By Sophia Kotzias
My friends no longer invite me to July 4th celebrations. “Sophia doesn’t like fireworks” they say and laugh it off.
I don’t like fireworks. In fact, I hate them. If a car backfires, I scream. My friends think it’s a quirk. It’s not. It’s PTSD and I rarely talk about it.
In the Summer of 1974 my mom and I lived in Engomi in Lefkosia. I was seven years old. My dad was in New York, working on his degree.
We stayed home during the first invasion. All the neighbors gathered in the newest and strongest house in the neighborhood, listening to the radio. We were indoors all day, and the kids collected bullets from the street after sunset and used what gunpowder was left to burn our names on the ground. It was a new game.
Dads and uncles and brothers, soldiers we didn’t know would drop by for water, a nap, some food and go on their way. News trickled in from them and the transistor radio. When a factory close by exploded after getting hit by a bomb, the windows shattered as the whole neighborhood shook as if from an earthquake, and my best friend Savas, passed out.
I heard rumors of Turkish soldiers hurting girls but I didn’t understand what that meant. Hurt them how? The grown-ups stopped talking when we, the kids, walked in, and they changed the subject.
After the second invasion we had to leave, the Turks were very close. They were occupying the Lefkosia airport and we were fearful they would invade further south.
Fighter planes flew overhead, bombs were falling and by this time, I was regularly wetting the bed. We had to leave and I screamed and cried for my dog, but we had no room in my mom’s tiny Fiat. Taking two cousins with us was more important and a neighbor that stayed behind promised to take care of her. I took my favorite doll with me, and 44 years later, she lives in a pretty box in my closet.
Keep in mind, there were no cell phones, no social media.The Turkish war machine had taken over a radio station, mocking and trying to terrify us. It worked. I clearly remember a Turkish broadcaster talking in Greek “bloom bloom you will all wind up in the sea” she said.My mom, her cousin and three kids headed out, two tiny cars driving from Lefkosia to Yeri, to look for my pappou.
In those days Yeri was a small village 30-minutes from Lefkosia. It was surrounded by farmland and you’d see maybe one or two houses before youreached the village. You can imagine a blistering August day, driving in cars with no air conditioning, terrified, on a road with no other cars, fields burned black from constant bombing. The Turks had taken over Dali, the village next door.
It was hazy from the smoke and from the heat. Our tiny caravan slowed down, my mom in the lead, as she saw man standing by a black car in the middle of the road. She got out and started screaming.
The car wasn’t painted black. It was burned. I remember an arm and leg sticking out as someone had tried to get out and didn’t make it. Black cartoon stick figures of what were people 30 minutes earlier.
The family tried to flee to the mountains. A man, I always thought of him as a pappou but he was probably in his early 50s. His wife, his son-in-law, his daughter, and their little girl. As he got the car on the road he realized he forgot the radio. And he went to the house to get it. That’s when the car was bombed. The son-in-law managed to jump out with the little girl and was picked up by a truck of soldiers and taken to the hospital. The rest had no chance. My mom begged him to come with us, to take him to the village, somewhere, anywhere.
“Pounatousafisoetsi” he said. “How can I leave them here, like this?” And he stayed. To this day I don’t know the name of the family and what happened to him, his son in law and the little girl.
I was hysterical and probably got a slap for it. We had to leave and leave quickly. The village was empty except for some young soldiers. We couldn’t find pappou. He was hiding in an underground bunker, waiting for us. But we didn’t know so we headed up towards the mountains. We slept in a field, as homes were being targeted by Turkish pilots.
In a village, I think it was Lythrodontas, strangers opened up their homes. We slept in yards, on floors 20 to 30 people living together and helping each other. I went into shock, got ill, and a lot of what happened later is a blur. I know the house woke in an uproar one early morning, when a man showed up, half naked and bloody. He had been crawling on his hands and knees through tomato fields to get away from the Turkish army and get back to his 9-month pregnant wife, the daughter of the home owner.
We stayed with relatives in Lemesso for a while, and eventually it was considered safe enough to go home. Fighter planes still flew overhead. If I heard one I’d run into a house. Anyone’s house, whether I knew them or not. I’d just run and dive under a bed or hide in a corner. An uncle gave me a toy gun and told me to shoot at the planes. He thought that would help me. It was 1970s therapy, Cyprus style.
We would visit refugee camps. Those horrible tent cities. For Christmas we took strangers kids home with us, so they could have an evening in a real bed and I would give them one of my toys or some clothes. I remember moms cooking sweets to take to army bases. Schools were overrun; they were morning and afternoon classes as the country struggled to find a balance, some kind of normal life to give to its people. I had my home, my things, but nothing was the same. There was a fear that was part of everyday now, a loss of security. As a child, home used to be sanctuary. But no longer. There was no such thing as a safe place.
I came home from school a year later, to find my house packed up. We were moving to New York City to be with “papa” I was told. “He isn’t coming back, it’s not safe. Who knows what the Turks will do next.” Three days later, in the middle of a school year, I was on a plane with mom, and my doll, heading to New York.
*** Sophia Kotzias’ address at the Cypriot Young Professionals and NEPOMAK USA event “Cyprus 44 Years Later – A Retrospective Look and Call to Action, Tuesday, June 5, 2018.