This may be the weirdest frontline in the history of modern warfare. It runs through the middle of a 21st-century European capital city, one that is a popular holiday destination; a block or so away in any direction, flip-flop-shod tourists are eating ice creams and busy browsing shops retailing the atrocious sea-shell sculptures apparently compulsory in such locales. It’s also astonishingly quiet. Not merely in the sense that barely a shot has been fired across it in 40 years but that hardly anything at all has happened here in that time.
In the crumbling buildings deemed secure enough to venture into, the newspapers we find scattered on the floors are dated 1974, the year Turkish troops landed here. The antique televisions are probably coming round to being fashionable for the third time; one basement is full of Toyotas parked for safekeeping four decades ago by a dealer who clearly assumed he would be able to retrieve his stock in rather shorter order.
This is the Green Line in downtown Nicosia, the most delicately drawn stretch of the Buffer Zone: the division between the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus that splits the island over 180km. Peace talks may start again soon, following the election in April of a new, left-wing president in northern Cyprus, but for now the island remains divided. At some points the no-man’s land between the lines is barely 3 metres wide and the rival flags of still-manned positions of the (Greek) Cypriot National Guard and Turkish Cypriot Security Force are continually visible.
There is a good view of this moribund battlefield from the top of a derelict shopping mall but we can’t photograph it. “Someone would see you,” says Captain Iain Walker, 27, of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. “And it would be reported. Then there are liaison officers on both sides. It would probably end up in New York [at the UN] quite quickly.”
Almost nothing has happened here since long before Walker was born and, like every soldier serving with the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), it is his responsibility to ensure that nothing continues to happen. For UNFICYP, this extraordinary ghost town is a definition of success.
There is an elderly joke about a man sprinkling what he claims is elephant repellent in Trafalgar Square, or on the Champs Élysées or some other urban thoroughfare not known for its pachyderm traffic. On being told that he’s wasting his time because there are no elephants in the vicinity, he replies to the effect that “it must be good stuff, then”. UNFICYP have become the approximate military equivalent.
“The environment is relatively benign,” says Colonel Angus Loudon of the Royal Irish Regiment. Loudon, 55, has served with UNFICYP for nearly three years as Chief of Staff of Peacekeeping and commander of the British contingent. “But that says a lot about UNFICYP's success in preventing any reoccurrence of fighting. The luxury you have here, as opposed to other missions, is time; you can step back and consider. Which is not an excuse to do nothing, although sometimes nothing is the right thing to do.”
UNFICYP has existed since 1964, initially the UN’s response to fighting between Cyprus’s Greek and Turkish communities. Its position became more entrenched in 1974 when the elected Cypriot government was overthrown by Athens-backed military officers, prompting the seizure of the north of the island by Turkey. After a ceasefire was agreed, partition followed and has endured, although some crossings of the Buffer Zone have opened since 2003. UNFICYP is now the UN’s longest-established peacekeeping force. Today it consists of 860 soldiers and 63 police from 26 countries, along with 150 local and international civilian staff.
UNFICYP's principal base inside the Buffer Zone, Blue Beret Camp, was originally built as a Royal Air Force base in the 1930s. It became Nicosia’s international airport in the 1960s, just in time to be rendered a ruin by the fighting in 1974. The dilapidated hoarding atop the terminal welcoming visitors to “Nicosia International Airport” is missing several letters. Inside, fading billboards advertising Seiko watches, Bata shoes and InterContinental holidays overhang the departures concourse. Outside on the runway, a Hawker Siddeley Trident belonging to Cyprus Airways continues its 41-year wait to be cleared for take-off. As of the airline’s closure in January, the bullet-pocked relic is the last aircraft bearing the livery of Cyprus’s flag carrier.
The troops based at Blue Beret live in the semi-circular concrete-and-tin barracks built by the British 80-odd years ago. Their current commander made history upon arrival in May 2014: Major General Kristin Lund of the Norwegian army is the first woman to lead a UN peacekeeping operation. Lund’s office is decorated with plaques and other trinkets presented by visiting dignitaries, with one personal touch in the centre of her mantlepiece: a picture of Lund, 57, astride her Harley-Davidson, its front mudguard emblazoned with the two stars denoting her rank. She acquired a taste for motorcycling during a UN posting in Bosnia and has also undertaken UN or other multinational deployments in Kuwait, Lebanon and Afghanistan.
