Aussies on the green line

Australian police officers currently serve in Cyprus as part of the UN Peace Keeping Forces as a call of duty which has been carried out since 1964.

From London pubs to every far-flung corner of the globe, the easy-going Australian disposition has an unfaltering knack of winning hearts, minds and friends in even the most hostile situations. Needless to say it’s also a vital asset to hundreds of federal and state police officers deployed in 36 overseas posts, including some of the world’s most dangerous and critical peacekeeping missions.

<p>After 45 years local communities have gotten used to having the Aussies around, and relationships have flourished thanks to the officers’ positive attitude and a shared connection between the two countries.</p>

Compared to Afghanistan and Sudan, Cyprus is considered one of the safest postings of the Australian International Deployment Group (IDG), however, the service it provides is no less vital to the UN’s highly sensitive peacekeeping and settlement agenda.

Since arriving as part of the UN policing presence after the formation of UNFICYP in 1964, over 1,400 Australian police officers have served on the island, providing an essential link between Greek and Turkish Cypriot law enforcement agencies, while earning the respect and friendship of the small communities they serve within the UN controlled buffer zone.

From Kato Pyrgos on the northwest coast to Deryneia in the east, the 180km long zone separates the island’s occupied north with the southern republic, along a line designated in accordance with the positions of Turkish and Greek Cypriot forces on the date of the 1974 ceasefire. Heavily guarded on both sides, some 30,000 or so people cross the zone’s six designated crossing points between the north and south each week.

Covering approximately three per cent of the island, the largely agricultural area provides a home and/or work for over 10,000 civilians, scattered across the settlements of Deneia, Mammari, Athienou, Troulli, Lymbia and Pyla, the only village where Greek and Turkish Cypriots live side-by-side. ‘Civilian use areas’ are accessible to permit holders, such as farmers, and to buffer zone residents; the rest strictly off limits to anyone without UNFICYP authorisation.

An award ceremony for UN personnel held in the United Nations Protected Area, close to the site of Nicosia’s old airport, offered an opportunity to meet some of the 15 officers currently serving with Australia’s 96th Cyprus Contingent.

Second only in size to the Irish police presence, Australia is the longest continuous serving country of the nine represented in the seventy-strong UN police force (UNPOL) supporting the organisation’s military presence and humanitarian Civil Affairs Branch.
Fresh from accepting his medal from Special Representative of the Secretary General/UNFICYP Chief of Mission, Mr Taye-Brook Zerihoun, Deputy Sector Commander, Sergeant Steve Bonnici summarises the role of UNPOL in Cyprus.

“Under the UN mandate we have what we call a three-pillar approach; the military look after the Turkish forces and National Guard, we look after the buffer zone as far as law and order is concerned, while Civil Affairs deals with what we call a ‘return to normal conditions’,” he explains, well-versed in UNFICYP history and policy from the briefings he regularly provides for new arrivals of UN military personnel.
In comparison to his previous deployment to the Sudan, the South Australian admits he’s become accustomed to the island’s climate and lifestyle. “Cyprus is lovely to be honest, it’s very much like being at home,” he says.

“Mission life is somewhat different between locations and some can be quite isolating, and because they don’t have the infrastructure you’re living in a camp like a military situation. That’s what I enjoy most about this – we’re in a position to go to work and live as we would at home.

There’s no doubt that the threat levels were significantly higher in the Sudan but this is true peacekeeping, quite a different kind of work under the resolution.”
UNPOL officers are neither armed nor have the power to arrest or detain suspects.

Their job is to monitor and report issues, maintain public order and facilitate civilian police investigations inside the buffer zone. “We really have a backseat role in terms of policing,” Steve admits, although he describes an array of familiar problems. “At the end of the day people still get assaulted, there’s domestic violence, there are murders and all those sorts of crimes, but there are cultural differences,” he says.

For experienced police officers like Sergeant Shane Scott, on his first international tour straight from his old Northern Territory beat, the lack of enforcement power can be frustrating. “It was very violent up there so the contrast is hard to explain, the people are so different,” he says.

