By William J. Furney
Only the forenames of some people interviewed for this article have been used, to protect their identity in a politically sensitive place.
It’s midnight on the border that divides the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, and my taxi driver is refusing to cross and take me to my accommodation, even though the ride was pre-booked, and paid in advance, and the company had said I would be taken across the policed line to my destination.
“I don’t have insurance for there,” the driver says, meaning the northern and contested Turkish part, and barks at me to get out after the hour-long ride from Larnaca Airport during which he slammed on the brakes on a deserted motorway, for no particular reason and while driving at speed.
It was a rude welcome to a part of the world where there’s an unending cycle of fear, suspicion and abject hatred in a fractious place that’s politically part of the European Union and geographically in the Middle East. For almost half a century, since 1974, troubles between the ethnic Greeks and Turks who inhabit the small island have raged, boiled and spilled over, resulting in a landmass that’s split, with a lengthy scar in the form of a United Nations buffer zone running along its upper flank and through Nicosia, the last divided capital in the world, after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
And the pandemic, according to local people I’ve been speaking to here, is only heightening the tensions and further prising apart the majority Greek population and minority Turks. Before the rules changed in late September, for instance, you didn’t need a covid test to enter the Greek part of Cyprus, but you did to cross the border into the contested Turkish area. All nine border crossings reopened in June, after being closed for a year because of the pandemic, allowing for the free movement of people.
Selda, a young Turkish Cypriot who grew up in England and is now living in the Turkish part of Nicosia, said there was no need for the differing testing requirements but that it essentially came down to the Turkish side asserting its authority.
That belligerent attitude is on sizeable, and defiant, display beside where we were talking: a giant Turkish Cypriot flag — reverse white-and-red of the Turkish flag and with the star and crescent — painted on stones on a flank of the Kyrenia Mountains and the words “Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene” — “How happy is the one who says, ‘I am a Turk’ ” — the Turkish national motto first uttered in a speech by founding president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in 1933, and still resonating today, albeit, here, from on high and in unescapable visual glory (or otherwise).
Many Greeks view the outsize, rock-based flag as provocative, according to people I spoke to. “They can see it from the other (Greek) side, and it’s lit up at night,” Selda, whose parents fled for the UK during the Cyprus war in 1974, when the Turkish military invaded the island, told me. It’s a big ‘up-yours’ to them,” she said with a laugh.
But life is good in Turkish Cyprus for the repatriate, and she has married a local, Turkish man, as has a sister, who is also back in Turkish Cyprus and expecting her first baby. “It’s cheaper to live here than the Greek side,” Selda said, “but one of the downsides is we work longer hours”. Her job at a medical clinic requires her to work from 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday, and a half-day on Saturday. She’s not hopeful of a solution to the Cyprus problem, lamenting that there wasn’t one and that “It will never be resolved”.
* * * * *
The oval island with a jagged northeastern peninsula lying just south of Turkey and north of Israel and other Middle Eastern nations, is officially the Republic of Cyprus, and was once ruled by Britain, which retains two military bases on the island, at Akrotiri and Dhekelia; but there’s a festering wound, in the form of the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which unlike the Greek part is not recognised by any country in the world outside of Turkey. In turn, Turkey doesn’t recognise the Greek Cypriot government.
The most recent dispute began 47 years ago, when Turkey embarked on an invading land-grab triggered by a Greek military coup intent on uniting Cyprus with Greece and culminated in the United Nations extending a 180km-long buffer zone set up in 1964 and that remains to this day. UN vehicles abound and brusque Turkish officers control entry to their northern sliver of the island. “You crossed the border two days ago,” a surly official on the Turkish side of the Ledra Street border crossing in central Nicosia observed from his computer as I waited for him to return my passport.
Had I committed an offence?
“Is there a limit” to how many times I can cross? I enquired.
“No,” the officer said, and handed back my document.
Most border officials I had encountered, through many crossings, were gruff and unwelcoming; but I imagined if your job was to solely check people’s passports, vaccinations and tests, you wouldn’t be especially inspired, particularly if you had to work in the early hours, like when I arrived and was told my digital covid documents would not be accepted, as they had to be printed (luckily I had a test result on paper).
The UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus — which has an annual budget of around $57m — says its mission is “to prevent further fighting between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities on the island and bring about a return to normal conditions”, and it wants to see an end to the military-watched buffer zone so that farming and other activities can resume there.
One of the most troubling aspects of the dispute is a large amount of landmines that remain in the ground. The UN mission has removed over 27,000 of the explosive devices in the buffer zone and surrounding areas, but an estimated 15,000 remain in the place. The EU is funding much of the work, contributing €11.5m of €14m spent on demining during the last seven years, according to the UN.
Taking a Stand Against Turkish Cypriot Authorities
Halil Karapasiaoglou has been jailed twice by the Northern Cyprus authorities for standing up for what he believes in, and the university lecturer and father of a 15-month daughter almost wears his incarceration with pride.
He first caused ire among government officials by writing a letter to a local newspaper about alleged military abuses, and then for being a conscientious objector and refusing to do military service, ending up in prison for both acts.
“The police suddenly came to my house after I wrote the letter,” he told me while having coffee at an old house I was staying at on the Turkish side of Nicosia on a recent, scorching Saturday afternoon. His father, a military officer at the time, since retired, was less than impressed by his son’s criticism, but these days he’s mellowed and accepts Halil’s right to speak out and take a stand on fundamental issues, Halil said.
“He was afraid for himself at the time I was jailed,” Halil confided, saying he didn’t think there was much in the way of democracy in his artificial homeland, a state in name only and where life can be tough, if not brutal.
Halil, who is a member of the left-wing New Cyprus Party, yearns for his divided land to be united as one, but he concedes it’s not a popular choice to resolve the differences, saying, “Some people don’t want it”. Everything, he says with disdain, is broken on the Turkish side of Cyprus — healthcare, education, transport — unlike in the Greek part, where there are standards and everything functions properly.
Turkish Cyprus, it seemed to me, resembled something of the crazed chaos of Indonesia, where things just about worked, with gargantuan amounts of effort, but frequently didn’t, and was the polar opposite of pristine and clinical Singapore, the wealthy city-state a short flight away that, after a few days there, I was always keen to escape and return to the bedlam of Indonesia, a mystical and magical land where you were never bored.
“Are you leaving us?” Selda, the resettled Turkish Cypriot, asked me in jest when I told her I was moving to the Greek side, to get a flavour of life there; and I felt a pang of regret for a place of shambolic charm where life may be more difficult but never dull.
All Steamed Up
The fresh-looking 83-year-old owner of a traditional Turkish bath in the Turkish part of Nicosia blames Turkey for Cyprus’ woes. “It’s all down to Turkey; they could solve this in a moment,” Salih Yicitcan, from Paphos, on the southwest coast of Cyprus, told me after I was steamed like an overcooked fish and intensely scrubbed at the Hamasi Korkut Hamami bath he’s run for the last 30 years. A former officer in the British Army, when the UK ruled Cyprus, he feels a lingering connection with Britain, and visited the country in the 1970s, staying in Portsmouth.
Salih, whose wife is 81 and who says the secret to his longevity and youthful looks — he had hardly a wrinkle on his bronzed and smiling face — is not smoking and “drinking a little: wine; it makes me sleepy” — said around 20 percent of the population of Northern Cyprus is from the Turkish mainland, as he cast an unapproving look at me. It’s a sentiment of revulsion that Halil also conveyed, at what he saw was an invasion of Turks onto the troubled island.
Some, on the Greek side, are even fearful of crossing over and encountering Turkish people. Like Hanna Zhukouskaya, a young and vivacious woman from Belarus — formerly part of the Soviet Union and currently roiled by demonstrations against the government of President Alexander Lukashenko over his contested winning of a sixth term in office in 2020. She’s been living in Cyprus for the last three years, in July completing a degree in media and communications, with a focus on writing and TV journalism, under a European Union student-exchange Erasmus programme for university students.
Hanna lives near the busy Ledra Street shopping area and its walk-through checkpoint linking the Greek and Turkish parts, and vlogs her experiences in Cyprus. People I spoke to describe crossing from one side to the other as like visiting another country, so stark are the differences between the Turkish and Greek areas. Hanna likes to stay where she is, firmly on the Greek side, rarely venturing across the dividing line that separates the two ethnic groups.
