Friday, November 14, 2014

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Romana’s War

Steven Katsineris with a short story written in June 2005. Steven Katsineris is an Australian freelance writer of articles on Palestine, Cyprus and the rest of the Middle East region, political prisoners and human rights, environmental and social issues. He has been actively involved in the Palestine solidarity movement for over forty years. Steven Katsineris lives with his family in Melbourne, Australia.

Romana sat silently peering intently out the window, into the lane outside her house. It was well after dusk, yet in the darkness the bright beams of the full moon meant much of the village was bathed in radiant light. The serene beauty of the view was not lost on Romana as she performed her lookout duty, her eyes peeled for any movement in the streets. Even before Romana saw the unhurried figures moving in the shadows of the houses, she heard the faint sounds of their footsteps on the cobblestones. Her senses were alert as she waited to see who was approaching. Romana turned to inform her parents of the imminent arrival of more people.

Everyone else remained seated around the table, quietly sipping their coffee, except for her father, who stood up and walked towards the door and waited to greet the guests. As they stepped out of the dark, Romana could see the three men clearly now, they were George Phillou and his sons Nikos and Spiro. By the time they had reached the front door, Romana’s father had opened it and welcomed them. Romana took her eyes off the street for a moment to turn and smile at the men as they entered the room.

They smiled back in acknowledgment and waved, while Nikos cheekily winked at her. Everybody exchanged warm greetings to each other. Almost all the elders, religious and political leaders and spokesmen of the village were now present. Her mother served coffee and biscuits to the men, while in another house the leading village women met to discuss the same matters. Romana could remember many such village meetings, but tonight’s was more serious than any previous ones. She returned her gaze back to her guard duties in time to see two more guests coming towards the door and motioned to her father that they were here. Romana continued to scan the area, just in case more guests arrived or in case strangers were also around. Even in this usually tranquil village, the changing times of discord had brought some tension and suspicion. Romana was worried for her family and the other people of the village. She was also concerned that whatever decisions were made here things would soon get worse as the conflict escalated and people took sides.

For now though she felt honored to be able to sit and listen to the various arguments about what role the village would play in the coming struggle. Although Romana had these feelings of dread, it also felt exciting, like something of significance was taking place in her life and her country and she was a witness to its birth.

As Romana sat there, she turned every so often to catch a quick look at Nikos and Spiro and her mind also wandered into her more private thoughts. She had grown up alongside and played with these boys. They were now young men and still close friends with her, but she wished they would see that she too had grown up and would notice her in a different way, as the young woman she now was. And oh, if she could only decide which of the two she felt most affection for, her life would be a lot easier as well. This indecision had troubled her mind since she was thirteen and still at eighteen she was no closer to a resolution.

The meeting went on into the early morning and there was heated debate about what to do, most, including her father, George and Spiro favoured demonstrations and mass strikes. A few men, especially some of the younger ones, including Nikos and her older brother Panos wanted to begin an armed struggle against the British. Those who wanted to mobilize the people spoke passionately against such actions. The prospect of violent opposition bothered Romana and others greatly. There was vast disagreement as to the best way to resist the colonial government, but eventually it was agreed that different groups would employ different tactics in the fight for independence. Romana wanted to play an active part in the struggle, but her parents, especially her mother, said the women’s role was to support the men.

A few months later while Romana was studying at home, a neighbour ran into the yard asking to speak to her father. After Romana explained that her parents were still out working in the fields, the woman told her that her husband, a local policeman, had been told the British were on there way to search the village. Romana thanked her and ran off quickly to tell her father. By the time she told her parents, British helicopters were flying overhead and army trucks were coming down the hill into the village.

As they returned home clashes broke out in various parts of the village. Some people held sit-in protests, while others threw rocks and other objects at the British troops. Shots rang out. Everyone seemed to be resisting. Romana’s family joined the protests at hastily built barricades. Romana saw many arrests and beatings of villagers. Several were shot and some soldiers were also hurt. Then the villagers heard the sounds of a big battle in the center of the village, with a barrage of rifle fire and explosions. A friend came to tell the crowd of protesters that armed fighters had been trapped in the village hall compound. Everyone knew who these young men were and people abandoned the barricades to try to see and find out what was happening. Romana knew her brother and Nikos would be there. Distraught families rushed to the scene of the fighting. Distress and utter helplessness gripped the crowd witnessing this intense, but one-sided battle. Concentrated fire poured into the building from the British troops surrounding the area, sometimes easing for the British to demand surrender. The situation of the rebels looked hopeless.

