For the last few days, I have tried hard to avoid talking too much about the `Cypriot problem`. Today is my first day in Nicosia, the capital city of Cyprus. Proudly yet sadly, Nicosia calls itself the last remaining separated capital in Europe. The so-called Green Line, a buffer zone safeguarded by the United Nations, separates the Occupied Area in the North from its Greek Cypriot counterparts in the South. Today`s article aims to provide an insight into of Cyprus`s divided reality, seen from the Greek Cypriot side. The same story from the opposite perspective will follow tomorrow.
I never made it to Berlin before 1990, but imagine that it must have looked similar to Nicosia today. The old town of Nicosia is situated inside a huge star shaped fortress which has been divided in two following the Turkish invasion in 1974. The border line runs somewhere halfway the Old Town. It is marked with barbed wire fence, sand bags and military guards. Blocks of houses in the transition areas have been deserted and are now under UN control. Both sides of the border fly their `own` flags: Greek and Cypriot ones on the southern side, Turkish and Turkish Cypriot ones on the northern side.
..does not want to travel to the North if he needs to show his passport
Until a few years, it was almost impossible for Greek Cypriots to pass the border. Travel restrictions have only recently been loosened up. Still, people from the South are hesitant to visit the North. Dafnis (24) once had a brief glance at the other side of the border, but he will not go again because `I don`t want to have my passport stamped by an authority that I do not recognise. They do that, check your passport and stamp it, but that is ridiculous because I am only visiting my own country.`
Dafnis is not the only Greek Cypriot who refuses to have his passport checked and therefore prefers to stay on the southern side of the border. Eleni (29) is one out of many Cypriots who only visited the North once: to accompany relatives who wanted to go back to the place where they used to live before the invasion. From her words, I can easily understand that such trips are very emotional for those involved, especially when the premises are now owned by others. Eleni tells: `We were received by the family who now lived in the house, but after coffee and some talking, we had to leave again.`
Eleni describes traveling to the North as going 30 years back in time. `The inhabited areas have developed in the meantime, but the economic standard is a lot lower than in the South. Some villages have been abandoned, because the population now is only a small portion of what it used to be before the invasion. The North does have the most beautiful scenery and beaches, but I do not relate to the people. They have a different culture, different beliefs. The Turkish occupant does not have the mindset of a European country. They don`t believe in the EU culture so they should not be allowed into the EU. If they do get access, that would also imply a recognition of the occupied areas in Cyprus, which would make Turkey`s membership even more unacceptable.`
Marios (25) is helping me understand the Greek Cypriot version of the invasion history. He explains: `For centuries, Greece and Turkey have had major influence on Cypriot population, even during the time when Cyprus was a British colony. Following independence in 1960, an international treaty was signed to protect the civil rights of both communities, which at the time were living scattered over the island. By lack of a solid Cypriot army, the treaty decided that the security of the Greek Cypriots, by far the majority, fell under the supervision of the Greek army. The Turkish minority had its interest covered by Turkey.`
`The situation after 1960 never really became politically stable. The different communities managed to live together quite smoothly, but politicians kept arguing about how to manage the country. When the situation started to escalate, Turkey took the opportunity to invade the North of the island. Their goal seemed to take over Nicosia, but since inhabitants of other areas had fled to the South, they could easily take over more territory than they even expected to. The international community prevented Turkey from further advancing into Cyprus, but only after they took over more than a third of the country. In the meantime, the Turkish army had taken many hostages that were never found after the war.`
`Although the United Nations never recognised the occupation, the situation has barely changed since 1974. Peace plans have failed, and the communities have got used to living separately. My generation has never seen Nicosia without the wall, but none of us is very eager to see the other side. Only fanatic gamblers, because North Nicosia has a popular casino. It`s a popular saying that the casino`s profits generated by Greek Cypriots easily exceed the costs of the invasion in 1974.`
Marios explains that older generations are likely to be more attached to a reunification of the island: `Many Greek Cypriots fled their houses and possessions in 1974. After the invasion, many of these houses originally belonging to Greek Cypriots were allocated to Turkish Cypriots, or even immigrants from the Turkish mainland. Some areas were left deserted, with the now ghost town of Famagusta as the most striking example. If the island is unified, people will want to claim back their property, which makes it almost impossible to find a solution.`
`In the meantime, politicians have taken advantage of the situation. For 30 years, people get elected because they say they will come up with a solution to the problem. But none of them gets anything done. Our recent president appeared on TV with tears in his eyes, saying that we should vote against reunification of the island in a referendum back in 2004. But Cypriots are like lambs, they follow what their leaders say, because many don`t have an opinion of their own. If they do, the 25-month compulsory army service will drill it out of them. If there`s one place that sticks out in anti-Turkey propaganda, it`s the army and all boys pass there when they turn 18.`
`Everything has been put in place to maintain the current situation. I only really found that out when I started my studies in London. I became friends with Turkish people there, and soon realised that we have more in common that we have differences between us. Another example: local Cypriot people are trying to make us believe that Turkish Cypriots would want to convert the island to Islam, and that the Islam has the destruction of Christianity as its main purpose. No wonder people are reluctant to believe in a solution. Many people who do not have lost property in the North would be all too happy to keep the Turkish Cypriots where they are.`
Constantinos (24, photo) tells me that he could hardly tell the difference between a Turkish Cypriot and a Greek Cypriot. He has been to the North of Nicosia once. `No need to o there again. They even make you pay what they call `insurance`, but it`s just some kind of visa. By paying them, and signing their papers, I feel like recognising the occupation. Why should I do that?`
Like Marios, Constantinos blames politicians for failing to solve the problem. `We will probably soon have our first communist president. Just because people want change, they are fed up with the current government, who has been sitting around ever since we gained independence. How can we have so much tourism and so little money? Two million foreign visitors in 2001 and we don`t even have a proper transport system? Everybody wants to keep things the way they are. There`s plenty of EU support for Cyprus to upgrade its infrastructure, but our politicians prefer to solve problems in their own limited ways. They know nothing outside Cyprus and spend their days turning circles.`
Constantinos thinks that the chances of the new government finding a solution to the problem are very slim. `The UN have proposed peace plans in the past, but as time go by, each new version is less and less favourable for the Greek Cypriots. Which makes sense, why would Turkey hand over their conquered land? When in history did a country actually win a war and then have to give the conquered territory away? That only happens if you lose a war, like the Greek Cypriots obviously did.`
The situation as it is today may be far from ideal, but simply raising the barriers would not be much of a solution. Even if the Turkish army withdrew, the Cyprus dispute would by no means be solved. Even the Greek Cypriots among themselves have a hard time deciding their point of view. Older generations cherish nostalgic feelings about premises inhabited by others, and see reunification as a first step to reclaiming their property. Younger generations may be influenced by their parents to think in the same way. But they may think twice if opening up the borders means that tourism will move away from the South.
The unspoilt beaches and beautiful nature make a very nice magnet, and could potentially leave the South with empty hands. Next question, how much are Greek Cypriots willing to live in the same country as their Turkish enemies again, after having spent so much time on their separate economies on each side of the border?
Taking away the barriers would thus create many new problems and only solve one: the Cypriot anger about the Turkish presence on 37% of their territory. As an alternative, people fanatically reject the occupation, elect politicians who are unable or unwilling to solve the problem, and then blame the same politicians for messing things up. It keeps the tourism economy in the South going, it will disqualify Turkey as a future EU member and it gives Greek Cypriots on holiday something to talk about.
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