An old tale of atrocity shows how easily events can be distorted
By Peter Preston
Monday May 3, 1999
On April 2 1988, The Guardian reported the first details of a massacre which had fuelled bitter war and then ethnic cleansing. Those details were substantially wrong. They told half of the truth or none of the truth. But that, too often, is the story of massacre: and that is also war.
Nobody living, it should be said swiftly, is to blame for the tale that was wrong. Not the British (and subsequently UN) officer charged with its investigation. Not the Guardian reporter he briefed after a quarter of a century of silence. Not even the government (of Turkey) - which uses it still as a reason why people cannot live together. Nevertheless, the clarifying matters. In January 1964, as Cyprus disintegrated into near anarchy, Lt. Commander Martin Packard RN was the conciliator responsible for trying to dowse the brushfires of communal hatred between Greeks and Turks in the north of the island.
One question, surrounded by fearful rumour, consumed the Turkish Cypriots. What had happened to 27 Turkish patients in Nicosia general hospital when violence in the capital exploded around them? Packard probed at the highest levels of the Greek Cypriot government and, via Polycarpos Georghadjis, the Minister of the Interior, was told - in confidence - a story of true horror. Nicosia was a city of brutal gangs. One of them, followers of Nicos Sampson, a charismatic right-wing thug, had stormed the hospital and had the Turks murdered in their beds. Their throats had been cut by a medical orderly. Their bodies had been piled into two closed trucks and driven to a farm near the village of Skylloura. There, they were dismembered and cremated. Their remains, pulverised in a mechanical crusher, were ploughed into the earth.
It was a story too appalling to handle. Packard's job was to stop more killings, not begin a doomed inquiry into an atrocity whose victims were dust in the fields of Skylloura. There was some Red Cross corroboration. He said nothing for 24 years - until he told Peter Murtagh, then of The Guardian, who was writing a book about Greece and the colonels.
Five months ago, however, Packard was back in Nicosia. He picked up the threads of the old horror. He talked with the Greek Cypriots who have worked with the UN committee tracing 'the disappeared' of that time. And he came to realise that the Georghadjis version was hugely inaccurate.
Two or three Turkish Cypriots had died in the general hospital when the Sampson gang came: but not in their beds, in the quarters of the Turkish Cypriot matron. The majority of staff and patients had been evacuated to safety under the personal protection of President Makarios. There had still been dreadful carnage. The hospital bodies were lumped with two dozen or so from other parts of the island - but stored in a cave, not incinerated. And then they were buried.
Not the massacre that never was: but - against a background of rival terrorism, for the Turks had their own TMT fighters - a different kind of tragedy. A few weeks ago, Turkey's UN ambassador, in a letter to Koffi Annan, cited the story of the 27 patients as evidence of Greek Cypriot ethnic cleansing which made Ankara's invasion and the dismemberment of Cyprus inescapable.
Packard has now written in turn to the Secretary-General. 'The scale and manner of any actual killings at the general hospital appear to have had little resemblance to the account I was given.' He continues to believe that 'no reconciliation will be possible in Cyprus unless the truth of the past is known and the causes of division understood.'
But why, so long ago, from the Minister who ought to have known (and who controlled the police and the parastatal force called The Organisation armed to counter the TMT), had he been fed the awful, unprovable tale of slit throats? Was it supposed to leak out once he'd been told? Was it supposed to strengthen the hands of those in Nicosia and Athens who were indeed arguing for an ethnic cleansing of Turkish Cypriots - men like Dimitrios Ioannides, the head of KYP (Greek intelligence) on the island, who that same year told Makarios that the entire Turkish Cypriot population of Cyprus should be liquidated in order to 'resolve' communal rivalries once and for all?
These are deep, deep waters. Brigadier Ioannides went on to be a driving force behind the coup of the colonels in Athens and to be viewed by CIA station chiefs there with 'uncontainable enthusiasm' (as the US State Department later put it). But these waters, in their way, touch wider shores.
Why dredge such foulnesses to the surface, when other 'cleansings' dominate the headlines and other massacres fuel other hatreds? Cyprus, the plaything of Nato allies down the decades, is frozen in an antagonism impervious to diplomatic reconciliation. What, from the past, does it have to teach us now?
Caution, and humility. The refugees from Kosovo continue to pour over the border bearing dreadful news of carnage. The Serbs they leave behind - the army, the police and the Sampson-clone gangs - are, without doubt, guilty of murder and assassination on a sickening scale. Overwhelming testimony. In individual episodes, it is the fuel of righteousness and abhorrence which our politicians use to keep Alliance resolve steady.
But. And there is a 'but'. The language of atrocity is not a simple language. It is the language of fear, revulsion and inhumanity. But it can also be the language of rumour and malign political calculation. War machines. Command and control. The words impose the supposed discipline of order and sanctioned intent on events which may bespeak only anarchy.
I was with Martin Packard all those years ago in an embryo nation on the brink of chaos. I saw how commands from the centre, passing through three or four separate points, became virtually unrecognisable: and how accounts from distant killing fields were air-brushed with justification as they wended their way back to base. Propaganda wasn't the sole preserve of one side or another. Truth - precise truth - was always the first victim.
How, once this is over, will the Kosovans come to live with Serbs - even across a UN-policed border? How will the legend of TV stations destroyed or civilian buses blown to smithereens on a bridge be translated? How will the reports of the KLA (like those of the TMT or The Organisation) be sifted for reality?
No reconciliation 'unless the truth of the past is known and the causes of division understood'. And yet one day, in Pristina, as in Nicosia, reconciliation there must be.
© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 1999
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