amusing three-month excursion in the army, to judge them when they had to give themselves over for two years—the last of their teen years, the period when one is most desirous of cutting loose from the world?
It was all fine and well for me: I had come into the army willfully, more or less at my own initiative, with much the same zest as an anthropologist might have heading out into the bush. But for the rest of them their stint in the army was senseless coercion and servitude. I was little more than a voyeur who had slipped into their world long enough to peek around and then step out again.
I think of them often, the ones I knew and the ones I did not know, all of them trudging to and from their sentry post several times a day. They are there at this very moment, standing and sitting, alert for approaching officers, oblivious to the Dead Zone, waiting for that second hour to pass, counting down the minutes, counting down the months.
- Manning the Dead Zone (Part III)
- Manning the Dead Zone (Part I)
- Manning the Dead Zone (Part II)
- Three Months in the Life of the Cypriot National Guard