06 July 2016

Valuing the freedom of land, sea and air
20 years after a crisis that threatened war

Peaceful afternoons on the beach near Rethymnon are seldom interrupted by sonic booms and overflights, unlike 20 years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I have been coming to this part of Greece since the 1980s. Today, Rethymnon is a relatively quiet area for holidays. With the long sandy stretch for sand that continues for miles east of the town, it is a family-friendly place.

There are no signs offering cheap beer to lager louts, as I have seen at bars further east in places such as Hersonissos and Malia, and the resort areas east of Rethymnon are even quieter at the moment because school holidays have yet to start in Britain.

It is easy to fall asleep on the beach and to be undisturbed in the sunshine.

It was not always so peaceful. Not because of loud lager louts, not because Crete was attracting the wrong sort of tourists, and certainly not because of bad management on anyone’s part. But because of the threat of war.

An afternoon’s snooze on the beach was regularly interrupted in the 1980s and the 1990s by the sonic booms of overflying Greek air force jets, preparing or returning from buzzing their Turkish counterparts over the blue waters of the Aegean and the Mediterranean seas.

It almost came to a full-scale war between Greece and Turkey 20 years ago, and all because of a dispute over who owned the two tiny uninhabited rocky islets of Imia. I was flown into the middle of it all in 1996, and ended up as a part of a press posse that was threatened with coming under fire from the Turkish navy.

The dispute back in 1996 cost the lives of three crew members of a Greek Navy helicopter who died during a mission, and 20 years later, despite improved relations between Athens and Ankara in the intervening decades, many Greeks have not forgotten this tense time in modern Greek history.

The crisis had international leaders scrambling to urge bot sides not to come to blows over what was derided as a pile of rocks. But Greece insisted they were “Greek rocks,” and Athens refused to back down as Ankara tried to assert Turkish sovereignty. Greeks were reminded all too easily of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus over 20 years earlier on 20 July 1974.

Windmills at the entrance to the harbour in Rhodes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Imia is part of the Dodesanese islands, which are dripping with history and oozing with culture: Kos, where Hippocrates formulated the foundations of modern medicine; Patmos, where Saint John the Divine wrote the Book of Revelation; Kalymnos, Leros and Simi, with their neo-classical mansions; and Rhodes, where the giant Colossus once straddled the harbour of Mandhraki, holding aloft the flame of freedom that inspired the Statue of Liberty.

At the crossroads of three continents, this island chain was once ruled by Alexander the Great and Ptolemy; it has been occupied by the Romans, the Crusaders, the Venetians, the Knights of Saint John, the Turks, the Italians and Nazi Germany. Only with the end of World War II was it finally handed over by Britain and incorporated into the Greek state in 1947.

Today, only 26 of the Dodecanese islands are inhabited: the largest, Rhodes, has about 100,000 people, but most have only a few hundred residents or less, and there are only 79 people left on Pserimos.

The large Turkish minorities in Rhodes and Kos and the mosques and minarets still dotting the skylines of many islands are ever-present reminders that Turkey occupied the Dodecanese for almost 400 years, from 1522 to 1912. Turkey is Greece’s nearest neighbour, and on many islands you can feel it is almost possible to touch the Turkish coast with its harbours and towns, houses and hotels.

On 29 December 1995, Turkey said the Imia islets were Turkish territory, registered in the prefecture of Bodrum. The dispute began when a Turkish cargo ship, Figen Akat ran ashore on the islets and had to be salvaged. It turned out that maps of were showing conflicting claims of the islets by Greece and Turkey, and there was a conflict between the Turkish captain and the Greek authorities over who was responsible for the salvage operation.

For more than 60 years, Turkey had accepted the maritime boundaries in the Aegean, defined by treaties and agreements with the Italians in 1923 and 1932, and ratified by the Treaty of Paris in 1947. The boundaries were never challenged by Ankara until that December. But as Turkey faced a major political crisis with the unexpected electoral success of the Islamic Welfare Party, the Foreign Ministry in Ankara claimed for the first time that Imia was part of the Turkish province of Mugla.

The official response of Greece came on 9 January 1996. The then-Greek Foreign Minister, Theodoros Pangalos, sent a reply to Turkey claiming an indisputable Greek sovereignty over the islets. The dispute was escalated when the Mayor of the Greek island of Kalymnos and a priest landed on the islets on 26 January and raised a Greek flag on the rocky outcrop.

Tensions escalated, and on 27 January Turkish journalists from the daily Hurriyet landed on the largest of the two Imia islets, tore down the blue and white Greek flag and hoisted the red and white star and crescent of Turkey.

Four days later, Turkish troops landed on the smaller rocky outcrop. Tensions heightened as Greek, Turkish and NATO forces sailed to the islets. At dawn on 31 January, a Greek navy helicopter flying over Imia said reported that Turkish troops had landed on the islets. The helicopter then crashed in mysterious circumstances. The crash was blamed on bad weather conditions, but some reports said the weather reports amounted to a mutual cover-up to hide that it was shot down by Turkish fire.

Both Athens and Ankara were accused of concealing what really happened to prevent war. The two countries had been on the brink of war when President Clinton intervened and the Turkish troops withdrew.

At the time, I was the Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times and I found myself in the middle of this crisis. I flew to Athens to interview the new Greek Prime Minister, Costas Simitis, his Foreign Minister, Theodoros Pangalos, and other Greek cabinet ministers.

