Wednesday, 7 January 2015

OBITUARY: Halil Sezai Erkal (21/04/1934 – 23/12/2014)

L-R: Halil Hoca, Turkish PM lent Ecevit, Halil's wife Joan with their son Sinan (deceased) standing behind 

Born in Lefke to an affluent family, he was educated at Lefkoşa’s influential Turkish Lyceum. Nicknamed Halil Hoca by his community, he was also known for patriotic views. 

Like many Turkish Cypriots at the time, he sailed for the UK in 1953 in order to work and pursue a British education in engineering having briefly worked as an apprentice on exploration drilling rigs for the Cyprus Mines Corporation, an American owned company in Lefke. His first port of call in London was to meet up with friends who had left Cyprus earlier, at the Turkish Cypriot Cemiyet building in D’Arblay Street, Soho.

He met and married his wife, Joan, from Rotherham, Yorkshire, in August 1955 and settled into rented accommodation in Catford whilst he studied Mechanical Engineering at London South Bank University (LSBU) graduating in 1960. He was a member of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

By then, he had three boys and a girl and he moved his family to Larnaca, where he was the first Cypriot to be offered an engineering post at the British-built Dhekelia power station. This was gradually being handed over to the new Republic of Cyprus, which came into being on 16th August 1960.

Unfortunately, this situation was only to last for a couple of years, before trouble erupted between the two communities. In the aftermath of the December 1963 troubles, Turkish Cypriots were driven into enclaves, which meant that he could no longer freely travel through Greek Cypriot controlled areas such as Larnaca to reach his work.

Halil Hoca had hoped that the troubles would be short lived and wanted to go back to work. But this never happened, so he became Area Commander for TMT (Turkish Resistance Movement) and engineered the manufacture of the first home-made mortar launcher for the defence of the Turkish Cypriot enclave of Larnaca.

In 1967 he and his close friends, Dr. Orhan Müderrisoğlu and İbrahim Erol (together with officials in Nicosia – also trapped in Larnaca – spent most evenings fishing together under the cover of darkness. They devised a plan for the secret return of Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Raif Denktaş from exile in Ankara, intending to bring him back via Larnaca in a speed boat skippered by İbrahim. The plan failed.

When it became obvious by 1969 that the troubles would not end quickly, he accepted the post of maintenance engineer with CMC back in his home town. When off-duty he supported the command in Lefke, who were mainland Turks disguised as teachers.

In 1974, following the Greek-inspired coup d’ état aimed at toppling the president of the Republic of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios, Turkey intervened and Halil Hoca became responsible for guiding Turkish jets to their targets, operating from Lefke ground command. This prevented huge bloodshed among the civilian population, who were already enduring indiscriminate bombing at the hands of Greek Cypriot rebel troops.

Lefke was ultimately ordered to surrender by the Turkish Central Command due to advancing columns of large Greek Cypriot forces. Halil Hoca found himself arrested and taken to a remote area where he and a fellow compatriot were blindfolded for execution. He asked for his blindfold to be removed and as luck would have it, a Greek Cypriot officer who worked at the mines recognised him and released them.
By 1975, the mines had become obsolete and abandoned by the Americans, and in the aftermath of war there was no work in his profession. So he took a management position in an English company, George Stow and Company Ltd, and was seconded to Nigeria where he was the area manager for the company’s operations. In doing so, he took several teams of Turkish Cypriot operators from CMC who were also left without work.

He returned to London in 1982 to set up a real estate business, ‘Churchill’s of Southgate’ followed by a project close to his heart – building a boutique hotel for his community in the vicinity of Lefke. All the while he continued to be a big public supporter of Rauf Denktaş.

Halil Hoca’s bloodline extends back to Konya and Karaman from Turkey. His uncle, Hafız Şefik Efendi was both the Sheik of the Mevlevi Tekke (Dervish lodge) in Nicosia between 1933 and 1953, and the Imam of Aghia Sofia mosque where he acted as müezzin calling for prayers.

He leaves behind his wife Joan, three children and 11 grandchildren.      

Obituary by Altan Houssein. 

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