A few clothes, sheets and a blanket for the parents, kids and grandparents were all that the suitcase could hold. Little Katia put in a nylon bag her white t-shirts and black shorts, the ones that kids would put on during PE. That and the keys, are all the family took with them, as they left the village of Palekithro in Nicosia district which received a heavy blow during the second Turkish advance in the summer of 1974. The family was expecting to return home soon.
Fourty-four years later, Demetra and Andreas Christodoulou continue to live at the Strovolos 3 Refugee Housing estate, a community of similar buildings, all refugees and with a story to tell.
The day before the second phase of the Turkish invasion, Katia, her brothers, and other children of the neighbourhood went to take some water, watermelon and halloumi cheese to the Greek Cypriot soldiers outside the village. There, a soldier named Sotiris, who had parked his car at her family’s yard, gave her the key and told her and her two brothers to take the car and leave as the Turks would advance and the soldiers would be moved from the area.
The children went running home and told their parents what Sotiris had said. “We could not sleep that night. There were cars coming and going, there were people outside talking. Katia brought down the suitcase and told us to put some clothes inside. We had decided to leave”, said Demetra, Katia’s mother. She went across the road and informed the priest Papa Nicos, as they called him. The family prepared, took the tractor with the carriage, put all the children at the back and when he asked “where are we going”, Demetra replied, “wherever fate takes us”.
As they were driving into the village, Andreas also advised his sister to leave with her family. And he remembers, all families were stacked into two cars and a tractor with a carriage heading towards the new Famagusta road.
Andreas remembers the long train of cars leaving the village. They travelled to Strongilos, then Ashia and headed to Xylotymbou which is in the British Bases areas, for safety.
There, he found a friend who introduced him to Kyriakos Karnera. His daughter-in-law was staying with her in-laws as her husband was in the army. Her house was empty so the three families found a safe haven.
The Christodoulou children, Katia, Kyriakos and Christakis, were holding onto icons of St. George, St. Paraskevi and St. Nektarios. Demetra cannot recall when the children took the icons. An explanation was, they were acting on instinct.
Andreas says the worst part is that there were no guidelines from the Civil Defence to direct people. “People were doing whatever they thought was best. Others left, others stayed behind and could not escape. Whoever took the road to the Tympou airport was arrested by the Turkish army. The only empty road was the new road to Varosi”, he said.
Demetra remembers the fighter jets flying over them. The Turks did not bomb however, as they wanted the people to simply leave the villages. As the family was leaving Palekythro, she turned back to see her village; “the land was on fire. All crops were on fire. There was a thick veil of black smoke…you would think the village was on fire, but it was the crops.”
At that moment, she remembers those who were not that lucky. “We had neighbours who had cars but were under requisition and stayed behind and were killed. My koumera Yianoula, went to start the car…it had no petrol and a flat tyre. Sixteen people were home, grandparents, uncle with special needs, a daughter with four children, two young boy, the Soupouri family, all were killed”.
On the 15th August, the family now in Xylotymbou went to church to celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The church was packed with people crying. “There were many like us…there was a man from the Famagusta villages. He brought mattresses. When people asked him where he would put all those mattresses, he replied “don’t you know we will stay here for good, there’s no going back.” We thought he was kidding. It was an unreal situation, like a movie was being played”.
The three families stayed in Xylotymbou for a month.
A week before the family became refugees, Demetra gathered their most valuable possessions. Two sets of cutlery, silverware, earrings, a cross and a pendant of the Virgin Mary. She and her husband put them in a metal container, dug a hole, not that big, put a garden hose inside and buried it under the lemon tree on the side of the house. “We thought, if we get to live, we will see them again”. They did, 29 years later.
Katia, a photographer by profession, often visited the Turkish occupied north and did go to her home. Emine and Yuksel, two Turkish Cypriots who now live in their home, would always ask Katia to convey a message to her mother to visit her home. “All my relatives visited the house and everyone told me that Emine wanted me to visit. She always asked where Katia’s mother was. However, I didn’t feel like visiting,” Demetra said.
Eventually, the family decided to cross to the north. When they arrived, she saw Yuksel digging under the lemon tree. She asked him what he was doing. Just by looking at her, Yuksel could tell she was Katia’s mum. He shouted out to his wife, “Emine, Katia’s mum is here”.
“Indeed, they came out, hugged me and I entered the yard and stood under the lemon tree where we had buried the treasure.” Emine’s daughter asked Katia in English if I was looking for something. She said yes. “Then all the girls went inside the house and soon came out with the treasure. I fainted. Everything happened so fast.”