A few days later I was one among a small group of about two dozen journalists who travelled from Athens and boarded the NV Nissos in Kos Harbour, close to the Plane Tree of Hippocrates and the Mosque of Hatzi Hassan.

At the time, the NV Nissos offered day trips to Turkey on Saturdays and Sundays, leaving Kos at 9 a.m. and returning at 5 p.m. But this was to be no pleasure cruise. We were reminded of an ever-present fear of an invasion from Anatolia, 5 km across the stretch of water. The local people were talking in terms of “when the Turks come”, not “if”.

With blue skies and blue seas, it could have been an idyllic summer trip. Apart from goat herds and environmentalists, few people ever bothered to visit the more remote rocks off the coast of Kos, Kalymnos, Kalolymnos and Pserimos. The crew took down the sign reading “Turkey” as we sailed off for the islets of Imia or Limnia, two flat pancakes less than two miles from Kalolymnos, almost 2½ miles from the Turkish island of Cavus, and over three miles from the western-most Turkish coast on the peninsula of Bodrum.

The Greek naval frigate HS Limnos, which had taken part in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, was fresh back from the Adriatic and had offered to take us out to look at the rocks. But before we left, Turkey protested and summoned the Greek Ambassador in Ankara, Dimitrios Nezeritis, to warn against the media trip.

It was no idle warning: two days earlier, a Greek coastguard vessel and a Turkish patrol boat had collided in Greek waters, a mile south of Imia.

As we sailed out of Kos, the military tension was palpable and visible. Greek and Turkish jets buzzed overhead sporadically, a Greek coastguard vessel and a navy ship were within sight and, in the distance, we could catch a glimpse of a ship with Turkish naval markings.

Costas Bikas, the Foreign Ministry spokesman from Athens on board the Nissos, insisted there was nothing out of the ordinary about the cruise and that it was none of Ankara’s business. But the Turks made it their business. As the Greek and Turkish jet fighters swooped low over the area, the Turkish foreign ministry took a group of foreign and local journalists out from Bodrum. Once again, there were new Turkish claims to the islets known to the Turks as Kardak – by Defence Minister Oltan Sunguklu and by naval spokesman Ali Kurunahmut, who told cruising journalists: “Kardak is a Turkish islet and we are in Turkish waters.”

Trailing both groups were reporters and camera crews from the Greek and Turkish press and television. The crisis had moved from territorial claims and counter claims to cruise and counter cruise for journalists in the Aegean. As Imia faded out of sight, we followed past Pserimos, Kalolymnos, Leros and Kalymnos, through the straits separating Kalymnos and Telendhos, into Pothia, the port harbour of Kalymnos – names that once tripped off the tongues of backpackers in the 1970s.

As we disembarked at the dockside in Pothia, the microphones and cameras crowded into our faces: the foreign media had become the message.

The rocky island of Kalymnos is famous for its traditional sponge fishing; its fame in the past rested on Homer’s reference in the Iliad to the ships from the “Kalyndian Islands” taking part in the Trojan wars. That day, we felt war remained an ever-present threat to the peace of the islanders and their sponge fishers.

The Nissos returned to Kos to prepare for Sunday’s day trippers to Bodrum, and a launch from the Hellenic Coast Guard took us out from the harbour to the navy frigate Limnos, with its crew waiting to take us on to Rhodes. For four hours, we watched the crew tracking Turkish moves in the Aegean sea and skies, before our odyssey came to an end and Rhodes came into sight with its mediaeval castles and palaces, mosques and minarets and three harbours.

Two deer stand at each end of Mandhrki where the Colossus once straddled the entrance to the harbour, with ships passing through its towering legs. A small tug, the Herakles, took us ashore, reminding us of the apt inscription that once graced Colossus, praising the lovely gift of unlettered freedom. “For to those who spring from the race of Herakles, dominion is a heritage both on land and sea.”

The crisis was a temporary boost at home to Turkey’s Tansu Ciller as she searched (in vain) for a coalition partner to keep her in power. But it threatened to bring down Costas Simitis, Theodoros Pangalos and their Pasok government in Athens. Both sides agreed to withdraw their forces from the area around Imia and return to the status quo ante, although Ms Ciller continued to press Turkey’s claims to 3,000 Aegean islands – the sum total of all islands in Greek waters.

After intense pressure from the US, Greek and Turkish government removed their military forces from Imia. The territorial issue has remained unresolved since then. Imia and other islets in the Aegean are considered as “grey zones” of undetermined sovereignty by Turkey.

When I returned to Crete a few weeks later, my interviews with the Greek media and my appearances on Greek television became a topic of conversation over lunch with Greek friends on the island. Overhead, the sonic booms of fighter jets continued to break the peace of afternoon naps by the pool or on the beach.

When I returned a second time from Greece, The Irish Times published a major feature on my adventures on this day 20 years ago, 6 July 1996. I think the headline ‘Dropping Ankara in Rhodes,’ with its intended pun, was written by the then Design Editor, Andy Barclay.

The casual freedom of land and sea, to hop from one island to the next, is part of the lure of a holiday in the sun in many parts of Greece. But it is a freedom that comes with a price, a freedom that is valued by the local Greeks, and a freedom that is denied 20 years later to many refugees who come in search of it as they make the difficult passage from the coast of Turkey to the islands of the Dodecanese.

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