A CHANCE ENCOUNTER

by Roula Ioannidou Stavrou

As published in In Focus Vol. 10, No. 2, June 2013

Despite the great fatigue and the ache that had spread all over his body, he kept going. He was an old man now. How the thought made him shudder… an old man! Truly, where had all that time gone? He, the one who would conquer all, the eternal master of the game, the undefeated champion…

“The undefeated champion? Well, I sincerely doubt that last one,” he said, muttering the thought out loud.

His knees hurt terribly and his legs were numb. He hadn’t found a place to sit at church and, at his age, standing was very trying. But he held on. He supported himself by leaning here and there, until it was time for the memorial prayer for “the rest of the souls of the fallen defenders of the faith and the homeland.” Then the “Eternal be their memory. Eternal be their memory,” was heard.

“Eternal be their memory,” he repeated along with everyone else.

He stepped outside and found a place to sit. He stayed to rest for a while. He didn’t have enough strength to walk to where they were handing out the koliva. He chewed the piece of holy bread in his hands, but even that was difficult. So be it. Eternal be their memory… He marshalled what little strength he had left and made his way to his car. With much relief, nearly with elation, he opened the door on the driver’s side and sat behind the wheel. After two failed attempts the engine finally started. His car was old too and making his life difficult. Yet it would never cross his mind to change it. He thought he would die, if he ever parted with it. “We’ll die together,“ he often thought. He had journeyed the greater part of his life in that car. They had been together in good and bad times, in joy and sorrow. Never mind…

He found himself speeding down Grivas Dhigenis Avenue, in Nicosia. Surely his car was not taking him home. But whose hands were on the wheel anyway? Those of his mind or of his heart?

His little wreck crossed the avenue, passed the junction, and turned left. It went panting up the hill and stopped in front of the Military Cemetery of Makedonitissa, known as “Tymvos Makedonitissas.” He had no recollection of how he got there or when he got out of the car.

He only realized that he was climbing the stairs leading to the monument when his knees gave way. He stopped. Halfway there. He stood and looked at the monument. The tail of an aircraft… That’s what it looked like, the simple white marble that glistened in the sun. Someone once told him that that was the artist’s intention, so that it would be a reminder of the event, of the plane buried underneath: the Noratlas aircraft, “Victory 4,” which transported from Souda, in Crete, the courageous Greek commandoes, who were voluntarily flying to Cyprus with one and only aim – to prevent Attila from seizing the island.

Operation “Victory” started on the night of July 21, 1974. The aircraft transporting the First Squadron of Greek Commandoes took off from Souda. Destination: Nicosia Airport. Instructions were precise: Flight altitude, 500 feet above sea level; Complete radio silence; All lights on board off. They should arrive at their destination in the early hours of July 22, without being detected by the invaders, a goal that the skilled pilots achieved. Yet the friendly forces protecting the hills of Makedonitissa had not been informed of the arrival of Greek aircraft. The grave error! And the tragic outcome: “Victory IV” was shot down, resulting in the death of all the brave men on board expect one!

His gaze stopped on the tombstone where the soldiers’ names were inscribed. Then it went to the base of the monument. His knees bent. He knelt before the splendour of their death. “From the hallowed bones of the Hellenes,” he whispered.

He made his way down the stairs and found himself at the last step. His feet led him there every time he visited this place. He wanted to stay for a while, to pay his respects to one of his own brave young men. He stood in front of the grave and his gaze found its way to the cross with the photograph. And then to the inscription: “Second Lieutenant Demetrios Stavrou. Died on 18.8.1974.”

Reserve Second Lieutenant Demetris Stavrou, who fought and fell at the battles for Nicosia Airport at age 22.

Reserve Second Lieutenant Demetris Stavrou, who fought and fell at the battles for Nicosia Airport at age 22.

The young man came to life before him. He had been Demetris’ teacher at the Pancyprian Gymnasium. He had always held this young man in his heart and not by chance because many virtues set him apart from his fellow students. He was the student with the luminous gaze and the warm smile, the adolescent with a bright mind and singular ethos, the young man with the Hellenic spirit, with indefatigable strength and the decisive gaze. And above all… he combined intelligence with the virtue of humility – something so rare, a true conquest.

