Young men Surreptitiously checked out the college women from the corners of their eyes, grinning, nudging, and whispering to each other. Boys will be boys—even in Cyprus—except when they’re forced to become adults. These young men held guns. And these college students were standing on the Green Line in southern Nicosia, peering over a wall into the UN Buffer Zoneknown as “The Dead Zone.”
The conflict between the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the so-called Turkish Republic
of Cyprus—TRNC (recognized only by Turkey) has the dubious distinction of being
the United Nation’s longest peacekeeping mission, and, although there has been no large scale violence since 1974, it remains an island in turmoil.
“I remember waking up to the sound of a machine gun,” said one Greek Cypriot official, who was a child in 1974. Bullet holes still pit his childhood home. Although unification has been flirted with in recent years, the situation remains at a standoff. While the world turns its eyes to Darfur, Israel and Palestine, the Cypriots remain in their little piece of paradise, with a green line drawn across an island the size of Connecticut.
Almost as if they’re willing the world not to dismiss theirs as “just another ethnic conflict,” Cypriots on both sides whitewash their memories of the past. They tell tales of a Utopian time when Greek and Turkish Cypriots lived side by side in harmony—before the fighting in 1974 and the official split in 1983. Ignored is the long history of separate communities, resentment and occasional outbreaks of violence.
Yet the feeling of the other hangs about the island. While Cypriots rushed to assure the students that they consider everyone a Cypriot, the students heard people talk in cafes of the “Turks” and the “Greeks.” Opening the Green Line has done little to help the sides interact. The south eats Greek food, speaks the Greek language, and practices Greek customs. In the north, Cypriots follow the Turkish way of life. There is no Cypriot language, nor Cypriot customs.
“Cyprus has no culture,” said one of the students, noting that the Cypriots identify themselves with their motherlands more than with their own country. “I think to me that’s been the saddest thing so far.”
If the Green Line divides the island physically, memories and culture divide Cypriots emotionally. Feelings run deep on both sides, and many Cypriots can’t forget how life used to be before the fighting began in earnest. They long for their homes and a unified country.
Each side has its own story. Greek Cypriots have lost as many as 1,200 people in the
north—people that disappeared, unaccounted for to this day. There are no numbers on how
many Turkish Cypriots were lost, although many claim that even before the fighting broke out, Greek Cypriots murdered Turkish Cypriots and terrorized their communities.
Today the memories of those violent years linger in Nicosia, a dark, psychological backdrop
to a bustling city. Nearing the border, neighborhoods deteriorate and once-loved homes sit abandoned. One such had become a parking lot for taxis, so designated by graffiti sprayed upon the sides of the stucco mansion, which sits without windows and doors, a tree growing in what was once the front hallway.
Before entering the buffer zone from the south, the students are assaulted with propaganda. A military post contains a monument to missing Greek Cypriots, and trees decorated in yellow ribbons commemorate the same. The checkpoint the students cross is littered with signs detailing Turkish atrocities and decrying “Turkish Law and Order,” telling the story in both Greek and English of a young man shot by Turkish soldiers underneath pictures of him and
his wife. Greek Cypriots show their anger in the stores that dot the border—“No Border Market,” “No Border Underwear” and “The Berlin Café.”
Greek Cypriot soldiers barely looked up as the students crossed the southern line into No Man’s Land. Students walked the dirt road past vacant storefronts and empty homes that had fallen into decay, weeds pushed their way through stone steps and roof tiles slipped to the ground. The area has been designated as a wildlife sanctuary and has one Northeastern student remark, these manmade posts only keep out men. “The cats go everywhere though,” she noted.
At the northern line, crossing became a process—visas were filled out and stamped, information entered on old computers and passports looked at. But not stamped. Never stamped. Students check their passports; a TRNC stamp could mean not being allowed back into the south.
Taxi drivers sat on the other side of the line, hoping to pick up some business. Instantly, signs changed from Greek to Turkish. People in northern Nicosia busied themselves with the day-to-day details that needed to be attended to, conflict or no, in Adidas coats and Nike hats. Turkish soldiers patrolled their posts on top of the wall that divides the city, overlooking a playground in which no children play. Men sat about in the town center, smoking and chatting. Slightly shabby, the fashions, the people, the stores resembled the western trends of the 1980s.
“It’s kind of like time suspended,” said senior Jennifer Adrien.
Students had mixed emotions about the crossing. Some thought the process was simple, others were surprised by the soldiers, the visas and the seriousness surrounding the process.
Ashley Adams said the first time she crossed “It didn’t look as bad as they made it sound.” Yet she said crossing the Green Line made her more aware of the conflict’s effect on the Cypriots, noting that the north, cut off from much of the world, resembled the poorer neighborhoods of Turkey.
“It was so vastly different,” Adams said. “It was much more night and day than I expected.”
“I don’t think I expected the creepy feeling I got walking through there,” senior Alyssa
Rallis said of No Man’s Land. “It was very desolate.”
