Excerpts from UNFICYP Commander's interview
with Cyprus News Agency
May 6, 1997
It is strangely paradoxical for a soldier's soldier to reject military force as a solution to conflict. But if such a paradox can ever exist, then Major-General Evergisto Arturo De Vergara is surely its most fervent proponent. An ardent student of history who carries Roman Catholic prayer beads in his pocket, the new commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) is certain the Turkish occupation of 37 per cent of Cyprus' territory "will lead nowhere."
"Any solution coming from a military point of view won't last. Look back at history. No military solution lasted long," the general says fervently.
De Vergara, who hails from Argentina, was appointed to the post as UNFICYP Commander on February 28, 1997, succeeding Finnish Brigader-General Ahti Toimi Paavali Vartianen. An animated man who punctuates the conversation with forceful hand gestures, De Vergara says the UNFICYP's aim in Cyprus is neither to impose or force peace, but to provide opportunities for politicians to achieve it.
"We are here to provide the platform for the politicians to negotiate," De Vergara says, but admits the force of 1,200 troops guarding the peace on the island is stretched to its limits.
"I agree, our force is small now, were stretching our resources to the maximum, but it doesn't make any difference if I have some 1,000, 2,000 or 5,000 more. Our aim is to provide opportunity. (More troops) would make our life a little bit more comfortable, but if we have to stretch to the maximum, we'll do that," the general says.
The UNFICYP Commander notes the UN security Council mandate under which the peacekeeping force is operating, "does not impose any limitations" on its performance. De Vergara is adamant however, not even "maximum power" could have prevented the incidents last summer, in which two Greek Cypriot civilians were brutally murdered in the buffer zone by Turkish extremists and Turkish occupation forces.
"Shall we build a wall all across Cyprus? No. Shall I shoot demonstrators? No. So in what way would it help to have, instead of 1,200 peacekeepers, 50,000 of them," the general asks.
De Vergara concurs that the complete demilitarization of Cyprus, proposed by the Cypriot Government as a means of solving the long-standing dispute, would be useful in peace efforts.
"I think if both sides can agree to full demilitarization, that will also help to reach a peaceful settlement," the general says, but stresses however, that he terms "the Cypriot interest," to be the key which will force open the deadlock gripping efforts towards a solution.
"The most important thing to be taken into account is the Cypriot interest. What is the Cypriot interest? We (should) take into account not someone else's interest. Here they talk about such-and-such interest. All over the world, everyone has interests here. I want to listen to the Cypriot interest," he says.
De Vergara also expressed concern over the current military buildup on the island, saying the continual stockpiling of modern weapons could have unforeseen consequences. "When you start an arms race, you don't know when you're going to finish it. Some politicians call it balance of power. Others call it balance of terror. What would you like to choose," he asks.
Referring to the 1989 Unmanning Proposal calling for steps to be taken by Turkish occupation forces and the Cypriot National Guards a means to reduce tensions along the cease-fire line, De Vergara says several practical measures can be taken to alleviate tensions."As far as we can take both sides from within eyeball range, it would be good because if you're very close that means we don't trust each other. And if there's no trust, it means the danger of conflict," the general says.
He adds that talks currently underway between Turkish occupation forces and the Cypriot National Guard aiming at reducing tensions between soldiers facing each other only meters away in some instances are not moving as fast as the UN would like them to. "Those talks are going on at a slow pace. We would like to have those talks go much faster," De Vergara says.
De Vergara says UNFICYP's political chain of command, under which he reports to UN Head of Mission to Cyprus, Gustave Feissel, is not the military type which he is used to, but notes it poses no problems in carrying out his mission in Cyprus.
"The system is not so easy as in the national system, but it does not impede us to perform our duties," he says.
The UNFICYP Commander now sees a real opportunity for the Cyprus problem to be solved, but it is an opportunity that the Cypriots themselves must seize and take full advantage of. De Vergara repeats emphatically that people "should not be tied down to the past," but rather look forward at the possibilities peace can bring to the island.
"Here, you cannot find that hate you can find somewhere else in the world... If you don't take advantage of that, what are we expecting? Are we just waiting to have hate to achieve a solution?" he asks rhetorically.
A self-professed religious man, De Vergara's family roots extend to the northern Spanish village of Vergara. A paratrooper by training, he comes from along line of career soldiers, stretching back to the early 17th century; "the military was a real calling. You can hardly find a rationale for that... Heritage was one reason why I chose a military career. Another is a deep concern for the human being," De Vergara says.
Perhaps it is this strong sense of military tradition etched in his character that he has no qualms commanding British troops in Cyprus, given the war between Argentina and Britain waged over the Falklands-Maldives in the south Atlantic 15 years ago.
"You must know how a soldier's life is. There's a kind of brotherhood of soldiers all over the world. Sometimes we fight because politicians tell us to fight, but we don't fight with hatred," De Vergara says.
The UNFICYP commander has twice served with the UN prior to his assignment in Cyprus, as a staff officer and military observer with UNTSO in the Middle East between 1983 and 1985 and with UNPROFOR as the Deputy Commander of Sector West in Croatia between 1993 and 1995.
He celebrated his 51st birthday on May 1st.
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