“You learn from every mission,” she says. “We were deployed to Sarajevo when there was no fighting and saw how a country could descend into full war. Here you could say that the status quo is something that both sides now want and that’s what my mandate is: no reoccurrence of fighting. The challenge is much more on the civilian side, because that’s the key to a solution. There’s not a military solution on this island.”
Which prompts the question of how one keeps a military force motivated in such circumstances. UNFICYP's soldiers patrol unarmed; its police have no power of arrest. “Your weapon is communication,” says Maj Gen Lund. “You have to use tools other than you normally would.” She agrees that the red-and-blue flag on her right shoulder is an advantage: Norwegians are burdened by less historical baggage than many of their comrades. “We are a small country and we don’t have an agenda. We understand we have to learn another language to communicate. The UN has always been in the back of Norwegians’ heads. We had the first Secretary-General and there was a reason for that. We are not a threat to anyone; we stopped attacking people after the Vikings. I think we are just straightforward. Sometimes too straightforward.”
Which can be a problem. Like no other UN mission this reporter has encountered, UNFICYP is punctilious about its use of language, forever braced for the fallout from someone describing a “community” as a “minority”, saying “invasion” instead of “intervention”, referring to Greek and Turkish Cypriots as Greeks or Turks or calling the north-south divide a “border”. This quibbling, though vexatious, is probably a good sign: semantics are the least of anyone’s concern on more volatile front lines.
Our first tour of the Buffer Zone beyond Blue Beret is with a couple of UNFICYP police. Senior Sergeant Jarrod Reid, 43, from Canberra, appreciates the landscape, festooned as it is with imported Australian flora: magnificent eucalypts and thousands of wattle bushes abloom with golden dandruff. If it weren’t for the hilltop checkpoints you could be in New South Wales. Garda Dave McMahon, 50, from County Kerry in Ireland, says it’s an agreeable beat: people drive on the left, speak English and are friendly. Our ride to Mammari, a village partially within the Zone, reveals only a tractor and a distant truck that may or may not be fly-tipping. This is UNFICYP's day-to-day work: farmers, dumpers and hunters entering the Zone without permission, ignoring the signs marking its four still-uncleared minefields while so doing.
Later we travel further afield with Maj Gen Lund to San Martin Camp, headquarters of an Argentine commitment to UNFICYP that stretches back 21 years (nearby village Kakopetra even has an Argentine restaurant).
“This is the most difficult part of the Zone,” says their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ricardo Fresta, 49. “There are mountains and the tracks can be difficult, especially in winter.” Recent excitement is courtesy of a Turkish Cypriot farmer working without a permit inside the Zone, prompting occasional incursions by Turkish Cypriot military. Greek Cypriot troops have been known to wander from their positions to feed stray dogs. All must be dealt with, via the liaison officers of the three forces, quickly and quietly.
In the hills above San Martin, Patrol Base 18 is a geographical illustration of diplomatic reality. The perimeter is punctuated with placards pointing to Greek and Turkish Cypriot positions, listing the distance to them and the number of personnel each is permitted. Two of the indicators seem barely necessary: one points to the clearly visible Cypriot and Greek flags of the position 190 metres in one direction; the other indicates the equally proudly displayed Turkish Cypriot and Turkish flags of its opposite number, 190 metres in the other. Here, the $58m (€54m) budget with which UNFICYP keeps those flags 400 metres apart seems an astonishing bargain.
If one measures the success of a peacekeeping mission by the length and strength of the peace it keeps, UNFICYP is a triumph. It’s arguable, however, that it has done too good a job, giving politicians who should be solving the problem an ongoing licence not to. “UNFICYP is part of the landscape now,” says Lefteris Adilinis, editor of Cyprus Weekly. “People feel secure because they’re here, on both sides. If tomorrow unficyp got cut back, or left with things unresolved, insecurity would be sky high.”
In a world heaving with more urgently dreadful problems there may be a temptation to scale down a mission such as UNFICYP or replace its blue berets with cameras and drones. Its commander believes that would be a false economy.
“In modern warfare,” says Maj Gen Lund, “you can sit in one place and conduct offensive operations halfway around the world. But I still think for the UN, boots on the ground are important.”