There is no weekend in Nicosia, just day six and day seven. Such are the demands of the job for the 300 troops of 3 Royal Anglian Group and the various military attachments which make up the UK’s current contribution to the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP).
Many people still think of Op TOSCA as the ‘flip flop’ tour. But anyone posted there who thinks that the most important piece of kit they will need is a Frisbee is in for a shock.
Since the 1974 Turkish response to a military coup on Cyprus, which was backed by the Greek Government in Athens, Cyprus has been divided by a buffer zone.
For almost four decades, two opposing forces, of around 60,000 troops, have jealously scrutinised each other’s every move. Every sandbag added to a fortification, each aerial added to a checkpoint, is noticed and protested against.
Sandwiched between them are 860 unarmed UN troops. It is their job to patrol this buffer zone, often in searing heat, and impartially maintain the status quo by spotting and reporting any infringements of the conditions of the ceasefire and intervening as necessary.
For, although the fighting between the Greeks and the Turks may have stopped nearly 40 years ago, no peace agreement has ever been signed.
Colonel Gerard Hughes, UNFICYP Chief of Staff, explained:
It is our job to maintain a stable platform for the Cyprus peace process by preventing any reoccurrence of the fighting, or any military activity which would disturb that process.
But surely there isn’t anything to worry about anymore is there?
If this is your point of view, a thousand incidents a year would prove you wrong. Some may seem trivial; after all, what’s a bit of name-calling between adults, or stone-throwing?
But things can escalate all too easily if situations aren’t handled properly:
You can’t understand this until you go out into the buffer zone and see for yourself,” said Colonel Hughes.
As you travel round it you will see that, in places, it looks like a scene from Gallipoli, with machine gun bunkers and trench line observation posts. I can assure you that both sides take this very seriously.
The buffer zone is a difficult concept to get your head round, and its uniqueness embodies the challenges that face those who must patrol it. The issues are complex.
For a start each side has a different idea about what the zone actually is:
The Turkish view is that it is a no-man’s land, whereas the Greek Cypriots see it as a buffer zone but with all the land in between being legitimately owned by people who have the right to use it for economic activity,” said Colonel Hughes.
Then there is the nature of it to understand. It runs for 180km across the north, occupying three per cent of the land, including some of the most valuable agricultural land on the island. It is 7.4km at its widest, and at its narrowest, in the centre of Nicosia, it is a little over three metres wide:
Here it’s called ‘Spear Alley’, because the Greeks and the Turks used to lean out of their bedroom windows and try and stab each other with bayonets taped to broom handles,” Lieutenant Chris Finbow told me later as I trudged round it in 40-degree heat.
The central part of the buffer zone in Sector 2 runs through the centre of Nicosia. Walking along it is a bizarre experience. Butting right up on either side is the vibrant capital city going about its business, yet in this narrow corridor the clocks stopped nearly 40 years ago.
Shops are frozen in aspic, their shelves filled with forgotten brands waiting for customers who never come. In a showroom, cars sit under a layer of dust with just 38km on the clock. In a tailor’s shop, a framed picture of a youthful George Best lies on a table. On a desk stands an unopened bottle of champagne.
In what was once a comfortable residential area, a car stands abandoned after its owner fled to take cover from a hail of bullets.
More poignant reminders that a state of peace is not something you can take for granted include the battle-damaged buildings, some of which, like the hospital, were strafed almost to destruction.
The central buffer zone fulfils the stereotype of a contested frontier keeping two communities apart. At the crossing points, uniformed officials stamp your passport before you go on your way.
But elsewhere the nature of the zone is not so black and white. It is almost a state of mind. Within it, to the east and west, there are 15,000 people living and working.
In places it is quite porous, with people regularly moving across it.
Ensuring that those moving through, farming the land or working in the factories in the zone have the necessary permission to do so is also the job of the patrols. It requires tact and professionalism:
We might see someone harvesting asparagus and ask to see their permit,” said Gunner Chris Cobb of West Patrol.
