Beautiful stories 2- The enemies from 1974 who became friends
By Esra Aygin
There are some stories in life that seem to be straight out of a movie…so incredible, so fictitious, so surreal…
The story of Fethi and Yiannis is one such story…
Turkish Cypriot Fethi lived the most part of his life in remorse, thinking two Greek Cypriot soldiers he shot during clashes in Lefka on 21 July 1974, had been killed.
Greek Cypriot Yiannis lived the most part of his life carrying fragments of the bullet from Fethi’s gun, in his skull.
Thirty-five years later, in 2009, a researcher realised that separate accounts by Fethi and Yiannis about the events on that day in Lefka corresponded.
The accounts were identical – one by the shooter, and the other by the one, who was shot.
“I felt great happiness when I found out that one of the soldiers I shot was alive,” says Fethi, his eyes lighting up. “It is not easy to go on living when you know you have taken someone’s life.”
“I never had any hard feelings for my shooter,” says Yiannis – a big man, with very kind eyes. “I shot at them, they shot at me. It was the rule of the war.”
Fethi and Yiannis met soon after finding out about each other.
“I am sorry I shot you,” were the first words that came out of Fethi’s mouth when they met. “You have nothing to be sorry about,” was Yiannis’ response.
Fethi Akinci was a 24-year-old platoon commander in Lefka on 20 July 1974, when Turkey sent troops to Cyprus in response to a Greek-inspired coup aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece.
He had been under arms since the inter-communal clashes of 1964 when he was only 14. He was commanded to protect Lefka from the Greek Cypriot attack at 04:30 in the morning of 21 July 1974.
Yiannis Marathefthis was a 21-year-old soldier serving his last day in the military.
He was planning to go back to his village Kalo Panayiotis near Lefka to celebrate the completion of his compulsory military service with his friends and family. He was ordered to attack and take Lefka at 04:30 on the morning of 21 July 1974.
Both were kids. Both had seen death. Both were scared…
“I took shelter on a hill,” says Fethi. “Among the dust and smoke, I saw two Greek Cypriot soldiers running towards me and I fired my machine gun.”
“There was gunfire, bullets, shooting, extreme difficulty,” says Yiannis. “As we were running towards one of the hills, they opened fire on us from a machine gun.”
“One of the soldiers fell, and the other threw himself on the ground,” says Fethi. “He had a steel helmet on, and the helmet shone under the rising sun. I aimed at the helmet and continued to fire.”
“At that moment the only thing I could think of was to protect my village and myself. I couldn’t think of anything else. They were running towards me with guns. If I had not shot them, they would have shot me.”
Yiannis said: “My friend was shot. I dodged, I heard a loud boom and I saw blood.”
The clashes continued until after noon that day. Fethi found Yiannis’ helmet with a single bullet hole in it after the shootings subsided.
“I never could have imagined he would survive,” said Fethi.
The bullet from Fethi’s gun had fragmented on hitting the steel helmet, which saved Yiannis’ life. Although the fragments had penetrated his skull, he managed to make it back to his camp, leaving his helmet behind.
“I am sure they had a party with my helmet, celebrating having killed me,” says Yiannis laughing.
He had to spend 40 days in hospital. The doctors could not remove the bullet fragments as they were too close to his brain.
“I still have 8 small pieces in my head,” he says, pointing at his head where the bullet fragments are, as if treasuring them.
The two men have become the best of friends since they first met each other in 2009. They visit each other very often together with their families.
“43 years ago, we were shooting at each other. Now we are gardash (brothers),” says Yiannis.
“When we meet, we spend the whole day together,” says Fethi. “And I start to miss him already the next day.”
He admits that coming to love a man he shot to kill years ago has changed him forever.
“I did change. I changed because I realised how blinded we were by hatred and enmity. I realised that we were all pawns, we were all used. I realised that tears and pain have no colours.
“I realised that mothers hurt the same whether Turk or Greek. I realised that we were all victims in Cyprus.”