Nicosia, Cyprus – the Last Divided Capital City in Europe
I’d come to Cyprus to wind down from my summer of travel. I was looking forward to a week of evening walks along the seaside promenade in Larnaca and days of lying on the beach under the warm Mediterranean sun. But I was soon diverted by the fascinating history and culture of the island, which today is partitioned between the Greek Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The city of Nicosia, Cyprus, roughly at the island’s heart, is split between the two, earning it the dubious distinction of being the only remaining divided capital in Europe.
Precariously perched between Asia, Europe, North Africa, Cyprus has been affected by all three continents during its long existence. The first people to inhabit the island came from the eastern Mediterranean during the Stone Age. The Greeks arrived 3,000 years ago and built Kyria, Larnaca, and Salamis. Down though the centuries, Venetians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottoman Turks invaded. In 1878 the Turks gave the island to Britain in return for their promise to support the Ottoman Empire against Russian aggression.
By 1931, Greek Cypriots, who comprised the majority of residents on the island, began promoting the idea of reunification with Greece. In a 1950 referendum, 97% of them voted for reunification, but Britain refused to accept the results. Instead, in an attempt to move the country toward independence, Britain drew up a constitution that proposed power sharing between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Both sides approved the constitution in theory but in practice it never worked. Britain finally gave up, granting Cyprus its independence in 1960.
When Greece began pushing the idea of reunification on the international scene, Turkish Cypriots grew more alarmed and called for partition of the island. Years of demonstrations, riots, and even bombings ensued, culminating with the ouster of all Turks from government positions in 1963. Fearful of the potential for ethnic cleansing of the Turkish population, UN peacekeepers were deployed the following year. Tensions that had been simmering for years finally reached a crisis point in 1974 when the Cypriot National Guard, with the support of far-right military juntas that ruled Greece in those years, mounted a successful coup d’etat. In response, troops from Turkey invaded and took control of 38% of the island. 200,000 Greek Cypriots subsequently fled Turkish-occupied areas in the north, while 60,000 Turkish Cypriots were relocated from the south to the north. Since then, United Nations Peacekeeping Forces have maintained a buffer zone between the two sides.
In 1983, the areas controlled by Turkish Cypriots declared itself as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. To date, no nation other than Turkey has officially recognized North Cyprus as a country. The United Nations lists it as a “territory of the Republic of Cyprus under Turkish occupation.” The European Union accepted Cyprus as a member state in 2004, but suspended the benefits of membership for North Cyprus. The decision to accept Cyprus into the EU, in part, was due to Greece’s threat to block future EU expansion in Eastern Europe unless Cyprus was allowed to join. But the EU also hoped that bringing Cyprus into the fold would act as a catalyst towards a settlement. While there was a brief moment in 2004 when it looked like power sharing might be possible, the Turkish Cypriot electorate became frustrated by the EU embargo and subsequently voted for independence.
The more I learned, the more fascinated I became. After a couple of days of R&R, I hopped in a taxi for the 20-minue ride to Nicosia. The driver dropped me off at the foot of Ledras Street, the north-south pedestrian thoroughfare inside the old walled city. “Just go straight and you will come to the border checkpoint,” he assured me. I strolled beneath an attractive white and yellow canopy that provided welcome shade, window shopping and fending off hawkers trying to entice people into their restaurants. Half a mile later, a row of stanchions and chain funneled me toward a checkpoint booth. The guard briefly examined my American passport and waved me through without stamping me out of the Republic of Cyprus. A few feet later I handed my passport to the a border official at the entry point for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. He flipped through it distractedly, handed it back, and waved me through, again without stamping it.
Just a few years earlier, that would have been impossible. For nearly 30 years, no one was allowed to cross the Green Line from either direction. The only way to visit North Cyprus was via ferry or flight from Turkey. Then in 2003, the Turkish Cypriot administration began allowing Greek Cypriots to walk over the border in old Nicosia. Since then, freedom of movement between the north and south has eased considerably, with seven locations allowing crossing by foot and/or car. While more relaxed border crossings might suggest an improving situation, every conversation I had about the political situation in Cyprus was dominated by tension, animosity, and mistrust.
I asked the taxi driver who took me to Nicosia if he’d been there during the 1974 Turkish invasion. “Yes,” he said in a gravelly voice. “I was a prisoner of war.” “You were in the military?” I asked. His cheeks clenched and he refused to answer. I quickly realized that all these years later, it was still too horrible to discuss.
