Thursday, September 12, 2013

An Island Divided (2001)

I visited Cyprus, a popular destination for British holidaymakers, in 2001 and wrote this piece for my website.
Looking across no-man's land from the Lidras Street observation post

Cyprus - An Island Divided
The majority of tourists visiting Cyprus are blissfully unaware of the pain and division that has haunted the island since 1974. To most, the image and experience of Cyprus is one of sun and sand, the snow-capped Troodos Mountains and exquisite frescoes housed in Byzantine monasteries. For the island's inhabitants its a different story altogether. After gaining independence in 1960, peace between the Greek and Turkish communities was already fragile with the Turkish minority, representing 20% of the population, retreating into ghettos and enclaves after sporadic violence and harassment. In their defence, the Turkish army launched an invasion of northern Cyprus in July 1974 and occupied the northern third of the island, leaving thousands dead or wounded and huge numbers of refugees fleeing to their respective sides of the divide. That division of Cyprus has remained to this day. Whilst the south has enjoyed international recognition and a booming economy boosted by tourism, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has found life a lot tougher and depends on its sponsor Turkey for its economic survival. Separating the two factions and running almost the length of the country and dividing the island's capital into two is the Green Line, also known at the Attila Line - a buffer zone maintained and patrolled by the blue-bereted peacekeepers of the United Nations. Talks of a reconciliation between the two sides have stuttered and stalled on many occasions and feelings still run high, fuelled by recent incidents like the deaths of the three Deryneia Martyrs in 1996.

This was the background to my visit to the island's capital city Nicosia, or Lefkosia as it's called today. The holiday rep at my hotel in Pafos had whetted my appetite when he told me that crossing the Green Line wasn't a good idea as I might not be allowed back. That statement immediately sparked my thirst for adventure and I set off early one morning with my wife in our hire car to cover the 150 kilometres to see for ourselves. Our first stop in the capital was the 11th floor of the Woolworths department store on Lidras Street, where telescopes gave us a bird's eye view across into the northern half of the city. At the end of the street, an observation platform allowed us to peer into the buffer zone to see a street with rubble-strewn buildings and rolls of barbed wire, left as it was in July 1974. On foot, we followed the Green Line westwards, punctuated by a series of UN bunkers, roadblocks, a wall of sandbags and oildrums and signs forbidding photographs and stopped at the Holy Cross RC church, isolated inside the buffer zone and guarded by a solitary UN soldier. Nearby is the only spot on the island where you can legally cross into the north on a day excursion, at the site of the old Ledra Palace hotel. As we approached, my wife's nerves became a little more frayed when we encountered up to fifty wailing Cypriot women, dressed in black mourning clothes and holding pictures of loved ones still missing since the 1970s.The stern-faced Greek Cypriot border guards made little effort to disquise their disgust at our desire to cross as they slowly copied details of our passports onto a list and pointed at a sign that instructed our return by 5.30pm. It was a few minutes past eleven o'clock. Leaving the checkpoint, we walked quietly along a connecting road, the ruined Ledra Palace hotel on our left, now used as a billet by the UN (who have 1,500 personnel on peace-keeping duty on the island), and desolate waste ground to our right. Two female UN soldiers nodded their hello as we completed the 300 metre walk and checked into the Turkish police control building. A few minutes later and the form-filling formalities completed, we were in northern Cypriot territory and we began breathing normally again. No real hassle at all but a mixed feeling of excitement and unease nonetheless, heightened by the soulful wailing of the widowed Cypriot women we'd left at the border post as we crossed no-mans land.

For the next four hours we walked around the old city, along narrow passageways and empty streets, enjoying the friendliness of the people, soaking up the atmosphere and visiting a few notable attractions including the soaring minarets of north Nicosia's most prominent landmark, the Cami Selimiye Mosque. Its a working church with a strong French Gothic style but it was empty as I stepped inside and removed my shoes for my first look inside a mosque. Next door is the sixth century Byzantine church ruin known as the Bedesten and nearby is another ornate Gothic church, the Cami Haydarpasa. Undergoing restoration work is the Buyuk Han, a rare example of a Middle Age inn, known as a caravanserai. Although closed, the foreman invited us in to look around before we finished off our tour with a ten minute walk to the Turkish (Mevlevi Tekke) Museum, the former home of the mystical Islamic sect known as the Whirling Dervishes. They are famed for their spinning, trance-like dance which flourished for 700 years until they were banned in 1930. Returning to the old city, we stopped at a sidewalk cafe in the pedestrian zone and listened to a rock band playing an open-air concert. One unusual aspect which gave us a few jitters north of the divide was the distinct lack of female shoppers. Instead, large groups of young Turkish men were much in evidence, either standing on street corners or wandering aimlessly and appeared to be army conscripts in civilian clothes. With an hour to go before the border closed, we made our way back towards the crossing point via the quiet back streets where buildings have been left unoccupied, others are bullet-scarred and in ruins including a church and the Roccas Bastion, where Turkish Cypriots can look through a barbwire-topped fence into the southern half of the city and what for them is forbidden territory. The smiling faces of the Turkish police were in stark contrast to the dour look on the faces of the Greek border guards as we returned to the southern half of Nicosia via the long and eerie walk past a lone UN soldier on sentinel duty midway between the two factions. The wailing widows were still massed just past the guardroom and we were handed a flyer asking if we knew of the whereabouts of Pavlos Solomi and Solon Pavlos Solomi, missing since the morning of 15 August 1974 and the beloved husband and 17 year old son of the old woman who'd handed us the poster. Her name was Panayiota Pavlos and she told us that 1,588 people are still missing from that time, their fate unknown and the encounter was a poignant reminder of the human face of the division that still separates Cyprus today.



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