At that moment Romana remembered something. In her tomboy days with the two boys, despite their parents forbidding them to, the children had explored the storm water pipes under the village. One of these tunnels led to the courtyard of the town hall building. She told her father about it. He said they must find Spiro and ask him to go to there rescue. Romana, her father and Mr. Phillou among others set off to find Spiro. They knew that despite disagreeing with his brother’s extremist methods, Spiro would go to their aid. They were still family and after all they were Cypriots who were fighting the British.

Romana was unable to find Spiro and was told by someone that he had been wounded and arrested. After hearing this Romana decided she could wait no longer and resolved to go to the rescue herself and guide the men to safety. She grabbed matches and candles at her home and raced to the river and entered the storm water tunnel. As Romana made her way along the tunnel she hoped Nikos had also remembered this way out and she would meet them in there, but she also had anxious thoughts that maybe he and her brother were already dead. Or perhaps they decided to stay and fight to the end.

Romana could now hear the battle above and knew she was close to the entrance. She reached the grate and with a sense of trepidation, pushed it aside. Romana found herself in a hellish world, a furious, blazing place of searing heat and hailing bullets. Due to the dense smoke she survived the dash from the drain to the wrecked and burning buildings. In the first building she discovered two dead bodies, but not Nikos or Panos. Crawling from room to room and building-to-building Romana met a young fighter, Theo, a distant cousin and he told her where to find her brother and Nikos. To her relief, she found them together. Nikos was wounded and barely conscious, with Panos and another fighter alongside him firing at the enemy. A momentary tearful reunion gave way to urgent discussion of escape.

Romana and Panos together carried Nikos on a stretcher to the open drain. When Nikos was inside she jumped in, then Panos told her to go. Romana said, “I’ll wait here for you and the others.” Panos looked at his sister and smiled, “please don’t wait for us, just look after Nikos and give my love to everyone.” She knew by the resolute look on his face he had decided to stay and defend this place. Romana pulled part of him into the drain, held and hugged him with all her strength and then let him go. She said goodbye knowing she would not see him alive again. Her heart ached and for the first time in her life she felt hatred.

Romana put Nikos on the stretcher and dragged him through the drain. Almost at the entrance Romana saw a shape coming towards her, putting the stretcher down she picked up the rifle and aimed at the advancing form. Romana hesitated for a moment; she was nervous, but not frightened. Then a voice said, “Who is it?” She realized it was Spiro. “Oh, thank god it’s you; help me with your brother.” Together they hugged.

“How badly injured is he?” said Spiro.

“Well, he has a slight head wound, but his legs are pretty bad and it will be a while before he walks again. Panos did a good job stopping the bleeding and bandaging him; his first aid training came in handy. And you, you’re alright, I’ve been so worried about you. And Spiro, look at your head.”

“I’m okay really; I was hit a few times, a bit of blood that’s all Romana.”

“I was told you had been hurt and arrested.” 

“The British put us in a police van and told the police to take us to the station. But the police weren’t at all happy about what was happening. As soon as the soldiers were out of sight, they stopped and let us out and told us to go home. They would tell the British we had escaped. I remembered this tunnel and came straight here.”

“Oh Spiro, my brother, my dear brother, is still inside the town hall. I couldn’t get him to come with me. What are we going to do, now?”

“Lets get Nikos to the cave in the river bank first, then we can work out what to do next, ay. He’s lucky he’s got a friend like you and medical student at that to tend him.”

They hugged and cried and then together they carried Nikos to the safety of the cave.

There the two friends attended to Nikos and talked, Romana in her anger said she would now also take up the gun and avenge her brother’s death. Spiro told her if that were her decision, he wouldn’t stand in her way. That he would support her, but he thought they were counter productive tactics that played into the hands of the British occupation. She listened to his words with admiration and respect, for a young man of his age he was very wise.

Over the next few weeks Romana, Spiro and others took it in turns to look after Nikos. When he was well enough, Nikos was smuggled into the mountains where he stayed till the end of the war.

The village lost four young men killed and many others hurt that day. A sort of calm returned to the village, though things would never be the same, as all of the people, despite their differences were united against colonial occupation. The military’s repression in Kypetria and elsewhere on the island had sealed the fate of the colonial government and independence was achieved. Still powerful enemies remained to sow discord and peace and unity were to elude the island’s people.

Romana and Spiro both played an active part in the resistance. Romana decided not to pursue armed struggle, but she risked her life many times in the war and became a heroine to the nation for her deeds. She later became a doctor and also helped found the Women’s Union. Her mother even forgave Romana for engaging in what she had considered male political affairs. During the course of the struggle Romana’s and Spiro’s love grew for each other and they were married at the end of the war.

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