Tales of a country torn by conflict

Nicosia, Cyprus – We arrived at the Larnaca Internationalairport April 15 have been on a roller-coaster ride ever since.Dennis Cattier and Frederic Christea arrived from Belgium and,along with Vassiliki Katrivanou of the Greek-Turkish Association,are part of the video team that came here to help me film adocumentary on Cyprus. Who would have thought that we would be heretoday? But here we are.

A long history of conflict
Cyprus is the third largest island located in the Eastern part ofthe Medditterenian Sea, very close to Turkey, the Middle East andAfrica. Its strategic location has been the reason for numerousoccupations over thousands of years by many, including theVenicians, the Ottomans and the British.

This is the island where “Othello’s” castle stillstands in Amohostos, as it is called by Greek Cypriots, orFamagusta by the Turkish Cypriots. Part of Shakespeare’s famoustragedy takes place in this harbor town in Cyprus. Everything herehas three names, the Greek, the Turkish and the English.

Richard the Lionheart conquered this island in 1191 A.D. It isalso known as the island of Aphrodite, as the ancient Greeksbelieved it is here she was born, from the waves of the sea.

The island has been embroiled in its latest conflict since theearly 1950s when Greek Cypriots began their campaign againstBritish occupation and for reunification with mainland Greece. In1960 a new constitution was formed and the island gained itsindependence from the British, though Turkey, Greece and GreatBritain remained as its guaranteeing powers.

In 1963 new violence erupted between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.It reached its pick in 1974 when the Turkish military invaded theisland after a Greek backed coup d’etat against the Greek Cypriotleader at the time Archbishop Makarios. The island has been dividedever since into the Republic of Cyprus, controlled by the GreekCypriots and recognized by the world community as the legitimategovernment, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC),recognized only by Turkey.

The “green line” as it is called in UN jargon, dividesthe island from one side to the other. The story has it that aBritish officer drew the line the first time in the early 60’s witha green pen, hence the name. It is off limits for Cypriots, and UNtroops have been stationed there since 1963. The bullet-scarredruins of buildings are testimony of fierce fighting in 1974, whenTurkey invaded the island after a brief Greek Cypriot coupengineered by the colonels then ruling Greece.

White barrels stacked on top of each other block some of thestreets that lead to the green line with barbwire on top of them.Big signs that warn people not to cross and old buildings slowlyfalling apart form the wall of the green line. Soldiers stationedthere make sure nobody crosses by mistake. On the other side, justa hundred meters away, in some cases less, the Turkish Cypriotcommunity lives on the North part of the city. The island’s totalpopulation is about 800,000 people.

The referendum of April24:
Cyprus became the center of the world for a few days recently. Thenow infamous Annan plan and the referendum for a reunification ofthe island have made news around the world. As soon as we arrived,we could hear the conversations amongst the people taking placeeverywhere. The topic of the day, whether you liked it or not, wasthe Annan plan. The future of Cyprus was at stake and people werearguing the points at every corner you happened to pass by, at eachcoffee shop, at every newsstand.

We are staying in the old part of Lefkosia (Nicosia) next toLydra Street, a famous street for its market place on the Greekside. We are in an old run-down building that is mostly occupied byIndians and Pakistanis. There is a sign on one door on the thirdfloor saying “Greek family leaves here” that has a cross.We are also next to the Laiki Agora where every weekend people saletheir produce. It is like the Farmer’s Market in Portland. This isthe last divide capital of the world.

We happened to walk by some men who were sitting inside a storeplaying tavli (backgammon) a few days before the referendum. Thediscussion was around the UN plan they were called to vote on soon.We stopped and asked if we could video tape them. Cypriots are veryopen people and don’t seem to have a problem openly voicing theiropinion. There was one man who supported the plan (his was in theminority on the Greek side) and jokingly one of his friendsreferred to him as a traitor. The rest of them were against theplan because they said it was imperialistic, it did not remove allthe Turkish troops which are viewed as occupation troops by bothGreek Cypriots and many Turkish Cypriots, and because not all ofthe refugees were getting back their properties.

Many people here on the island do not trust foreign powers,especially the British and the Americans. This is due to theirhistorical experience of foreign occupation that goes backthousands of years and especially due to their experience of theBritish occupation and the American Government’s involvement in thecoup d’etat in Greece and in their involvement in Cyprus.

The situation is so complex that by now we all have headaches. Icannot imagine how natives are able to deal with such tensionconstantly. In the days that followed to the referendum tensionsincreased. People were arguing amongst themselves and even someshoving and pushing occurred at times.

In the Greek Cypriot part, the majority was against the plan.Many people made it clear it was not because they were against theTurkish Cypriots but because the issue of safety was not addressedadequately in the plan. The issue of Turkish settlers, who continueto come from Turkey in waves and are used, as we were told, by theTRNC government to increase the Turkish population and as cheaplabor force was not dealt with. In addition the issue of theTurkish military and the Greek Cypriot refugees and theirproperties were also not dealt with adequately by the plan.

