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The AFP’s final Australian Police Contingent Commander to the UN peacekeeping mission in Cyprus, Inspector Bronwyn Carter, presents the Australian National Flag to AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin.

Farewell to Cyprus

Deployment to Cyprus in May 1964 began a 53-year odyssey for Australian police and ultimately for the AFP.

By Graham McBean & Jo Johnson

For the young Australian police officers descending the stairs of the Qantas aircraft at Nicosia in Cyprus on 26 May 1964, it was the start of an odyssey.

The 40-man contingent was embarking on a three-month mission that would bring them into contact with a world vastly different from their homes in 1960s Australia. The dire situation on the island meant their short tenure as United Nations peacekeepers was soon extended to 12 months.

Those young police officers would be the first of many to represent the Australian contribution to the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). They began a legacy of international service and sacrifice for Australian law enforcement.

Then-First Constable Ian Hardy was selected by Victoria Police to deploy with officers from jurisdictions across Australia. Following a five-day training course in Canberra on the culture and conditions in Cyprus, the group made the uncertain journey from Australia to Singapore to Delhi, before arriving in Cyprus mid-morning.

“As I was getting off the plane, I was looking around and here’s all these armoured cars and guys with sub machine guns and pistols and rifles,” Ian said.

“I thought: ‘good god, what have I got myself in for here’.”

UNFICYP was established to prevent further fighting between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities on the island. The policing component was focused on maintaining peace and stability in the buffer zone, delivering humanitarian assistance, and performing an important liaison role between law enforcement authorities from the north and south.

Ian said the first contingent was brought into close contact with the savagery of civil war: “There were still confrontations between the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots around various parts of the island – there were killings, kidnappings, shootings, and all sorts of assaults taking place.”

Map of Cyprus.
Map of Cyprus.

Ian, now 79, returned to Cyprus this June to bear witness to Australia’s withdrawal from UNFICYP after 53 years of service. He was joined by around 40 men and women who served in past Australian contingents, as well as senior police and dignitaries from Australia and Cyprus, including AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin.

A ceremonial flag lowering took place at sunset on Friday, 16 June 2017. Commissioner Colvin reflected on the difficult, dangerous, and trying times faced by the 111 Australian contingents across five decades.

“We also remember the unique Australian qualities that we have brought to our work in Cyprus – a laconic and laid-back approach; a practicality and ingenuity to overcome whatever challenges were presented; and the determination and professionalism to get the job done,” Commissioner Colvin said.

Sergeant Dale Cooper, who served in Cyprus in the 1990s and is a current AFP member, lowers the Australian National Flag in the United Nations Protected Area in Nicosia.
Sergeant Dale Cooper, who served in Cyprus in the 1990s and is a current AFP member, lowers the Australian National Flag in the United Nations Protected Area in Nicosia.

In the years that followed Cyprus, Australian police have served from Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands to Asia, Africa and throughout the world.

With its formation on 19 October 1979, the AFP has assumed that mantle as the international face of Australian law enforcement.

The extra mile

Characteristically, the professionalism of the Australian police officers has been well received by the local populations.

This was particularly the case in Cyprus. Australians also brought empathy to Cyprus that extended beyond the core law enforcement role.

Federal Agent Rod Walker received a call at 11am to return a three-year-old girl’s body from the southern zone to her parents in the north. Arriving at the hospital, Rod realised that he had actually met the girl during escort trips to the hospital.

About 4000 people were waiting with the parents at the Turkish checkpoint on the buffer zone for the return of the girl’s body.

Knowing the Greek military would not let the undertaker within the buffer zone, Rod decided the only way to maintain the dignity of the occasion was to carry the body to the parents.

The buffer zone (or Green Line) extends across the country for more than 180km and runs through the centre of the capital, Nicosia. The buffer is as small as 20m in some places, and more than 7km in others.

The buffer was heavily mined during the conflict of 1974, making the area potentially lethal. Many Cypriots have died as a result.

In 1979, a farmer working in the buffer zone ran over a mine on his tractor. Australian police officer Jack Thurgar risked his life by walking directly into the minefield to carry the farmer to safety.

“On the way in, I had three mines [to worry about]: the Jumping Jacks, the shoebox mines, and the Hawkins No. 75s,” Jack said.

“A mathematician once calculated the probability of me being killed – going in, it was 87 per cent, but then coming back out was 96.65 per cent. So there was almost a 100 per cent chance we were going to die.”

Fortunately, the pair survived the incident. Jack was awarded the Star of Courage, Australia’s second highest bravery decoration.

The tractor in the unmarked minefield.
Above and below: The tractor in the unmarked minefield, and Jack Thurgar with the Greek farmer he saved.
Jack Thurgar with the Greek farmer he saved.

The Australian way

The comforts of home were left far behind in 1960s Australia. What faced the new peacekeepers were Spartan living conditions and uncertain utilities – and a country in the grip of civil war.

In the early years, living conditions were particularly sparse. Hotel accommodation in towns was highly regarded, especially compared to the tents used by the military units. Living spaces were clean, the food was good.

However, out in villages such as Ayios Theodoros, even basic amenities were missing. There was no electricity and no showers. Tinned Spam was a staple on the menu. Yet, in classic style, the Australians adapted.  

Andrea Coleman (90th contingent) said Australians were open to new ways of doing business.

“People went there for the opportunity to work in a different country, alongside police from other nations,” Andrea said.

Australians were respected by the local communities.
Australians were respected by the local communities.

Similarly, Mick Travers (26th and 38th contingents) said it was straight forward with Australians.