“What’s scary for me are the Turks,” she told me. “They like to stare at you.” She said “it makes me feel so uncomfortable and unsafe to be a walking monument for staring for some people. And sometimes it gets creepier — for example, people could come and take photos of me without my permission or men ask me out, annoyingly, even though I had rejected their requests several times.”
But she was keen to point out that she’d also had positive experiences in Turkish Cyprus. “I’ve also met a lot of nice and helpful locals that were very hospitable to me. Plus, the food on the Turkish side is amazing and prices are lower than on the Greek side of the island,” she said.
Hanna said when she arrived on the Greek side in 2018, she was “super-excited to see the palm trees all around, blue sky all year long and, of course, the picturesque seaside. From the first day here until today, I can’t stop admiring the surroundings — the nature here is really incredible.”
How did she decide on Cyprus?
“I just saw its location on the map and decided simply like that. I have always been attracted to southern countries and cultures, languages. About three months before coming here, I started learning the history of Cyprus and a bit of Greek and I really liked it. I had no doubts about staying in Cyprus for longer than Erasmus. I am very happy with my choice.”
* * * * *
Tales — mostly unfounded and based on hearsay, it turned out, when I probed further into people’s actual experiences — are rife of aggression and violence against those who pass through any of the border crossings, perpetuating an urban myth of fear and suspicion that persists among the two peoples and serves to keep them apart. Some spoke, for instance, of cars being attacked and damaged, when they drove to the other side, but they were accounts they had only heard of and not experienced themselves.
There is also a cultural and religious divide. Turkish Cyprus is dotted with mosques whose towering minarets broadcast the lullaby-like Islamic call to prayer five times a day, from pre-dawn to after-dark; in Greek Cyprus, it’s mostly the tolling of bells in Greek Orthodox and Christian churches that’s heard.
Unlike on the Turkish side, in Greek Cypriot shops, it’s required to show proof of vaccination, recovery from covid or a negative test result, in digital form, on a Safe Pass, before you can enter. I showed my printed EU vaccination wherever I went, and had no difficulties. No one was checking at the entrance to the Zara store in Nicosia, so I walked on in, only for a young woman of Chinese origin to stop and ask for a Safe Pass. I showed her my printout and asked if she was vaccinated. “No,” she said, with a laugh.
“There’s no need to be frightened,” I advised, having been double-jabbed, in Spain, and suffering no ill-effects, apart from a sore arm after the first shot. “Get it.”
A Desire for a Return of Seized Land, Property
“They stole our land, and we want it back!” rages Alexandros Demetriou, a Nicosian economist who studied in Athens and New York, as he gives me a driving tour of the historical area of Greek Nicosia and its newly renovated, ancient buildings.
“Greek Cypriots live in fear of the Turks. They don’t know what Turkey might do; there are 82 million of them and just over 1 million of us,” he says, adding that many Greek Cypriots have property in the Turkish-controlled north that they have lost their rights to, heightening resentment even more.
He doesn’t have much time for Turkey’s contentious president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in office for almost two decades and who has been clamping down on dissent with an increasingly iron fist since a failed coup attempt, to oust him, in 2016.
“The international community — Europe — should put things in order and not allow Turkey, a worldwide troublemaker, to do what they want without punishment,” said Alexandros. “Cyprus and Greece happen to be the shield of Europe, and we cannot do it alone; we need allies and help. Otherwise, Erdogan will [create a] New Ottoman Empire.”
He called for “sanctions against Turkey, and the Turkish criminals to be prosecuted in the courts like the Nazis”, claiming that “Erdogan doesn’t care about the Turkish Cypriots or Cyprus and is using its disputed part of the island for strategic regional purposes.”
“The international community has to take measures to stop supporting Turkey economically,” Alexandros said. “Turkey is out of control and doesn’t respect human rights and democracy. The whole system has changed to Islamic values, and they’re like robots — and we now have the military industry and workforce, which is scary for a small country like Cyprus.”
Poetic Musings on Cyprus
For deeper insight into the Cyprus dispute, I flew to Athens, Greece, via a stop on the Greek party island of Mykonos (where I spent a dull week), to meet Cyprus’ most famous writer and poet, Mehmet Yashin. Born in the Turkish part of Nicosia, he has also been living in Athens, for the past four years, and has a spacious apartment near the sea, where we met, before going out for dinner.