On the Turkish Cypriot side things were much different. Themajority of people where in favor of EVET, or ‘YES’ in Turkish.They supported the plan because it was “good for our country,our community and our future” we were told by Aral, a youngTurkish Cypriot who is one of the many youths who have supportedthe growing peace movement in the North. Many young people supportreunification of the island because they live under aninternational embargo. They cannot export anything from the northexcept to Turkey. There are no direct flights to or from the Northexcept to and from Turkey.

Aral explained to us that Turkish Cypriot have been involved inthe movement for the last 4 years. “It used to be very smallbut now, the majority of Turkish Cypriots support it. Manydemonstrations number over 50,000 with the largest one having80,000 people, or almost half of the Turkish Cypriotpopulation.” Such mass movement has shaped the politicalsituation of the North for the first time since 1974. It is thefirst time that the Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, has lostin parliamentary elections, and looks like he will be loosing thepresidential elections in 2005. He was forced out of his old partyUBP (National Unity Party) and many of the political leaders whoemerged to power recently for the first time have openly called forhis resignation.

A struggle for peace
The Turkish Cypriot movement went through many hardships, some ofthe youth tell us at the Peace and Democracy Party (BDH) offices.”We were attacked just a few days ago by the gray wolves (aparamilitary group from Turkey). They beat some of us up and tookour signs down and broke our windows. In another city they beatsomeone so bad they send him to the hospital. But we will not giveup.”

Such brutal attacks were much more common a few years ago, butnow that the movement has grown strong they are getting fewer. Butas the day of the referendum approached, intimidation tactics bythe Gray Wolves and others sympathetic to Rauf Denktash and thecurrent arrangement of things in the North became morecommonplace.

Many of the Turkish Cypriots were hopeful that with thereferendum the Turkish troops would leave and they would not beunder occupation anymore. Many of the young Turkish Cypriot couldnot wait to vote so they can reunify the island and be able to livein normal conditions, without the embargo.

“If someone wants to travel to another country we cannotuse our Turkish Cypriot Passport. We have to get a Turkish passportbecause ours is not recognized” said Bekir Azgin, a professorat Eastern Mediterranean University. “If I wanted to go to theSouth part of the island just a year ago (before the borderopened), in this very same island, I had to fly to Istanbul,Turkey, from there to Greece and from Greece to the Republic ofCyprus. The reverse was true for the other side. All this becauseone side does not recognize the other.”

Another interesting thing we found out was the situation withthe phones. When we crossed for the first time to the North side ofthe island we wanted to call some people on that side. We found outwe had to call them through Turkey, so it was an internationalphone call. Even though we had a cellular phone with a GreekCypriot phone number and we had just walked 100 meters from theGreek Cypriot part. We ended up getting a Turkish Cypriot chip toput on our cell phone so we can call locally our contacts in theNorth. But then we had to call internationally to the South part ofthe island where our Greek Cypriot contacts were. All this was veryconfusing at first. But now we are very used to changing chips eachtime we cross to the “other side” of the green line.

Now that the referendum is over and the Turkish Cypriotsvoted overwhelmingly YES and the Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly NO,there seems to be a strange feeling on both sides of the island.Turkish Cypriots feel that Greek Cypriots do not want to livetogether with them. Although most Greek Cypriots will quicklydispute that, and they will say that the Annan plan was just notgood enough, Turkish Cypriots feel bitter.

“We have to live under occupation with the Turkish troopsand the Gray Wolves ruling our lives” said one young TurkishCypriot who devoted the past three years of his life to the peacemovement. “The Greeks don’t live under occupation. They arefree and they can travel anywhere in the world. We are isolated andhave no future. I am going to leave the island. There is nothinghere for me. I have no future.”

The real danger now is that the young Turkish Cypriots willleave the island en mass, since they will be able to go to othercountries in the EU. This can weaken the Turkish Cypriot movementas more settlers continue to come from Turkey as one of the peopleon the streets explained to us.

Nothing is easy in Cyprus, but one thing is for sure. Life isnever dull here. Not one moment. Today they are celebrating theiraccession to the EU. As the political events continue to unfold,the people of Cyprus will continue on this journey in the conflictthat has lasted for over 50 years. One thing is for sure. TheEuropean Union has inherited one of the most ambiguous conflicts Ihave ever seen.

Dimitris Desyllas, a graduate student ofConflict Resolution at Portland State, is a founding member of thePortland Greek-Turkish Association (PGTA) at PSU. PGTA, inconjunction with the Peace Initiatives Project (founded by PSUProfessors Harry Anastasiou and Birol Yesilada), has been involvedin efforts to bridge the cultural divide between the Greek andTurkish populations of Cyprus. Desyllas is currently traveling inCyprus and has agreed to correspond with the Vanguard on hisexperiences there.