A woman who worked in the mini mart around the corner from where I was staying in Larnaca told me she was 16 when the Turkish invasion happened. Forty-three years later, her voice still quavers when she talks about it. “We lived in Famagusta, on the far eastern tip of the island. One day, we heard rumors that the Turkish army was on the way to seize the town. My family had a lot of land, so all the residents gathered under a tree in our field to decide what to do. We fled before the invading forces. There was no time to take anything. I had only a tank top, shorts and flip flops.” To this day, she has never been back to her former home. When I asked her if she’d tried, she shook her head emphatically. “A few tried, but they were never heard from again.”
Another taxi driver was more willing to talk. He vividly remembered the invasion, even though he was only six years old. “I was born in Famagusta. We lost everything. A few years ago, I went back to find our old house. I told my father that I found it and went inside. He was amazed. He didn’t believe me.” “But wasn’t that dangerous?” I asked. He just shrugged.
After hearing so much about Famagusta, I had to see it for myself. I booked a day tour that took me into the Turkish occupied territories. After stops at the ancient ruins of Salamis and Saint Barnabus Monastery, we pulled up to the beach at Varosha, a suburb on the south side of Famagusta. Famous for its gorgeous golden sands and turquoise water, Famagusta was home to more than half of the hotels on the island prior to the 1974 invasion. Not only was it the most popular tourist destination in Cyprus, it was regularly ranked as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
Today the beach is lined by hundreds of abandoned, bombed-out hotels that are off limits to all but the Turkish Army and occasional members of U.N. inspection forces. Our guide warned us that, while photos of the beach are allowed, taking photos or videos of the disintegrating hotel high-rises is strictly prohibited. I vowed to obey the rules but the desire to document was too strong. I turned so that the camera hanging off my shoulder was pointed at the buildings, surreptitiously tilted it up, and began pushing the shutter. I was lucky; several of the photos came out fine, and no soldiers came running out of the watchtower to commandeer my camera. But I was more than relieved when we left the beach.
On the way back to Larnaca, our van turned onto John F. Kennedy Avenue. To our right, children played in front of attractive, modest homes that lined the street. To our left was a no-man’s land where trees protruded from caved-in roofs of homes that have been abandoned for more than four decades. Asphalt roads were overgrown with weeds and brambles. Signs on a high chain-link fence declared, “Access prohibited” and “No entry.” It was surreal. Why, I wondered, was it OK to live on one side of the road but not the other?
It was a question I later posed to the second taxi driver I interviewed. He speculated that the Turks had been given a map of which parts of the island to take – they wanted half of it – and that Varosha was not on their map. “They ended up with it by mistake but had no interest in running hotels. Now they are useless to anyone but they hold onto them as a bargaining chip. I think they will offer us Varosha back if we agree to recognize the north as a Turkish state. It will never happen,” he added emphatically.
As an outsider, it was impossible for me to know the truth. One person told me that there is no accurate count of the numbers Turks who reside in North Cyprus, and that Turkey is facilitating the relocation of up to 500 Turks from the mainland to the island every month. The implication was that more Turks means the north will be allocated more land in the event a settlement is ever reached.
On of my Facebook followers commented, “(Cyprus is) my parents (sic) birthplace. My mother’s from the North. My father’s from the South…both Greek. The ‘green line’ that separates the communities is believed to have been drawn before the war in 1974 enabling again it is believed, for the U.S.A to have a base in the far NE of the country…aimed at Russia. President Makarios was against such such a base hence the contriving of a war between north and south to gain access to the north and a military base. My mother told me Turks and Greeks lived side by side in villages until politics took over.”
A Greek Cypriot I met in Copenhagen told me that huge reserves of natural gas were recently discovered off the southern shore of Cyprus. This was no rumor. The new field is estimated to contain four trillion cubic feet of offshore gas valued at over $50 billion. Where all other efforts have failed to resolve the decades-long conflict, oil may finally succeed. Turkey has long been searching for a way to eliminate their dependence on Russian oil and the Cyprus fields would offer an attractive alternative. Additionally, Turkey’s acceptance into the European Union has been put on hold until the “Cyprus issue” is resolved.
Though I have no crystal ball, I hope that Cypriots find a path to peace. Both Turkish and Greek Cypriots were warm and welcoming and the island was so rife with history and beauty that I am eager to return. Next time, I hope can walk the entire length of Ledras Street without having to run the gauntlet of border checkpoints.
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