“It’s not the same as I’m used to as a frontline police officer – here you don’t really respond in terms of normal offences, we purely observe and report and the Cyprus police deal with everything else, so it’s a real culture change.”
Based at Mammari station west of Nicosia, Shane’s sector is predominantly agricultural, used by farmers and the occasional shepherd with permits to work the land.

In comparison, Steve’s Ledra Palace Hotel beat is often called-upon to monitor demonstrations in an area which includes the thin 3.3 metre wide strip of crumbling, bullet-pocked buildings separating the two sides at the buffer zone’s narrowest point in central Nicosia.

Elsewhere, restricted access has left large areas of land virtually untouched since the invasion, leading to the formation of ‘involuntary parks’ where rare plants and animals, including the threatened Cyprus’ Moufflon, now thrive.

Subsequently, the tempting proliferation of wild game attracts ‘incursions’ by armed hunters and these, along with unauthorised construction, permit violations and illegal immigrants, are among common issues reported by 24-hour military and UNPOL patrols.

After 45 years local communities have gotten used to having the Aussies around, and relationships have flourished thanks to the officers’ positive attitude and a shared connection between the two countries.”I think we’re well received,” Steve confirms, “The reality is that I meet Cypriots who mainly identify with me because they’ve got family that were displaced and relocated to Australia.

They welcome us into their homes and they know a lot about Australia – there are some strong ties there.”
Steve reveals that “not everyone lives by the rules,” including more than a few tourists who have strayed across restricted areas and into the hands of the ever-watchful and well-armed Turkish military.

While undoubtedly an unnerving experience, the greatest threat to trespassers are the thousands of unexploded mines left behind from the 1974 conflict, an issue brought to the fore last October when bomb disposal expert Felisberto Novele died during a UN de-mining operation near the village of Geri, 10km south-east of Nicosia.

Since mine clearance began in 2004, the UN mission has removed more than 14,000 land mines from 57 of 101 recorded and suspected mine fields and booby-trapped areas; a grim reminder of a job far from over.

According to Deputy Senior Police Advisor, Commander Phil Spence, intensified talks between President Demetris Christofias and TNRC leader, Mehmet Ali Talat, has triggered a significant increase in the number of incursions into restricted areas.
“As the peace process becomes more topical people are becoming comfortable in entering the buffer zone without a permit so the UN patrols are even more essential,” he warns.

The former Canberra police officer has served with the IDG in Afghanistan and is a hero of the Canberra firestorm of 2003, for which he was awarded the Australian Bravery Medal by the Queen.

Approachable and unfailingly cheerful, Commander Spence epitomises the UN spirit; from gamely dropping in from a UN helicopter dressed as Santa with gifts for the children of Pyla, to chairing the highly successful Technical Committee on Crime and Criminal Matters (TCCCM).

One of seven specialist committees formed as a confidence building measure between communities, the TCCCM is a mechanism for information sharing and joint initiatives on legal and criminal matters. “It’s been a considerable success,” he says, “There is now cooperation on the identification of offenders, sharing of evidence and witness testimonies in cases on both sides. We’re very pleased because the committee is constantly expanding confidence measures and building relationships between the north and south.”
The initiative meets UN Security Council objectives to foster active engagement, participation and cooperation of civil society groups and bi-communal contact.

Last month UN Special Envoy to Cyprus, Alexander Downer, opened a TCCCM seminar on ‘children at risk’ featuring speakers from both Cypriot communities and the UN, including Australian Sergeant Wayne Bradshaw.

“It’s the first time an event of this kind has taken place in the field of law and order since the events of 1974, and the committee members are proud of their efforts,” says Commander Spence.

Attended by senior teachers and counsellors from both communities, the seminar also discussed the results of a recent survey involving 2,000 of the island’s young children. Although the report indicated that problems are marginal by European standards, a bi-communal committee has been formed to work on issues of concern.

In a letter to a Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs in 2007, former Cyprus High Commissioner, Achilleas Antoniades, highlighted the island’s ‘unquestionable respect’ for Australia’s ‘beneficial and welcome’ policing activity.

‘The fact that permanent peace and reunification has eluded us for so long in no way diminishes the great contribution of the force towards this end,’ he wrote in testimony to the efforts of the Australian officers who have played a part in this long-standing peace process.