While the names of Archbishop Makarios III and George Grivas loom large in the fight for Cypriot independence, within the Greek Cypriot community Grigoris Afxentiou is probably the man held in the greatest honour and affection. Even his notional enemies in the British Army held him in high regard – one British officer is reported as saying to Afxentiou’s father, “I want to congratulate you on having such a splendid son”. Grigoris Afxentiou is a clear-cut, old-fashioned, uncomplicated popular idol whose early death at the age of 29 in a heroic last stand against the occupying forces is the stuff of legend.
Afxentiou was born on February 22, 1928 in the village of Lysi (now in the north and called Akdogan) and became committed to Cypriot independence and eventual enosis from an early age. He joined the Greek army as a volunteer in 1949, and reached the rank of second lieutenant. When he heard that EOKA were recruiting, he joined up. His intelligence and potential were immediately recognized by Grivas, who took him under his wing and saw to his training in guerrilla warfare personally. Afxentiou was entrusted with blowing up the Cyprus Broadcasting station in Lefkosia during the night of simultaneous explosions that kicked off the fight against British rule on April 1, 1955. Having been recognized, he went on the run with a group of fighters in the Kyrenia mountains where he became Grivas’s second-in-command.
For the next two years Afxentiou moved around the Troodos Mountains, training guerrillas and attacking British positions and convoys. He became one of the British Army’s “most wanted”, with a price of £5000 on his head. He narrowly evaded capture at the Battle of Spilia, and again at Zoopigi a year later. His time ran out in March, 1957 when he was tracked down to the Machairas Monastery, where, with the help of the abbot, Irineos, he had been living disguised as a priest. Hiding below the monastery in an underground hideout, he ordered the four men who were with him to surrender, but decided to fight to the death himself. Unable to capture him without serious losses, the British soldiers finally poured petrol into the hideout, ignited it, and followed up with explosives. Afxetntiou had finally been killed.
His widespread popularity since his death can be explained by a number of factors. Compared to Grivas, he was a careful strategist, planning actions to minimize loss of life. He was even understanding towards informers, refusing to execute one man on the grounds that his wife had recently had a baby. His commitment to the cause of freedom and union with Greece was simple and straightforward, without the ferocious hatred of the left that consumed Grivas. And finally, by dying when he did, his reputation was never compromised by the sorts of fudges that post-independence politics invariably required.