“There’s nothing judged. [We all thought], ‘we’re in their country now so we’ll just take everyone on face value’. If they’re open to you, we’re open to them. That’s the Australian way,” Mick said.

The Australian practice of having no ranks in the mess also surprised more traditional organisations.

Some couldn’t believe how relaxed the mess was, Mick said.

“Having officers and other ranks all in a bar drinking together and being on the same level surprised people because they were used to the formal army mess,” he said.

Landmark Australian events such as Anzac Day were included in the United Nations calendar in Cyprus for many years and included other nations.

A down-to-earth practicality also distinguished Australians on mission. Jason Byrnes (62nd contingent) said Australians had the ability to know when to be strict and when to be flexible.

“It’s the negotiating, the liaison, the finding practical solutions to unique problems, which is part and parcel of policing,” Jason said.

“A shepherd takes his entire flock of sheep into the buffer zone without a permit – technically, he has to be detained and taken outside and that’s what the UN soldiers wanted to do. But I had to argue with them and say: ‘Can you herd sheep? Because I can’t. There’s a minefield 200m away. Do you really want sheep to be blown up everywhere?’ So it’s about common-sense, trying to resolve issues.”

Geoff Hazel donned the blue beret in Cyprus six times. He said he felt honoured to be part of the proud tradition.

“To be part of history, it makes me feel pretty damned happy and pretty special,” he reflected.

Police officers including First Constable Ian Hardy (front) arrive in Cyprus on 24 May 1964 to begin Australia’s 53-year mission to the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus.
Police officers including First Constable Ian Hardy (front) arrive in Cyprus on 24 May 1964 to begin Australia’s 53-year mission to the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus.

Sharing their stories – the ‘individuals’ of Cyprus

Evidence

“We found that our cameras became greater weapons than our pistols. We took photos to gain evidence. I was mainly in the criminal investigations, with the [case of] the shepherds that were abducted, shot and thrown down the wells.

“My reports and the other reports went in to the United Nations headquarters. I might add that we, as United Nations Police, had no powers of arrest but our reports along with photographs went to the United Nations headquarters for attention and liaison with the Cypriot authorities.

“Eventually, two Cypriots were arrested for the murder of a shepherd. That was the very first time anyone had been arrested for a crime against a member of the opposing faction after months of murder and mayhem. That was also the first time we started to see a lull in the abduction and terrorism we had experienced on the island.”

  • Bob (Doc) Gillespie (1st contingent).

Shower time

“We came to realise we’d better have a shower after a little time, so we rigged up this wooden framework and got some hessian and surrounded it. Then we got a bucket and put holes in it and another bucket. One would stand and pour the water and you’d do a quick soap up. You’d get half the bucket and then swap over. That was quite interesting in the middle of the paddock and we had quite a lot of viewers. They thought we were crazy.”

  • Mick Richards (1st contingent) while stationed at Ayios Theodoros.

Kindness

“There was a tiny woman about five feet nothing, if that. She was a Greek Cypriot and couldn’t speak English and was showing wedding photos to anybody in a blue beret. She was smiling and happy and I wondered what she was talking about, because nobody knew. The next day she was front page on every paper.

“[Previously] she had knocked on the door of the house that she used to own before the intervention. The Turkish Cypriots who were living there invited her in and gave her lunch and coffee, and they brought out these [wedding] photographs that were on the wall that they had kept. They were the woman’s photos from the 1930s. It was brilliant. It was amazing to be a part of that.”

  • Geoff Hazel (36th, 37th, 74th, 75th, 76th and 77th contingents).

Sharing the love

Erica Hanisch.
Erica Hanisch.

“I was posted to the Ledra Palace Hotel in Nicosia, the UN Headquarters building. It adjoined the southern side of the buffer zone and there was a checkpoint there where UN personnel could pass through, but the general population couldn’t.

“There was a tailor everyone went to on the south side and his fabric came from a supplier in the north. They had been friends and partners before the buffer zone was created. There was no way for them to be in contact, no phone, no mail, no travel between the two sides, so when you went to be measured up, the tailor would write a note to the cloth supplier.

Later you would go back and pick up your fabric and take it back to the tailor. The two would take the opportunity to write personal messages to each other.”

  • Erica Hanisch (59th contingent).

The march home

The march home.
The march home.

“Every year 20,000 women – Cypriots and foreigners – travel to the edge of Nacaria Square for the Women’s March Home. After their rally, they all pour [back] onto these buses. One bus is going to break through the buffer zone and head to the Turkish side, [but] at their peril because the Turkish military will actually shoot at them.

“But you don’t know which bus it will be. So I’m sitting down at Camp Goldfish, the Swedish camp, Sector 4, and we hear on the radio ‘It’s yours’.

“So it’s a mad scramble, we get in our trusty Land Rover, the military get in their big four-wheel drives and we’re running at a million miles down this track. The bus pulls up, the doors open and these women, 48-50 women, are running in all directions heading toward the north, towards the Turkish side through the buffer zone. We can see the Turkish military. They’ve got their machine guns up and they’re ready to go.

“So we’ve gone out and rugby tackled these women to the ground. These Swedish guys, they had no idea how to do it, so Steve Olinder and I are rugby tackling these women and we corral them all up and we’ve got them sitting down on the side of the road. Okay, we won the battle, we stopped them getting over to the Turkish side.

“Then the Swedish Commander comes up and he says, ‘Thank-you very much. Until now, this area was an unknown landmine zone. Now we know where the grass is flat that there are no land mines’.”

  • Rod Walker (27th contingent).