Demetra recalls that Emine and Yuksel found the treasure and hid it inside the wall, behind a cabinet. They were afraid that the valuables would be stolen so they hid them very well. “Imagine what kind of people Emine and Yuksel are”, says Demetra.
At the checkpoint, the family was stopped and ordered to open up the trunk. There, Katia said “you will find what we left over and was returned to us”. The Policeman heard the story and could not believe it. He showed it to his colleagues and they all commented “there is still humanity. They returned all these even after 29 years.”
Andreas says that if he knew that the family would never return home, he would have burnt it down.
A daily reminder of their status is a hand embroidered lace made by grandmother Maritsa which says “We became refugees on 14th August 1974”. It covers the corridor wall and it is the first thing you see inside the refugee home. It is also the day that changed the lives of the Christodoulou family.
Nitsa Georgiou Papachristodoulou
Nitsa Georgiou Papachristodoulou has a different story to tell from that of Christodoulou family. The two families are very close as Nitsa’s church is Apostle Andreas at the Strovolos 3 Refugee Housing estate. They are both refugees and can understand the pain of longing to return home. She arrived clutching an old portrait of a young man, her brother, who was killed during the invasion but his remains are still unaccounted for.
“I am from Kontemenos, we were bombed during the first phase of the invasion. We were hiding in the holes that were dug by a neighbour who was planning to build his daughter a house. Me, my mum and dad and my two small children. My father had a flock of animals. When the bombing was over, he immediately went to check on it. The animals were so scared, looked like a ball of thread all close to each other”.
The family together with the grandparents stayed at the village of Kontemenos until the 6th August. It then moved to Agios Georgios Monastery, north of Kyra village of Morphou district, where her father took the animals. They then travelled to Kapouti village and stayed there until the 14th of August in a cave where a friend of the family took them. They stayed there until the bombings were over. “My father told us to leave since we had the children with us. We went to Kakopetria and by night he came too with my mum. But the next day he wanted to return to check on the animals. We didn’t let him. If we did, then he would have been dead just like him and we would be looking everywhere to find him” and she points at the picture of her missing brother Nicholas, aged 19 at the time.
The young soldier was one of the commandoes that went to Bellapais. He was never found. According to Nitsa, he was one of the soldiers in the commando unit at Agios Ilarionas of Kyrenia district. The soldiers retreated once their commander was killed and went to St. George where they found an under-construction building. Nicholas and some other soldiers climbed to the first floor. However, the 19 year old soldier was already badly injured in the abdominal area. Nicholas did not make it. The soldier who stayed with him left. Although he was missing for a certain period, he finally returned home. “We never found my brother. We asked all over the place but no one knew”, says Nitsa.
Her family eventually arrived in Nicosia and settled at Strovolos. Nitsa’s parents went to Akaki village. As the years went by, one day Nitsa recalls visiting her parents and seeing her father hold a paper. She asked him what it was. “My daughter, every month that this paper arrives in the mail, it stabs me and your mother seven times”, she quotes her father. “They were giving my parents seven pounds each for their son. Seven pounds for their son’s soul.” Her father eventually passed away in 1998.
Her mother Vasiliki remained alone. She refused to leave her Akaki home. To keep busy, she asked her daughter to bring her thread for embroidery. “When she ran out of thread, she kept asking for more. She would knit the same thing over and over again”.
Vasiliki asked to be buried with her son’s picture. And so she was.
The countless number of lace pieces she had knitted eventually were turned into a long tablecloth for the altar of the Apostle Andreas Church. Whoever sees it, wants to know more about the story behind it. The daughter of poet Kyriakos Charalambides saw it and liked it. She told her father the story and he wrote a poem for my mother, says Nitsa.
The poem recalls the countless nights the mother would knit, waiting for her son to come home. Nitsa did not manage to enter her home when she eventually crossed to the Turkish occupied areas. “ I still have the key locked up in my closet and I am waiting. I didn’t expect that 44 years would go by”, she says.
When she visited Kontemenos, the soldiers who now occupy her home, did not allow her to even cross the road to approach the house. She tried to visit the chapel of Chryseleousa but the only thing she found was the building’s foundations. “I don’t want to go back again, it`’ just miserable, it’s just grey”, she recalls.
When asked what she managed to bring over when the family fled, she replies: “the kids, photographs and silverware. My dad loved to read. He had an encyclopaedia and some other books. My other brother would not take the whole encyclopaedia so I got two volumes with me.” And to this day, she keeps them all until the day will come to go home.