Saturday, July 23, 2011


"When I was a boy we didn't wake up with Vietnam and have Cyprus for lunch and the Congo for dinner." Lyndon Baines Johnson

Every year, on the day of the annual Justice for Cyprus protest march, the weather in Melbourne turns invariably cold and miserable. The final true believers, like drips from a tap that has long ceased to flow, pool together on Lonsdale Street, dressed in their heavy winter coats, exhaling steam, as their brows are furrowed in frowns. With the passing of each protest there are fewer and fewer of them and even the ultimate reluctant protesters who emerge at the last minute from the coffee shops do not swell their ranks considerably. The car with the loudspeakers begins to move, barking out barely intelligible slogans in a heavily accented voice. The small crowd, holding hastily scrawled placards, follows it down the empty street, intoning half-heartedly for the benefit of the blank windows and closed-shopfronts: "Tzastis four Sayprous," and "Terkis troups, aout of Sayprous."
They turn the corner into Swanston Street and the chant immediately intensifies for there are shoppers lining both sides of the street and they view the flag-carrying, slogan-chanting protesters with bemusement. Possibly, just one of these, through hearing the words "Turkish Troops out of Cyprus," will be placed upon a train of inquiry that will result in them researching and consequently feeling outraged about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Quite conceivably, they will then learn of the rape and slaughter of innocent civilians, the seizure of property and the pain of exile. Some of them may even become incensed to learn that such august personages as Cherie Blair QC are supporting the illegal occupation of Cyprus, through their legal representation of persons who have illegally purchased properties from third parties who have violently seized these from their rightful Cypriot owners. Indeed, in the five minute walk from the Lonsdale Street end of Swanston Street, to the Bourke Street end, more than one person could be inspired, or given pause to consider, by this chance and random encounter. And if, over the thirty seven years that the Justice for Cyprus protest has been conducted at least two persons are so moved, then who knows what could ensue? The icy and vacant stares of passersby betray nothing of their sentiments.
Briskly, the marchers turn into Bourke Street and begin the climb up to Parliament House. In years past, by this stage, the last group of protesters would still be at Lonsdale Street, but in this age of efficiency and rationalization, this is no longer the case. The momentum of the chant carries them forward, though by the Russell Street intersection, there is no one walking the street and the slogans bounce off icy and faceless buildings to rebound on the bitumen below. It is no longer cold. Warmth is being generated by the proximity of the people packed closely together and their marching in unison. Beaming, they propel themselves forward, in the half-belief that their words of truth are being dispersed from the silent street and into the wider world.
On the fourth rank from the head of the protest, some community organisation presidents are comparing this year's protest unfavourably with those of years past. They wonder why their fellow presidents no longer see fit to attend the march, though it was the place to be for many years. Where are the professionals? The businessmen? Finally, as they reach the stone facade of Parliament, they mount its steps to look down at the pitifully small group of campaigners milling about below. As they do, they take a sharp intake of breath. For it is in that moment, that realization comes, as cruelly and inexorably as it comes to a man who can no longer lift or move as much as he once was able to - the realization of old age and infirmity. So too, is it now realized that a community of some 250,000 Greek-speakers is not able to muster even one thousand people to protest against the occupation of a third of Cyprus. The tragedy is not so much the sudden comprehension that our labours all of these years are akin to those of Sisiphus, doomed to carry a boulder uphill, only to see it roll back down again, but rather, that we Sisiphians, are now, too weak, even to budge such boulders and undertake such futile tasks. This then, is our Tartarus.
When I stand with my back to Parliament and view the crowd, I heed not the speeches of the politicians (this year there were none, merely a parliamentary employee who mumbled something incomprehensible about the necessity of living in peace and harmony and who did not even have the strength of conviction to condemn the invasion and occupation.) Their absence is no matter for successive Australian governments are decent and compassionate. All have condemned the invasion and all have attempted to assist the process of a resolution of the conflict and will continue to do so. Nor do I overly heed the well-phrased exposition of the current status of negotiations by the erudite Cypriot High Commissioner, or the impassioned and rousing speech by the visiting Metropolitan of Kition, though his presence merely serves to juxtapose the absence of our local ecclesiastical leaders, something that fits ill with the traditional Modern Greek conception of clerics at the forefront of what we term "national struggles." Similarly, I pay no heed to the platitudes spoken by representatives of local organisations, the well-executed English speech by a member of the "neolaia," which commences with a thanksgiving to the few youth attending. Neither do I pay heed to my own speech, conveying the heartfelt greetings and feelings of solidarity of a people that too have known loss, persecution, privation, the division of their country and who know it still; the Greeks of Northern Epirus. How can our words tally up and weigh lifetimes of misery?
Instead, I look down the steps to the women shrouded in black. Year after year, each one of them holds a fading black and white picture of a loved one. These loved ones have not grown old. Their images are as fresh and youthful as the day they were taken. Their clothes and hairstyles are dated, yet the look of optimism and confidence in the future is eternal. Time has not been as kind to those that mourn them, their sisters, wives and mothers, who hold their pictures and an olive wreath. As the dignitaries speak, their eyes are continuously brimming with tears that pool on their lower eyelids and are carried away through the channels of sadness that furrow their grey faces. No words, no sentiments, no slogans will bring their loved ones back to them, or their lost youth. They will go to the grave wondering, but never knowing, what their last hours were, for these are the "agnoomenoi," the missing, whose fate is still unaccounted.
Finally, after a desultory rendition of the Australian and Greek anthems, the small gathering slinks away. There is no residual energy, no enthusiasm, none of the fire that is an outpouring of conviction fervently held. In Cavafian style, the contemporary Poseidonians have muttered their mantras and gone their way, cold. The icy streets of Melbourne on the wintry Sunday are left to bear mute witness to their grim conviction, never to forget, long after they cease to believe that their persistence will bear even the fruit of continued memory.
The next Sunday, and the Sunday after that, the black clad Cypriot women who have been dedicated to the icy grimness of a blighted life will go to church and light a candle for their missing people. They will whisper a prayer and look forward to the night when they will be visited by them in their dreams. And sometimes, more often than they would care to admit, they will see again what they saw in those horrific days that are now summed up in a few words at the steps of Parliament and they will wake up in mute scream.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 23 July 2011