When nations are not made accountable for their crimes, their action ceases to be a crime
In a piece describing his stay in Cyprus, Noble Prize winning poet Odysseus Elytis spoke of the timeless essence of being Greek as being situated in a unique feel for the relationship between things, whereupon there was more of the spirit of ancient Greece in a white-washed Greek courtyard than in all of the neo-classical edifices of Europe.
He also spoke of the Greek people’s unique relationship with time, one that was not linear, but which conflated thousands of years of past experience with such immediacy that an event in the remote past could be keenly felt as if it had transpired yesterday. As a result, Greek culture has more to do with eternity than any other.
It was upon these words that I reflected as I stood before the Turkish consulate in Melbourne on a wintry Friday at lunchtime. Around me, a smattering of cheerful, mostly elderly members of the community shuffled stoically in an attempt to keep out the cold. As they arrived, one by one, they unfurled banners, some hastily painted over lead pencil outlines reading: “We want our homes and churches back”, “Turkish troops out of Cyprus”, the dubiously grammatical “Turkey is guilty on human rights in Cyprus” and of course, “Cyprus is a member of the: United Nations, The European Union, The Commonwealth.”
As I read the slogans, the words of an elderly gentleman who called me during my weekly radio program on Radio Hellas, the Wednesday immediately prior, came to mind. In the almost painfully unintelligible English which he persisted in speaking despite my pleading with him to speak in Greek, thus rendering communication quicker and easier for everyone, he asked: “How dare you ask people to attend the protests about Cyprus! What can we do to change things from here? For my part, as a pensioner, I should not be expected to foot the entire tram fare so I can go down to the city, walk around and achieve nothing. It’s a complete waste of time and money and you should be ashamed of yourself. Cyprus is not our problem. Nothing has changed in forty years. Nothing will ever change.”
My answer was simple and it was drawn from that Hellenic telescoped sense of time that so enthralled Elytis.
“If the Greek people were to follow this view,” I posited, “around about 1493, they should have said: “Look palikaria, the Ottomans have been here for forty years now and they show no sign of going away. Forget about freedom. Let us just hang up our hats and forget about it. Greece will never be free and nothing that we can do can effect the slightest change. Yet the palikaria did not do this. Every so often, a revolt would break out here or there and Ottoman rule was always challenged regardless of its potency. Not forty, but four hundred years later, the change did come, though the whole world had changed in that space of time. Freedom has no use by date.”
My aged interlocutor snorted: “You are nothing but a filthy communist” and promptly hung up the telephone.
The façade of the building which houses the Turkish consulate is reddish, cold and imposing. Across the street, the sprinkling of Greeks chanted “Justice for Cyprus”, to the three yarmulke-wearing Jewish gentlemen who emerged from the entrance to the building and promptly passed us by, studiously averting their gaze from the placards and flags.
Next, a couple newly arrived from Greece walked passed, arm in arm. As they did, the man declared: “Μπράβο πατριωτες, συνεχίστε και του χρόνου”. When the protesters invited him to join them, he emitted a loud guffaw and continued along his way.
Subsequent to that, the protesters contented themselves with chanting “Turkish troops out of Cyprus” at the few office workers scurrying along the street in search of sustenance during their lunch break.
Meanwhile, it emerged, to the resounding relief of all present, that the suspicious man in the beanie, recording the demonstration with his camcorder, was not acting upon the instructions of the Turkish Consulate, but rather, was an elderly Cypriot, wishing to record the event for posterity.
This year, for the first time ever in history, campaign stalwart and chief slogan deliverer Christos Violaris’ Cypriot-inflected megaphone slogans were drowned out by the continuous, raucous and extremely enthusiastic chanting by a group of children and teenagers, bringing a smile to everyone’s face, despite the solemnity of the occasion, for the large part because oblivious to the inaudible attempts of Mr Violaris to synchronise their chanting with his, they did insist upon subverting the establish order of precedence, embarking on a series of varied and endlessly inventive chants for the better part of an hour, allowing ageing community doyens to variously plot, complain, lament their fall from power and gossip with impunity.
Furthermore, the presence of children invariably provides a glimmer of hope, optimism and a suggestion of continuity to a vanishing world.
“Look at how low we have fallen,” an elderly protester observed. “There should be thousands, hundreds of thousands of people here. We have barely thirty. How can we make an impact like this? We are finished. Our community, our causes, our nation… all finished. None of us care anymore. Our bank balances are full and nothing else matters. Inside the consulate, the Turks are probably laughing their heads off at us.”
“No,” another protester interrupted. “They are photographing us and soon they will find out our names and addresses. You mark my words, do you know what will happen if any of us travel to Turkey? Most of us will be stopped at the border and sent back. Some they will let in, but these people will never come back out again.”
After the obligatory hour’s ritual was completed and all of the votive paraphernalia was folded, collected and stowed and the protesters desultorily sought the refuge of their modes of conveyance, I took issue with those who would suggest that the demonstration was unsuccessful owing to the paucity of attendees. Whether or not there were ten or ten thousand, or indeed one hundred thousand protesters outside the Turkish consulate, it is doubtful whether this would have any bearing upon a solution to the Cyprus issue.
No amount of petitioning or protesting by one or a multitude of persons will alter a single, incontrovertible and ultimately cynical truth: That the world knows that in 1974, Turkey exploited political turmoil in Cyprus in order to invade it. Tens of thousands of people were driven from their homes and were dispossessed. A multitude were slaughtered. Women fell victim to unspeakable gender crimes and an illegal racist regime was installed which appropriated and cleansed the cultural heritage of the northern part of the island.
The world knows this and is not willing to do anything about it because Turkey is a strong nation, occupying an important geostrategic position and in the world or realpolitik, it is not expedient to make Turkey accountable for its crimes.
When nations are not made accountable for their crimes, an interesting phenomenon happens. Their action ceases to be a crime. They cease to be an aggressor. Rather than seeking to redress a wrong committed by a belligerent juggernaut, the world shifts responsibility for the crime onto the victim.
Thus we speak of seeking “a just solution for both sides”, suggesting that there are partners in culpability here.
That is where we lonely protesters come in to the picture. As long as there is at least one protester able to stand outside the Turkish consulate or any other place they so choose to restore, in the way Elytis proposed, the proper relationship between things, to speak about the occupation, the rape, the theft and the murder, to point an accusatory finger at the perpetrators and condoners of the crime and demand justice, the stain of the crime cannot be hidden away.
Elytis shows the way.
Dogged persistence, for decades, centuries and even a millennium is not difficult for a nation that can transcend the slip-stream of time with dexterity. The events of 1974 and the horror they evoke are as fresh in the collective consciousness of those who did not ever experience them, as in the grief-wracked faces of the mothers, sisters and wives of those who were taken, disposed of and never heard of again.
Our people have a long memory and a conception of time and justice that outlasts civilisations. This embracing of eternity is the secret of our indomitability and the source of our conviction that whether with the participation of one or one million, Turkey will never be free to forget the enormity of the crimes it has committed in Cyprus.
And in the cause of justice, we will wait and never go away.