When I arrive in Cyprus it is already dark outside. I drive from Larnaca (Southern Coast) to the capital in the center of the island: Lefkosia in Greek, Lefkoşa in Turkish, Nicosia as called in German or English. Through the darkness glows the Turkish-Cypriot flag far away, seeming to float in the air. The next day I learn that this flag is a huge installation at the mountain range north of Nicosia. I am not even one hour on Cyprus, but I am already confronted with the political reality of the island. The political reality of an in different regions and zones divided country trying since 51 years to return to united normality.
My hostel is located in the old town of Nicosia, not far from the Famagusta gate and the border between the two parts of the island. I walk through narrow streets, window shutters rattle in the soft wind, flowers grow in window boxes and down from balconies and a full moon beams at the black sky, accompanied by a few first stars. Skinny kittens go through the trash cans searching for a dinner, above me whirr bats. From far away sounds the evening call of a Muezzin. It is hot and dry and my heart goes some beats faster, because it is excited and also not used to the climate.
I travelled to Cyprus to attend an International Study Trip. The topic: the Cyprus conflict, obviously. But before I let the programme begin (including meetings with representatives from national and international politics, NGOs and academics) I make use of the early freshness (freshness stands here for 30 degrees and a tiny breeze) to discover the streets between me and the central Ledra street.
I have not slept much, because the sound of early morning prayers from the Orthodox Church next door woke me up. In the backyard of that church children play under trees where olives, oranges or lemons grow. I roam about without a plan through streets and alleys, bushes with pink flowers give colourful contrast to the twisting and winding street scene, dominated by yellow or grey buildings. Free walls are covered in street art or political graffiti, every corner offers something to discover. But I meet not only beauty and enchanting architecture. Through blind, broken glass I see into countless empty houses filled with trash and scree. Rusty cars park on stony parking lots. At many places the plaster of the buildings, which might have been painted in beautiful colours a long time ago, crumbles. Still, even in the run-down streets some charm remains (in contradiction to the unfeeling blocks outside the old town). While wandering through this scenery I also think to myself that the mixture of Mediterranean holiday flair and old city is exactly right. Only in this mixture, the old men sitting around do not seem to be out-of-place. They sit in the shadow of big fig trees and shout a happy “Kalimera” as I am passing. They sell Frappé or drink it, they work in dim carpenter’s workshops or stores selling antiques and they play backgammon in small cafés (where are all the women, I ask silently ask myself). I buy my breakfast at one of the markets I am passing. At least I am trying to buy the fruits enticing me, but the young vendor gives them to me for free. It is easy to win me over with food: even if I would not have liked Cyprus and the Cypriots before, latest now they have taken my heart by storm.
Huge conflict in a small country
It seems to me as if often the smallest and therefore the most inconspicuous places hold the most potential for conflicts. Cyprus is – from the European perspective – pretty far off. A small, rather dried out island located under Turkey and not far away from Lebanon and Israel. Still, or maybe even because of this location, it is a place of geostrategic significance. Therefore, over the years Cyprus was claimed by different actors: the Ottoman Empire expanded there, the English colonized the country and in between the Italians took their share through a royal marriage. Additionally, Greece and Turkey have interests and more or less close relations with the island state, finally split up since 1974. In the South live Greek Cypriots in the Republic of Cyprus and in the North live Turkish Cypriots in a country, only recognized by Turkey as such.
Overall, the island is divided in 4 regions: as mentioned before, there is North and South and further a demilitarized UN buffer zone, crossing the country along the border line from North to South. Furthermore, the English still claim a slice of the pies: as absurd as it might appear, bur even the accession of the Republic of Cyprus to the EU in 2004 did not seem to be reason enough for Great Britain to finally move out of the former colony.
It is difficult to say at what time exactly the conflict which led to this division begun. Looking at pictures from the 19th century – for example in the first bi-communal museum of arts about the history of Cyprus (Centre for Visual Arts and Research) – one can see Greek and Turkish Cypriots living in harmony together. After World War II those times are over. It is a matter to discuss, in how far the British colonialization fueled the ethnical conflict which escalated in the 60th and 70th and ended up in war and then division. Some ascribe the British oppressors who specifically played Turkish Cypriots off against Greek Cypriots and vice versa the main responsibility, others only see another drop into a continuously filled barrel which had to overflow at some point.
Opinions differ also in the question what events mark the peak of the conflict. The two communities have suffered different traumas, the narratives and the collective memory have helped shaping this trauma. One-sided story-telling, insufficient education and decades of silence have helped the development of a biased understanding of history.
After the escalation of the conflict in 1964 a consensual decision gave way for the deployment of UN peacekeeping troops to Cyprus. But this could not prevent another escalation in 1974 when even the Turkish army intervened. One of the main aims during the fighting was the back then only airport in Cyprus in Nicosia.