Patrick Cavanaugh, a junior, said he thought the crossing would be easier—like crossing the border between the U.S. and Canada. Despite the divide, he said, “When people were walking by, I couldn’t pick out, ‘That person’s Greek and that person’s Turkish.”
Freshman Michelle Blanter said she felt the Green Line had almost become a tourist trap. “It was like walking into Disney World. They have to check your tickets and there’s all
these tourists around.”
But Cypriots don’t look forward to crossing a Green Line with the happy anticipation of a child headed to Disney. Indeed many Greek Cypriots said they’ve crossed the Green Line once, but they’ll never cross again. Humiliated and infuriated by showing their passport to Turkish soldiers before walking into the northern part of their capital city— and the northern third of their country— many refuse to go through the checkpoints. Having crossed once to see what they left behind, they’ll never again show their passport to a Turkish soldier. Hurt and angry, longing for their homes, Cypriots lick the wounds that reopened when they crossed “the border,” while tourists snap photos of the last divided city in the world.
Others visit their old homes from time to time, remembering their past lives. “It’s a journey of rediscovery,” said one Greek Cypriot, who visits her home in Kyrenia from time to time. She said she’s trying to make peace with the past and accept the loss of her childhood home. The first time she crossed the Green Line, she found Bulgarian Turks living in her home.
“That was really hurtful for me,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “I cried and cried a lot.” Partly, she said, because in her mind foreigners occupied her home. Every time she visited her home, she’d cry, in part because Turkish Cypriots were not living there.
Trying to communicate— she spoke Greek and they spoke Turkish—she felt awkward and embarrassed, but she kept reminding herself that this house was her home. But it was the new residents’ home also, she said, “these people have memories here too.” Eventually, she began to feel that she was lucky to have once lived in Kyrenia and now others are living in her home, “and they also belong.”
Another Greek Cypriot said the first time she drove across the Green Line, she was trembling. “I was holding both hands on the seat, but still I was jumping.”
She went to see her grandmother’s home, only to find others living in it. At first, she said, she
couldn’t accept the loss of the place where many of her childhood memories were made. She viewed the occupants as renters, believing they would eventually leave and the house would once again be hers. In her mind, she began to make plans for the future, thinking, and “I’m going to repaint this wall. I don’t like this red.”
Eventually, she realized that she was not going back. Everything had changed, she said, with a half-hearted smile. “I went to find the old cinema and I couldn’t find it. I went to find the old church and I couldn’t find it. It was like a ghost that was haunting me.”
In a sense, crossing the Green Line has made many Greek Cypriots realize that they can’t go back to ‘the good old days.’ “When they realize they can’t go back, they don’t want to go back anymore,” she said. “They lost hope.”
A Turkish Cypriot, now living in the north, laughed nervously, as he remembered crossing the Green Line to visit his home in Limassol. “Oh Gosh,” he said, running his hand through his hair. As he crossed, he could only think of the politics and the fighting. But, he said, “It was very good.”
He made peace with the loss of his home years ago, building a new life in Kyrenia. Back in his old neighborhood, he was stunned to find he was lost. “I couldn’t find the place because everything has changed,” he said. His home is now a tailor shop and the coffee shop where he drank his morning cup is now an antique store. Some of his old neighbors still live in their homes. Now he crosses the Green Line every couple of months to have dinner with his former Greek Cypriot neighbors.
Others are not so comfortable with their countrymen. One jewelry maker, born in Kyrenia and raising his young family there, said he feels the Greek Cypriots blame the Turkish Cypriots for the split. “We feel sorry for them, but it’s not our fault for this. It’s the government’s fault. They ask us to obey, we obey.”
He said opening the Green Line has made things harder on most Turkish Cypriots. While some living in the north of Nicosia may see increased trade as Greek Cypriots cross to take advantage of the lower-priced goods, Turkish Cypriots living further north, such as in Kyrenia, see only increasing prices, he feels, brought on by joining the European Union and opening checkpoints for trade.
Greek Cypriots who do come all the way to Kyrenia often come only for the casinos. “They come, they play, they go,” he said. “There is nothing for the business people from the Greeks.”
“Many people are suffering now,” he said. While prices rise, salaries stay the same and, since the north’s airport is run by an unrecognized country, it’s illegal. Tourists must fly into the south and drive to the north or fly in through Turkey. Many, instead, choose not to come at all. Jobs are scarce and there’s little to do except open a business. This jeweler studied to be a chemical engineer, “and look what I’m doing,” he disgustedly gestured towards his shop.
His eyes softened as his four-year-old daughter was offering me a candy and waiting for me to say “thank you” in English before she collapsed in peals of laughter. He’s worried about her future, especially after the north voted for reunification and the south voted against it. “Always I dream,” he said softly. “When I look to her sometimes I’m crying.”
“Denktash, maybe he was right when he say you can’t make peace with these people,” he shrugged. “We don’t believe Denktash before. Now we start to believe.”
