A captain for life
The life story of a Turkish Cypriot woman doctor and sports champion, presented as a serial in four parts
Part II: (1960-1967)
we learn about her first years as a doctor in Cyprus and her involvement in the 1963 fights when chaos reigned…
She did not know what lay ahead of her. “I started working at Nicosia General Hospital, the old one in the Greek sector, as a pre-registration doctor after a short stay with my family re-united in Limassol, my brothers had also returned from Istanbul and Ankara respectively.
My father was not feeling well, he had retired in 1955 as chief inspector when he was asked to work under his former sergeant – we come to that later in the text - but had taken up work again at the British Base. In 1961 he died.” He was a much respected and disciplined man and was loved by his family. He must have passed on his understanding of discipline and responsibility to his children.
Dr. Ayten Salih now being a registered doctor came back to Limassol in 1962 to work at the Limassol Turkish hospital. “Beyond my clinical duties I had to examine and treat patients, do duty at the emergency clinic once a week and as assistant anaesthetist in the theatre. I regularly visited and controlled the Turkish health centres in the villages and on such occasions made health checks and routine vaccination to school children in regular intervals.
I also had to visit and check the incoming ships in Limassol harbour once a week as a sort of a harbour doctor. When she was asked by the other rather stout doctor whether she would be able to climb the rope ladders to the deck of the tankers, she said “I promise you, better than you would!”
Her professional life would have gone on like that, had she not been in great demand by the surgeons to do anaesthetics, the other specialist was sent to Denmark for training, so her obviously excellent knowledge was needed. “I cannot do it, I am not a specialist.” The Health Minister Mr. Niazi Manyera came to the hospital and tried to persuade her but she insisted: “ …only when I can do my speciality training in anaesthetics!” This was one of the important crossroads for Dr. Ayten and thus she went back again to Nicosia to start her specialty training as assistant anesthetist. That was in1963, a crucial year in the story of Cyprus, one of many.
“When I came to Nicosia, I met Dr. N. Ünel, who besides having one of the three private clinics, was responsible for the republic’s health affairs,” Dr. Ayten explains, “a very important man too, he had organized many useful things such as the law that the hospital staff consisted of 30% Turkish Cypriots. He also convinced me that it would be better for me to start my training in Nicosia and do her diploma abroad only later.”
So I returned back to the hospital where she had worked as a pre-registration doctor. The doctor in charge was Dr. Fessas, the father-in-law of Nicos Sampson, the head surgeon was Dr. Marangos who eventually saved her life in the turmoil to come. The health minister was a Turkish Cypriot. Dr. Ayten moved into a small flat inside the building and began a new part of her working life as assistant anesthetist, the final degree she would later finalize in England. That was the plan.
Sunday, December 21 dawned. Inside the hospital theatre operations were going on.
“Gunshots were heard. Eoka gunmen were attacking the Turkish Cypriot community and occupying public buildings searching for them. They entered the hospital and flooded into the theatre room while an operation was going on with Dr. Marangos , myself and others present. Dr. Marangos ordered them out for reasons of sterility and refused to let me go. ‘We are trying to save one of your men’. There was a Greek wounded man on the operating table, so they left.”
I can see that Dr. Ayten is reliving this moment, her eyes are not with me. “Turkish Cypriots could not reach the hospital, the way to it was blocked off. The wounded were treated in clinics in the Turkish Cypriot sector. I knew that they urgently needed blood from the blood bank which was at the General Hospital only. It had been given order that the blood was only available for Greek patients. Chaos reigned.”
“I tried to get permission to obtain some blood for the Turkish Cypriot clinics, 5 bottles were granted. Four Turkish policemen came to the hospital with a permission signed by Markarios after Dr. Kücük had spoken to him of the urgent need.
“On Monday morning, two young Turkish Cypriots came to the theatre to seek help from us, one male nurse going off duty and one patient dismissed from hospital, they were scared to death and did not know what to do and where to turn to. I eventually took them to my flat to hide them from the searching gunmen. They were later transferred to Türkan Aziz’s, the matron’s apartment for better protection outside the hospital building. This measure did not help them either, the matron found them later sitting in her living room, dead, shot, machine-gunned, sitting there.”
There were other brutal attacks and killings aimed at Turkish Cypriots taken from the hospital and taken right to their death.
Dr. Ayten would not leave without the staff and stayed on with them, they were finally locked into two rooms in the nurses’ quarter, 22 persons: 13 sisters and trainees, the cook and his grandson, midwife, matron, one messenger and Dr. Ayten. Sleepless three nights. They all didn’t know what would happen. They could not change clothes, nor had they any regular food.
Finally, they were freed by the intervention of Archbishop Markarios himself who had come with 30 policemen to save the Turkish Cypriot medical staff from further attacks.
“We were shaken, especially the matron who we had to give medication after the terrible experience in her living room. She turned the whole responsibility for the staff over to me as the spokesperson. The photo of us being freed from the nurses’ home with Markarios helping us was in all media. I was not trusting this man first; where was he wanting to take us so I demanded that the British High Commissioner would be informed; ‘It is Christmas eve, the 24th of December, he said to me, you will not find anyone. I am not only the President, you know, I am also a religious man. In the end both of them reassured me and we left the hospital to go with Markarios to his palace.”
