How Tony Rafty risked his life to cover the Cyprus conflict

The remarkable tale of the Greek Australian artist who risked his life to tell the story of the hundreds of thousands of Cypriots displaced after the 1974 Turkish invasion

Listen, if they wake up that you’re Greek we might start another war,” the late Australian journalist James Cunningham told Tony Rafty, as they attempted to cross into the Turkish occupied area of Nicosia. Sometime after the 1974 Turkish invasion, Rafty and Cunningham were in Cyprus covering the conflict for the Sydney Morning Herald, when they were confronted by a Turkish commanding officer.

“James, you can only die once,” Rafty told the experienced war correspondent, who ended up writing close to 40 stories about the Cyprus conflict.

“Don’t miss a story, you’re a good pressman. I’m going in, are you coming?” to which Cunningham replied, “Wherever you go, I’ll come.”

It’s been 44 years since Turkey invaded Northern Cyprus on 20 July 1974 leading to almost 200,000 Greek Cypriots being displaced from their homeland.
Since that day, the small Mediterranean island has been split by an imaginary green line. To the north lies the almost 40 per cent occupied Turkish territories, and to the south is where the Greek Cypriots reside.

It’s a divide that still exists today, although in recent times, the borders have been opened to allow Greeks to cross over into the occupied territories.

But crossing the border around the time of invasion was a perilous act – especially if you were Greek. During World War II, Rafty served in the Australian Army – initially as an infantryman and then as a war artist. After the war ended, he became a war correspondent for Sydney tabloid The Sun, covering the Indonesian War of Independence, so there was no chance he would be deterred from covering the Cyprus conflict.

“We made it to a Turkish officer who apparently was the commander of the garrison there,” Rafty recalled.

“He was over six foot, a youngish man about 25. In the cross-examination of who we were, what we were, he then turned to me and said, ‘Are you a Greek?’ and I said ‘yes’, and I pushed my press pass right into his hand and said, ‘We are members of the Australian Journalists’ Association, we are pressmen. Do you want to stop us seeing your side of the story?’
“Well, he looked at me and James looked at me and said, ‘This is the end, we’ll never get back to the Greek lines.’ But, then he stamped some papers and told us to come back the next day at 11 o’clock and told us he would have a guide to take us to a seaport in the north and away we went.”

This fascinating and extraordinary encounter of Rafty in Cyprus comes via transcripts of interviews that were conducted in 1987 and 1995 that Neos Kosmos obtained from the National Library of Australia.

Rafty (born Anthony Raftopoulos) was the son of Greek migrants who came to Australia at the turn of the 20th century. He passed away just three days short of his 100th birthday on 9 October 2015, but during his life, was a world-renowned sketch artist who was famous for caricatures of The Beatles, Mahatma Gandhi, and Winston Churchill.

Continuing on with his mission in Cyprus, Rafty saw the effects the invasion had on the towns and villages where Greek Cypriots had lived peacefully alongside their Turkish neighbours for hundreds of years.

“We had this Turkish guide with us who could speak excellent English and excellent Greek. But he didn’t say much,” Rafty recalls in the interviews.

“We told him we’d like to see some of the hotels that had been occupied by Greeks and British tourists. We did go through and they all smelt, their windows were closed, they were dirty, they had been neglected. We eventually got to this little seaport and we noticed the bay there, there were all these wonderful little seacrafts, dirty, going rusty – unless you paint them and look after them – but they’d been neglected.”

After being driven around, Rafty hatched a plan to glean more information from the driver and that included going to a local tavern where half a dozen young Turks were drinking.

“We sat down to have a drink and I shouted him some liquor,” Rafty recalled.

“I always said that if you drink too much you’ll talk – but James said, ‘Don’t drink too much.’ I said, ‘Don’t let him see you, if you pour it down the side.’ So, I kept these drinks up, and it served its purpose because it loosened the tongue of our guide and he became very friendly.
“Jim was able to get a nice little story from our guide. I did a couple of sketches but you couldn’t stop and do many sketches there because it was a movement straight through. They wouldn’t allow us to take photographs. So, I had to be very discreet and I only took a couple of small notes of the area.”

As well as his experience in Northern Cyprus, Rafty also spent time in the south of the island where he was able to sketch the scenes of Greek Cypriots who had been affected by the occupation.

“Each morning we would have a car and a guide who would take us throughout the Greek Cypriot-controlled area of Cyprus where James did many interviews with the people who had been displaced,” he said.

“I did a series of drawings, not caricatures, pen drawings of personalities, which I titled, ‘Cyprus Under Canvas’, people who had got away from the Turks, had no homes and they were in these villages of tents.
“These drawings eventually came back to Australia and I had an exhibition at the Greek Tourist Office at 56 Pitt Street (Sydney) and I presented all these drawings to the Cypriot government.”

Jim Davids has been involved in the Justice for Cyprus Committee since it was formed in the mid 70s and has appeared at the United Nations. He was a close friend of Rafty’s and Cunningham’s and helped organise their trip to Cyprus. He says what they reported on was of great importance at the time.

“What they both did with their stories, drawings and cartoons was expose the Turkish aggression and expansionism,” he told Neos Kosmos.

“One picture can tell 1,000 words. Tony’s work highlighted that people were living in tents everywhere. That is the picture that we wanted the whole world to see – that the Turks expelled 200,000 people from their ancestral homes.”

One of Rafty’s drawings included a picture of Cyprus’ president, Archbishop Makarios III. But while he was sketching the Cypriot head of state, the archbishop wasn’t aware of the Australian artist’s Greek background.

“James started the conversation with the president and while they’re talking I did these caricatures and drawings,” he recalled.

“I then spoke to him in Greek, as best I could, he was taken aback and he said, ‘How do you speak Greek?’, and I told him the story of my father. He was very taken up with it. To think that I, Tony Rafty, was a Greek and proud of the fact that I was a Greek, but also an Australian.
“He told me that he was intending to come to Australia but that visit was cancelled. Then he was coming again on a second visit. But, unfortunately, he died and never made that trip.
“The great man was hounded and chased through Cyprus, through the uprisings prior to the invasions of the Turks. So, this man I felt fortunate enough to meet.”

Rafty’s drawing of President Makarios bears the archbishop’s signature


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