This feeling of hopelessness and anger is trickling down to the next generation of Cypriots, who, though not alive during the fighting in 1963 and 1974, carry with them a fear of the mysterious “other side.”
Some, such as one 17-year-old Greek Cypriot, has been fed on stories of past violence by
his family. He remembers growing up to hear how Turks raped Greek women and kidnapped
Greek Cypriots to use them to perform chemical experiments. He said he’s angry with all Turkish people and Turkish Cypriots—even if they didn’t participate in the killings, they profited from them.
The teen said he feels as if he’s poorer than other 17-year-olds whose families owned property in the south, despite his family owning two homes—one on the beach. While others will inherit what their families have been passing down, and accumulating for generations, he will only inherit his father’s wealth.
He did cross the Green Line once to see his grandmother’s house, which now has Turks living in it. He said he will never cross the Green Line again, or show his passport to move about in his own country.
“Why should I show my passport to a Turk?” he asked bitterly. “Every one of them would
be dead if I had my way.”
Meanwhile, a 27-year-old Greek Cypriot said she believes the governments are to blame for the tensions, not the people. Raised on stories of her mother’s summer trips to Kyrenia with her father, she said, it was like hearing a fairy tale. “She was talking about things that were completely strange to me.”
So the when the Green Line opened, she headed north to see the places her mother talked about. “I started to believe I would die without seeing them.” Yet her happiness at seeing the north was tinged with a feeling that she wasn’t doing the right thing; that by filling out a visa to cross the Green Line, she was acknowledging the north’s right to exist as a country. “We’re one country,” she said adamantly. “We’re not supposed to show passports or IDs.”
Sometimes, it’s as if the north is thumbing its national nose at the south. Names of places have been changed; not just translated from Greek to Turkish, but completely changed. Turkish flags decorate the north, including one painted and illuminated on the Pentadactylos Mountains. One young Cypriot believes it’s an attempt to alienate the Greek Cypriots that once had a heritage in the north.
“I really do not appreciate that,” she said. But she is hopeful, “I do not believe that people are bad. I believe what is bad is the government.”
Meanwhile, a 32-year-old Turkish Cypriot woman in the north is still hoping for peace. On a slow day at her car rental shop, she has time to talk about the first time she crossed the Green Line. “I did not feel insecure in any way.”
She returned to live in the north, where most of her family now lives, eight years ago. Her family lived in Limassol, where her father worked for the British Embassy, and fled to England in 1974, where they began again, losing their home in the south.
“We were looked after by the English. They put us in a hostel,” she said. Talking to
her friends, she said, most of them want reunification; it’s the older generation that’s hesitant. “They really don’t want peace with the Greeks because of what they did. They don’t seem honest.”
Like Greek Cypriot children, she was raised on horror stories of the atrocities of the other side. In her family, stories circulated about her cousin’s husband’s family. “Apparently the Greeks buried them alive,” she said carefully. “Apparently.”
But she said the younger generation isn’t haunted by the old memories. Crossing the Green Line, she said, is no big deal. What matters is how those on the other side feel.
“Have you been to the other side?” she asked eagerly. “How have you found it? Do they want peace?” Unsure of what to say, I smiled and shrugged, “It’s about the same as here.”
Students crossed the Green Line several times during their trip, and they became used to the procedure, the walk past the crumbling homes and the anti-UN graffiti as they readied their visas in preparation for the checkpoint.
One student, clicking several pictures of an empty storefront littered with graffiti and rubble, stopped and lowered his camera. “You know, I feel kind of bad about taking pictures of other people’s misery….”
A Brief of Issues & Facts
- Cyprus is comprised of citizens of Greek decent(80 percent) and of Turkish decent (20 percent).
- The country has a long history of Greek, Turkish,and British colonization. Cyprus did not becomeits own country until 1960.
- The country’s constitution established a GreekCypriot President and a Turkish Cypriot VicePresident in an attempt to balance power on bothsides. Greece, Turkey, and England all reservedthe right to occupy the country if its stability wasthreatened.
- Peace was short-lived in the country with manyGreek Cypriots favoring enosis (unification withGreeks) while Turkish Cypriots favored takoism(maintaining Cyprus as an independent country).
- Fighting broke out in 1963. Turkish Cypriots flednorth while Greek Cypriots fled south. Both sidesabandoned their homes. Politicians drew a greenline through the capital city of Nicosia—the infamousGreen Line.
- UN peacekeeping troops arrived in 1964, butskirmishes plagued the country until 1974, whena military junta in Greece attempted to overthrowthe Cyprus’s government. The Turkish militaryarrived in Cyprus to fight the takeover.
- In 1983, Turkish Cypriots in the north declaredthemselves their own country —the Turkish Republicof Northern Cyprus—TRNC. The Turkishmilitary remains in northern Cyprus to this day.
- “TRNC” President Rauf Denktash opened thecheckpoints in 2003, allowing Cypriots to movebetween the north and the south.
- Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annanpresented the Annan Plan in 2004. The northapproved the plan. The south defeated it.