NICOSIA, Cyprus – It's a rare day in the Middle East when a news flash or a headline doesn't trigger a few memories.
But in Cyprus on Wednesday, when I heard on the car radio that nine Turkish soldiers had been killed by a Kurdish roadside bomb near the Iraqi border, I turned almost without thinking towards the eastern section of Nicosia and stopped on Theophilos Georgiadis Street outside a brown house with two flagpoles in its front garden.
Fifteen years ago a neighbor of mine was shot dead here. He was a Greek Cypriot active in Kurdish politics and although his murderers were never found it's always been assumed the gunmen were acting on orders from Turkish intelligence services.
A friend of the Kurds
In those days the street was called Thoukidides after the ancient Greek who chronicled the Peloponesian wars. I used to get a kick out of returning from Iraq or Bosnia or Somalia to a street named after a man who wrote about war thousands of years ago. But most of all I liked it because it was quiet. Traffic was thin during the day and nothing moved after dark.
In March 1994 my mother was visiting from New Zealand. One evening we were talking in the garden when we heard a crackle of shots. My mother was a little startled but I brushed it off as local children playing with firecrackers. It was only when half a dozen police cars with lights flashing and sirens wailing skidded to a stop near my neighbor's house a few minutes later that I realized the shots had been real and someone had been hurt... or killed.
The victim was Theophilos Georgiadis. He was quite dead when I peered at him over his garden wall. I didn't know anything about him at the time but it turned out he was quite a friend of the Kurds. He spoke out on their behalf and shared their dream of an independent homeland. He was particularly close to the Kurdistan Workers' Party – the PKK – a separatist group who has been fighting for autonomy from Turkey since 1984.
Of course, his own Greek Cypriot heritage played a part in his choice of friends. Cyprus had been invaded by Turks in 1974 and many Greek Cypriots had lost relatives and property in the fighting. Theophilos was a prominent critic of the Turkish army for its actions in Cyprus in 1974 and had even accused Turkey of conducting medical experiments on Greek Cypriot prisoners.
In the days following his death Cypriot newspapers speculated which route his killers could have taken to enter the Greek side of Nicosia from the Turkish north. My own guess was that they'd crossed into Greek territory in Pyla, near Larnaca south of Nicosia, and then driven up the highway for 40 minutes to arrive at Theophilos' house in Thoukidides Street before shooting him dead and returning to Turkish territory by the same route. In those days the crossing points between Greek and Turkish Cyprus were open only to foreigners and U.N. soldiers and staff.
A memory triggered
Over the next few months Theophilos' name faded from the island's newspapers. Our street was renamed in his memory and his family erected two flagpoles to fly the Cypriot and Greek colors in front of their house. A small plinth crowned with a bust of Theophilos was placed in a corner of the garden.
My family and I moved later in the year to another part of Nicosia and I never really thought of Theophilos until yesterday when the radio speculated that the PKK might have planted the bomb which killed nine Turkish soldiers near the Iraqi border. It's curious how in the Middle East a reminder of a small event will give significance to the present.