In the palace they were given a conference room to stay overnight. How could you trust such a man who had caused so much trouble for your people, I ask her. “I have often been asked this question, the fact is that he has saved our lives, that is the simple truth and for that I am grateful.”
In many books I had read about these days following Markarios’ political step of restricting the rights of his Turkish Cypriot partners in the government by publishing 13 amendments to the constitutional law. However, I have never spoken to a direct eyewitness before and Dr. Ayten’s description of the events in those days were touching me deeply.
“On December 25, 1963, we crossed over to the Turkish sector in a bus from the British High Commioner’s office. Local and foreign media were surrounding us. Our authorities approached me to come to a house in the Turkish sector. I followed them. It was the house of the Turkish Cypriot military doctor. A horrific sight. The doctor’s wife and their three children shot dead in the bath tub. It shook me terribly and I cried. For the first time after several sleepless nights, always in danger of losing our lives, I had a breakdown.”
I had listened to a man I was interviewing who was involved in the events of these days from a different point of view: the Turkish Cypriot resistance group was trying to fabricate a transceiver to be able to reach the people, and December 25 was the day BRT voice was sent out for the first time.
“I returned back to duty at the Turkish Adiloğlu Clinic still in the clothes I had on since December 21. Nothing could be bought, all shops were closed. It was here and in the other three private clinics that the Turkish Cypriot were being treated since the beginning of the killings. Tradesmen and pharmacies of our community had selflessly been delivering the most necessary. I slept on an emergency bed until I could stay with some friends. Within three months the old burnt out cigarette factory near the Saray Hotel was turned into a hospital, everything makeshift, what could one do; there were no building materials, nothing. No medicine, no vaccine which we desperately needed, especially for the refugees from Kücük Kaymakli who were living in tents in Hamitköy.”
In wartimes we find people who courageously excel themselves and regard the service on the helpless as their first duty, confronted with the brutal negligence of basic needs.
“There was a Canadian doctor, Dr. Leclair, who realized our problems when he came to this refugee camp in Hamitköy where he saw small children freezing and suffering; he also knew of our lack of the most necessary to treat them and that no human assistance would be coming from the Greek side, so he ordered medical requirements from Canada, had them flown in by military planes and brought them personally to the hospital by car.”
The months went by without any sign of appeasement. “On April 24, 1964 the Greeks had attacked Turkish Cypriot positions in the St. Hilarion area and left behind them many dead and wounded men. Dr. Ayten Salih volunteered to go to Boğaz where Dr. Nalbutoğlu had set up a hospital in a coffee shop, a building you can still find on the old Boğaz road near the petrol station, on the road that leads to Dikmen.” I passed there the other day when I was on my way to the Near East University and it made me shiver that right here and above me in the mountains fights were going on and Dr. Ayten had to go there in her duty as a doctor.
“For three years until 1967, the period I stayed at this first aid hospital, I went to visit the Turkish Cypriot positions, taught them first aid, gave them the drugs they needed, brought the dead bodies back and took the wounded down to the hospital for treatment and if surgery was required further on to the General Hospital in the old city. Often I walked all the way but would take a jeep, even a butcher car as an ambulance car, if one was available. When Greek had taken over some Turkish Cypriot positions, they would often refuse to hand out the dead and wounded, although I was accompanied by UN soldiers, Canadian soldiers.”
How did she live in the isolated place, I asked her, and was she not afraid?
“Before I left for Boğaz I had been able to procure some warm trousers for the still cold weather in April and later I was given a pair of pyjamas by Güner Nejat, so soft, so nice, and a pair of proper shoes, as I came with my operating shoes on, the only ones left. Afraid? Yes, sometimes, but when you are responsible for people you put your fears aside and do what you have to do, you simply react in a situation of emergency.” I studied Dr. Ayten’s face and imagined her joy to receive a pair of ordinary pyjamas and I told her so. “I do remember the softness and the luxury of it. I even started knitting to have something new for a change. Every four months I had the duty to visit our health centres in other districts and villages and stay there for one month for medical checks and treatment of the population of places such as Geçitkale, Akınçilar, Paphos, Lefke and Erenköy, on a rotating basis”.
Was there any free time left for her and what did she do with it, I asked.
“You won’t believe it, but sometimes I played volleyball with the Turkish Cypriot fighters’ team in Boğaz, as I had done before down in Nicosia with the hospital team. Sports and physical training held a most important part in my life and often enough it kept my sanity intact, balanced me out in those times of horror. It was also necessary to keep up the morals of the fighters and the people in general so I joined Kemran Aziz’s Chorus and we gave concerts. It made such a difference in the hardship of those years. Another rather private hobby of mine was reading. Twice between 1960 and 1975 I have lost all my books, books I have bought from the little money I had, books I loved. Later I never had the courage again to build up another collection as I feared I would loose them again. But I still read a lot, either for gaining information or just getting lost in another world of fiction.”
In 1967 the situation in Cyprus had calmed down to a certain degree of normality and Dr. Ayten Salih continued where she had started in 1963, that is to finalize her specialty training in anesthetics.
End of Part II
In Part III we will learn that Dr. Ayten Salih becomes doctor in charge of the Limassol Turkish Cypriot hospital and how she gets her people through the gruesome troubles of 1974