He had just arrived back from a trip to London, to see his student daughter, getting home after midnight because his original flight was delayed, and the sting of frustration lingered. “I paid more to travel with British Airways, and then this happens,” he lamented as we walked along a moonlit beach littered with detritus from a recent storm.
“Of course it’s an occupation!” Mehmet thundered as we settled into chairs on the sand of a beachside seafood restaurant where we were dining. Big stars twinkled brightly alongside a full and luminescent moon, a calm sea lapped just feet away and dogs tore around the near-deserted establishment’s interior with abandon, as the poet recalled his formative years on the turbulent island of Cyprus.
“When I was a child and teen, the so-called Turkish Cyprus did not exist, nor the Greek Cyprus; but, ironically, the British Cyprus existed. I was born in the final year of the British colonial era. After that, for a while, the united Republic of Cyprus, with a power-share of both Turkish- and Greek-origin Cypriots, or rather Turkish- and Greek-speaking Cypriots.
“I remember the wedding ceremonies in the local Greek Orthodox church in Neapolis, our neighbourhood. Although I came from a mainly Turkish-speaking, Muslim family, I was always a mascot at the ceremonies in church, carrying a very big candle or a pillow from the church to the house of the newly married couples. It was like a Federico Fellini movie.
“I wrote a series of poems entitled Old Songs in Neapolis in 1986, about my memories, and they were arranged into music and stage by other musicians and artists. They also printed t-shirts and postcards with my designs. It means many people would like to remember that short co-existence period rather than bloody conflicts.
“Then more than a decade of inter-communal conflicts… until Greece organised a coup d’etat on the 15th July 1974, and Turkey occupied the island on the 20th July 1974, and the division was complete. But I left Cyprus a year after the war, for my undergraduate and postgraduate education, so I am alien to today’s Turkish Cyprus. Obviously it represents mostly Turkey’s interests and culture, not the Turkish-Cypriot community.”
Is there a workable solution to the Cyprus dispute? I asked.
“If we leave the Cyprus problem only to Cypriots, there will be no solution. And if we ask for help for a workable solution only from the so-called motherlands, which are also guarantors of the Republic of Cyprus — namely Greece, Turkey and Britain — again we can be sure that the conflict will continue, even with more complications,” said Mehmet, who is currently working on a project for Netflix.
“In a global world we cannot rely anymore on only local politics and nation-states. Nowadays, we belong to more than one country, culture and language. It’s not accidental that my literary works are studied in Turkish, Greek, European, British, etc. contexts alongside being Cypriot.
“What we need is a true international initiative for justice, peace and rapprochement. The Cyprus problem itself is an international dispute and poisons the whole international relations in the Eastern Mediterranean. Since the island is in the EU, we should demand a ‘European Solution’ from wider political actors.”
As the half-century mark of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus nears — in 2024 — there’s no sign the obdurate situation might soon improve, and, if anything, it may be deteriorating. The Greek Cypriot government is upping its military spending, in the form of a 2022 budget request from Defence Minister Charalambos Petrides presented this week, in the face of what it calls Turkey’s “inflexible and increasingly hostile attitude”, and tempers recently flared when the Greek Cypriot government cancelled the passports of Turkish Cypriot officials.
Turkey, meanwhile, says it plans to reopen areas of the deserted “ghost city” of Varosha, on the east coast and under its control, that was once a tourism mecca but has been sealed off since the Turkish invasion. It’s a decision that is angering Greek Cypriot officials and prompted Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides to appeal to the UN Security Council, saying the move amounted to “a clear violation” of resolutions and that it would have a “negative impact on efforts under way to restart talks”.
Some on the divided island want unification while others are arguing for a two-state solution, and talks aimed at finding any kind of answer to Cyprus’ festering partition problem have stalled since they collapsed in 2017. Turkey says it won’t engage in any further negotiations until its sovereignty in Cyprus is recognised, an ambition — like the country’s desire for EU membership — that is not likely to be realised.
And so, for now, there is little optimism on either side of the barbed wire divide that real and lasting peace, and a return to normality, will soon come to the sunny island of Cyprus.
- Title photograph, of a buffer zone in Nicosia, Cyprus, is by William J. Furney.