They might not like it, which is understandable. It’s like someone telling you what to do in your own garden. We let them have their moan, keep it friendly, and keep the temperature down.
Sometimes the patrols have to deal with hunters:
You can get eight or so with dogs and guns. We’re unarmed and they can get a bit uppity; after all you’re spoiling their fun. If they don’t have the right permits we get them to leave.
Sometimes, as they slope off, they may fire off a round behind you just to make a point. But they know there’s no point in shooting you, it would only make their lives difficult,” said Gunner George Turrell.
The responsibility for patrolling Sector 2 lies with the UK. It is arguably the most complex of the sectors:
In the city, you have the dense urban issues and the proximity of population,” explained Lieutenant Colonel Richard Lyne, 3 Royal Anglian Group’s Commanding Officer.
“In the west, you have primarily farming and minor commercial activity. In the east it’s more about land ownership and construction.”
For example, two farmers may have a dispute over who owns a piece of land and it may fall to the patrol to calm things down:
Expansion of the city as you see it today is constrained on either side by the buffer zone,” continued Lt Col Lyne, “so the value of that land is increasing almost on a daily basis, so land ownership issues are a constant theme.
The variety of issues is the great thing about this operation. Whatever happens in the buffer zone has some kind of military impact either directly or in second or third order effect terms. Nothing can be dealt with in isolation.
Knowing exactly where the boundaries of the buffer zone are is not straight forward either:
With today’s surveying technology you would expect a set of very precise datum points,” said Lt Col Lyne.
But, when it was established, it was done quickly by drawing a line on a map with a green crayon. So, for example, whole blocks of buildings are in the buffer zone because they appear under the line.
It is cartographer Sergeant Liam Asquith’s job to fine tune what is in and what is outside the buffer zone, and to provide the information needed for the authorities to make decisions about plans for developments within the zone. For that is another factor that UNFICYP must take into account in maintaining the status quo.
And, to help restore a state of normalisation, the use and development of land in the buffer zone is under constant review:
We change the use of the zone where we want to change it. It’s not a free-for-all,” said Lt Col Lyne.
Everything has a nuance. It is essential that you understand the context and likely outcomes before making any decisions or taking action because the knock on effect either on your patch, or in a neighbouring sector, could be considerable.
The operational planning here is the same as in any other theatre of operations, and having situational awareness is an important way to get ahead of the game:
If I send a unit out,” said Lt Col Lyne, “they are as situationally aware of what’s going on in the buffer zone as I am.
A crucial element of the UNFICYP troops’ work is building up relationships with the opposing forces; getting to know the individuals and understanding the background to why things have happened:
That way, if a violation is reported, such as overmanning at a checkpoint, it is solved much more quickly because you are talking to someone in the Opfors [opposing forces] who knows you and who will sort it out,” said Lt Col Lyne.
Things at the micro-level really matter. When the Opfors leaders come together for discussions, at an impartial location in the buffer zone, it is the UNFICYP troops’ job to make sure it happens and goes smoothly:
That sounds easy, but if you are there to enable them, you’d better make sure it’s done right. You don’t want to be the person that upsets it all because you have got your timings wrong and one side arrives early and gains a perceived advantage,” said Lt Col Lyne.
All these little diplomatic niceties are great when they work, but, if you cock it up, it has the potential to cause great affront - all perhaps because a soldier didn’t understand that all-important operating context.
That’s great for the wider development of the guys,” he added. “Where else are they going to work in a mission where their direct involvement and the decisions they make as soldiers has such an impact?
Lt Col Lyne sees the type of work in Cyprus as a fundamental part of the role and development of a soldier:
In any military activity you need people with a spectrum of experience, from combat operations to peacekeeping roles,” he said.
At the end of combat ops in Afghanistan, who knows what the next challenge will be? It may well be a peacekeeping op.
Today you need soldiers with that delicate balance of mindsets, who can wade in and get things sorted, but who are also able to step back and think about things - the UNFICYP experience certainly exposes you to a unique challenge in that respect.
This article is taken from the September 2011 edition of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.