Memory dove into the distant past. He had been a freedom fighter during the 1955-59 Liberation Struggle and later a Professor of Philology, who taught Ancient Greek and History. He always spoke to his students about patriotism and about the ideal of freedom. He spoke to them about Marathonas and Thermopiles, about the Epics of 1821 and of 1940, about the Cypriot Epic of 1955-59. He taught them what it means to be a Hellene and the meaning of Hellas. On the chalkboard he would write the “either with it or upon it” of the Spartans, the “come, oh children of the Hellenes, to free the homeland…” of Aeschylus, the “happy are the free” of Thucydides, and the “above Mother and Father and other ancestors is the homeland” of Plato.

Demetris always listened carefully and with great feeling. With awe.

One time he asked Demetris what he planned to do after graduation, and he replied that he wanted to study Medicine, to serve his fellow man. This seemed rather odd: students who planned to study Medicine chose Sciences in school, while Demetris had chosen Classical Studies.

“I want to know more about Greek history and about our language,” he explained in response to the relevant question.

When a competition was announced in memory of the 1955 holy-martyr Kyriakos Matsis, Demetris took the prize. And at graduation, he was also awarded the Prize for History, among all the other honours that he had deservedly garnered.

It was indeed difficult for a graduate of Classical Studies to be accepted into Medical School.

“I will succeed, even from Classics, Sir,” Demetris said, when he had insisted.

And Demetris did succeed. He won a scholarship and, after completing his service in the National Guard, he was enrolled in Medical School at the University of Athens. He had learned that, even there, Demetris shone for his performance in school and for his ethos. A third year medical student in 1974, the young man returned to Cyprus for his summer break. And then came the call of the motherland. The Turkish invasion of the island! General Mobilization!

“All conscripts are called to their units,” said the radio announcer. And so the young student traded the white coat of Medicine for the honourable uniform of the Armoured Division Reserve Second Lieutenant.

After the invasion, he learned that Demetris went missing in the legendary battle at Gregoriou Hill, a battle whose outcome determined the unequal confrontation with the Turkish invader. He searched and found his name on the list of 1619 missing persons of 1974.

Twenty-eight years later, he saw his photo on the front page of the newspaper under the title “The clock stopped at 12:50.” And underneath: “Tomorrow funeral services will be held for the young Second Lieutenant who was killed in 1974.” Then he read the reportage: “Among the missing persons who have been identified by DNA analysis was an honours graduate of the Pancyprian Gymnasium who had swept up all the awards in his graduation year: Reserve Second Lieutenant Demetris Stavrou, who fought and fell at the battles for Nicosia Airport at the age of 22.” And further down: “Demetris was killed on August 16, 1974, by mortar shells, 50 minutes after the declaration of the ceasefire.”

He could not believe that the young man was dead. Yet, for 28 years, Demetris had been interred at the Lakatamia Cemetery in mass grave with other brave comrades. Without the laurels they deserved. Forgotten. Left behind by the vortex of time and its implacable passage. Anger and indignation swelled inside him. Quite spontaneously, he whispered the verses of Andreas Kalvos:

“Oh true children/of Hellas. Souls who fell/bravely in the battle,/battalion of elite Heroes/pride of the youth.

Luck stole from you/Victory’s laurel/and of myrtle and mournful cypress/a wreath of another kind/she weaved for you.

But if one dies/for the motherland, priceless are the leaves/of the myrtle/and noble the branches/of the cypress.”

The next day he went to the funeral, where he met by chance a comrade of the young man. He learned everything firsthand.

“I was with Second Lieutenant Demetris Stavrou during the Turkish invasion for about two weeks at the Kolokasi area, around Gregoriou Hills, near Nicosia Airport. We fought alongside the men of ELDYK in the epic battles of ‘74. Demetris was the only officer from the Reserve 212 Battalion that I recall fighting with the group of ordinary soldiers to which I belonged. I was impressed by the love and care with which he enveloped his men. I was also impressed by his modesty and humility. Even though he was an officer, he served as transporter to us. He brought water to quench our thirst and carried ammunition for us, the ordinary soldiers. I was also impressed by his courage. He inspired and encouraged us but also protected us in a unique way. He always fought on the front lines. He gave us advice and instructions on how to fight.

