July 10th 2015: the day that dramatically changed the life of every young Greek Cypriot around the age of 18 for good. Around that time of the year every adolescent of the 1997 generation, was called by the government to serve in the Cypriot National Guard and fulfil his army conscription for the next 2 years. It may seem difficult to comprehend for an outsider but the army institution has become a normality in the island that I was born and raised in. Every generation after the 1974 Turkish invasion has had to go through the daunting reality of the army at one point in their lives, including my father.
At first, military service is signaled by a letter sent to your home by the government that sends you to one of the main training centers of the country. A training camp known (as KEN in Greek) lasts for about three weeks and bears the responsibility for transforming these young high school graduates into soldiers before enrolling them in the army base. There is nothing you can do to prepare for this overwhelming experience. It feels as if you are stripped of your house, friends and family and are placed in a huge camp in the middle of nowhere with around 2,000 other soldiers who share the same destiny. A common practice to dispose of ones individuality and force him to act as a collective is the crew cut where every soldier has the same hair style. Here, you learn how to cope on your own, distinguish between good and bad, and forge new friendships. Although these three weeks seem like a short period, they have made me develop immensely as a person. Undoubtedly, the biggest lesson that one can learn from the army is perseverance during difficult times. There were moments where I wanted to go home, sleep in my own bed and enjoy the comforts I previously had but you’re quickly taught to make the best out of every situation, remain positive and stay calm.
Sacrificing two years of your early life is the high cost that needs to be carried by any soldier who serves. Conscription remains a sensitive topic among the Cypriots and there has been little action undertaken by politicians to at least evaluate the effectiveness of this policy over the last 40 years. In theory, the National Guard is seen as a defence mechanism to preserve the status quo of the island and protect it against any further Turkish aggression. But in reality from my experiences so far the army remains a dysfunctional, inefficient bureaucratic organ. The army presents itself as a fair establishment where meritocracy is the main criteria but in a closed society of 750,000 citizens knowing people in important army positions can ‘smoothen’ your army service significantly. It is often the case that conscripts from well-known families or those that have a connection to politicians are placed in convenient ranks without following fair procedure. Popular army branches offer favourable privileges that are automatically reserved for these individuals while their actions are masked by the hypocrisy of a self-proclaimed righteous system.
But the main concern of every soldier is the time that seems to freeze during these two years. The core of the training during the army service takes place only during the first six months, and after that it is a battle against boredom and a constant struggle for motivation. Endless nights guarding over territories where literally nothing happens has become the norm, with just the lonely soldier and his gun to break the everlasting silence. It is a shame that our government spends millions of dollars attempting to enhance our security force, yet the majority of soldiers have no clue how to respond in case of a real military crisis because they lack the appropriate training.
Regardless of its faults the main argument that comes to the surface when I engage in a discussion with fellow soldiers about the value of the army is of national security and prevention of another tragedy occurring such as the 1974 invasion. Inevitably the army is linked to the 1974 Turkish invasion that split my country in half and marks a downfall in the relations between the two major ethnicities: the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. Turkish military occupation is still present today and the images of pillaging, losing homes and scattered populations are still vivid for many Cypriots today. In here the army factor is a dividing one, because of the constant emphasis on the maternal lands of Greece and Turkey that are incorporated in the daily army rhetoric. Instead of focusing on a Cypriot national consciousness, the army keeps concentrating on its differences.
In conclusion, the army for me signals the inability of both sides to reach a comprehensive agreement where dialogue is used as the key to solve the Cypriot problem instead of flexing our muscles by reinforcing our armed forces. Rather than keeping the army intact and propagating constant suspicion, why not embark on a more pragmatic diplomatic course where the army is seen as redundant and the abolition of conscription an important preparatory step in displaying willingness to negotiate. Therefore, the creation of a professional army is a viable alternative to the conscription culture that exists today.
Written By: Thomas Stavrinos
Our contributor from Switzerland wrote about how perspectives can change across the world. Read about it here.