Back then in the 70th the airport was an innovative, almost futuristic building: through automated swing doors one would enter the big hall, flooded with light – the gate to the world. Climbing the stairs one would reach a café where the citizen of Nicosia went for their Sunday lunch or afternoon coffee to watch from the open balcony aircrafts departing and arriving. The modern engine by Cyprus Airways flew in 3 hours 15 minutes from London to Nicosia (and I ask myself why it takes 3 hours 30 from Berlin to Larnaca in 2015).
Nowadays only a ruin with bursted windows and bullet holes is left, nature took over the area and the fountains do not bubble anymore. On the runway UN soldiers take driving lessons in a jeep, driving again and again a slalom around old barrels. The sun is burning down on the wide, since 50 years almost untouched territory. Far away gleams the Turkish flags on the mountains through the heat.
The airport lies, together with a rusty engine of Cyprus Airways, unused and untouched in the UN buffer zone, close to the blue beret headquarters. There is no money to restore it or tear it down, and so he only stays where it is and reminds with its spooky atmosphere of the events.
But not the entire buffer zone lies fallow. Farmers whose land lies between borders are allowed to work their fields. The daily UN patrols mainly watch out that no members of either side’s military enter the zone.
Between airport and headquarter lies, hidden by conifers and dry bushes, on the one side a building with the print “peace it together”. Here meet people involved in the peace negotiations on neutral territory. On the other side is a lose collection of container buildings. Those buildings, who appear much friendlier in the inside then from the outside, give room for the committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus. Their task is to find remains of people who disappeared in the 60th and 70th and to return their remains to the families.
“As long as more than 0.3% of a society are considered “disappeared” a national trauma can never be overcome. It will be impossible to restore lasting peace”, I learn. People can cope with the loss of a loved person, but they will never be able to deal with the situation not knowing whether or not this person will ever return.
The buffer zone is neutral territory. Since many years this is used to give a space where people from both parts of the country, from both communities, can meet. A special room for meeting is the cozy Home4Cooperation easy to reach from both sides of Nicosia. Different NGOs work or conduct research here. We are given the opportunity to vividly experience bi-communal cooperation and exchange. Almost every evening some intercultural programme is offered to the guests of the Home. In the evening as we approach the illuminated building through the darkness – we don’t have to pass a border control, only from further away some UN soldiers give us a moment of attention – music and laughter sound through the night, cats scurry through the shadows. The guests are an international group from Cyprus, Europe and the World. Main spoken language is English, songs are being sung in Turkish and Greek. The atmosphere is international and happy, no sign of conflict.
At my last day, when my body finally got used to the climate and I can eventually breathe in 40 degrees dust-dry heat, I crossed the border going right through the city center. It is easy nowadays to get from one part of the city to the other; In 2003 the border was reopened after years of silence. The first border checking guard smiles as I say “Ephamistos”, the second is happy about my “Tesekürler”. Argentinian UN police officers patrol in the narrow stripe between North and South. The situation feels absurd.
The architecture barely changes on the other side, I also still connect to the Cypriot network which allows me to roam for little money in the EU. Only if I would leave Nicosia I would receive a message “Welcome to Turkey, you can now use o2 WORLD”, because the network of the North are all running via Turkey. Even if the buildings and street structures look just like the South, some things change in the North: the products and the style offered in the stores, the smells, the prices. Suddenly I have the feeling I wander through a Turkish bazaar and not so much a European city. The division has left traces.
I am sitting with Cypriots from both sides in Büyük Han, an old inn for travelers seeking a rest and shelter in the cooling walls. Nowadays the restaurants, cafés, the souvenir shops and the shadow still invite to take a break. We joke around, talk in English and drink tea. From nearby this time sounds the call for prayer by a Muezzin.
Cyprus is in an interesting time, a critical juncture, a time of change. I have not met a single person who does not support the unification. Nonetheless, some judge it critically. Lack of trust, lack of transparency, different involved international actors and more factors make the situation more difficult. After the failed attempt for unification through the Annan-plan in 2004 the country has never been closer to peace as now, but it will show how this peace will look in particular.
But for now, here in the impressive walls of the Büyük Han, where the Kahve costs 1€ or 2.5 Turkish Lira, everything is in best harmony, I enjoy my company, the temperatures, the happy atmosphere. “Here is no place for conflict”, explains the owner of a small cafeteria. “Here is harmony and a positive vibe. Here are not Turkish Cypriots or Greek Cypriots, here are only humans.”
With this clear statement in mind I leave the North and walk back through streets with flowers and pomegranate trees towards my hostel. I take my bus through dry plains and not so dry plateaus, where olive groves surround nested houses. And finally I take my plane back to Germany into a marvelous sunset. A last look upon the sparkling sea, then I am left with my memory on Cyprus – but only the best of it.