“I was in the Artillery Division. I did not know how to deal with the enemy at close range. And there were many others like me. ‘Second Lieutenant Demetris Stavrou has given us a crash course,’ we all kept saying. And that’s exactly how it was. He taught us so much in such a short time. Everyone admitted that he turned us into perfect warriors. If he had not been with us, many of us would not be here today. I can’t believe that we were saved and he was killed…

“Another thing I’ll never forget is that he never allowed those who were married and had families to fight on the front line. ‘You have families. Stay back,’ he would say to them. ‘We who don’t will fight on the front lines.’ And he always went to the front.”

He stopped for a moment to catch his breath. And then he continued:

“During the second phase of the Turkish invasion, we realized that in the area where we were fighting, the outpost positions of Gregoriou Hill, carnage would take place and that the Turks would be firing at us from all sides… true hell. Some suggested that we return to our units. But Second Lieutenant Demetris Stavrou said: ‘If you leave, you’ll be letting the Turks march in unobstructed. We must stay here and fight. We must save Nicosia. I will stay to face them here.’

“He stayed and faced them bravely. We stayed and fought. Nicosia was saved. We lost each other in the smoke of the battle and I never saw him again.”

This is what he said.

Memories came rushing back. He looked at the nearby graves. Two other young men were buried next to Demetris: Michalis and Doros. Then he raised his eyes to the hundreds of crosses and tombstones. He looked back at the monument and then once more at the graves. On either side of the monument were marble slabs on which quotes by the holy martyrs of EOKA were engraved: Gregoris Afxentiou, Kyriakos Matsis, the Four of Liopetri, and the young men of the gallows. Inadvertently, the image of another monument emerged before him: Liberty, erected in memory of the 1955-59 EOKA Liberation Struggle.

Its base depicts a prison with an iron gate, where the Cypriot people are imprisoned: miserable figures, marked by years of ordeals and suffering. Bodies bent by so many years of slavery. The prison gate is ajar and the prisoners are beginning to exit. There are two small staircases on either side of the gate where some figures seem to be moving toward the light of freedom. They represent the people of Cyprus: farmers, city folk, clergy, women and children… Here their bodies are more erect, their heads held high, and their hands raised to the sky, praising God.

Directly above the prison gate, two young fighters of 1955 haul the chains of slavery and lift the prison bars with their strong muscular arms. Yet the gate remains half-open. The message is clear: the aim of the Liberation Struggle of 1955-59 remains unfinished. The British have left but the union with Greece did not take place. At the highest point of the monument, she stands majestically: Freedom! She is dressed in simple ancient Greek gown. Her head bends slightly and her gaze embraces with affection the tormented, yet proud Cypriot people, who have fought and sacrificed so much to conquer her. With her left arm she lifts her robe with unparalleled grace, while her right hand points to the celestial dome. The Freedom of the Greeks of Cyprus. Without a sword. That’s how the artist depicted her, since that was how the Greek people of Cyprus had fought to conquer her. Without swords or guns; only by the power of soul, with steely determination, and deep faith in God.

A little further from the monument an inscription on a marble plaque says: “This monument to Liberty stands… in commemoration of the struggles for freedom of Greek Cypriots and especially in honour of those who have fought in the Liberation Struggle 1955-1959, but also as a reminder of the debt of future generations to keep fighting forever…”

Two monuments: two pages of modern Cypriot history. Two monuments to the struggles of Cypriot Hellenism, erected to remind younger and future generations, and all of us, of the lives lost for the realization of the Cypriot vision – the vision of liberty bequeathed to Cypriots by their Greek ancestors. Two sacred places that keep historical memory alive and eternal the memory of the holy martyrs of freedom…

“May time allow me to question its power as the conqueror of all,” he thought. “It’s exactly like the poet says,” he whispered, repeating the verses of Kalvos.

“But whenever he approaches/the earth that keeps you/Time will change direction/to respect the wondrous soil.”

Translated by Irena Joannides

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