Don’t write to me at the Pansyon Aksaray, Lefkosha, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), for the letter will be returned. Northern Cyprus is formally recognized by only one country in the world – no prizes for guessing which! Indeed, your letters have to be sent through Mersin 10, Turkey. It has no international football team, no international dialling code, no Internet country code, and no international air companies come here, but life carries on quite normally. Indeed, the economy is going through quite a boom, growing at nearly 10% for each of the last two years. Brits have been buying up cheap property on the coast near Girne, or Kyrenia. Northern Cyprus Airlines goes to the London airports, Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast. Even Cherie Blair got her fingers burnt, for, in her profession as a solicitor, she represented a couple who bought property that may have belonged to displaced Greeks in a country that is not formally recognized by her husband’s government. The Turkish economy is itself burgeoning, and the UN and USAID have been throwing money at the regeneration of the war-torn historical centre of Lefkosha, in Turkish; Nicosia in Greek. I was here three years ago and notice the change. Much is still wasteland, bomb sites, but there are more cars, cafes, rebuilding, and small workshops are returning to the abandoned areas next to the UN controlled No Man’s Land.
Cyprus, originally part of the Byzantine Empire, belonged to the Republic of Venice from 1489 to 1579. They built its famed city walls, as they did in many Venetian cities like Palmanova, for defence against the Ottomans, but they did not prove enough when the Ottomans came in 1570. The Ottoman Empire came, turned churches into mosques and left fountains, hans, or inns, and hamans, baths. Then, as the Sick Man of Europe’s health worsened, control of Cyprus was given to Britain in return for support against Russia in the 1854-6 Crimean War. And the Brits have left their heavy three-point 240V plugs; traffic on the left-hand side of the road; Cyprus pounds, still in use in Greek Cyprus, the euro is not king there, and the Cyprus pound is worth more than the UK pound; fish and chips; and English spoken nearly everywhere, together with Greek or Turkish.
Independence from the UK came in 1960. But there was never any agreement on powersharing between the two communities, 70% Greek and 30% Turkish. In 1963 Archbishop Makarios, leader of the Greek Cypriot community, and the religious leaders were often community leaders, supported by Greece and paramilitaries, staged a coup. Violence erupted between the two communities. Many Greek Cypriots wanted to get rid of the Turks, and houses were burnt and bulldozed. Turkey prepared to invade to protect its people. The British military presence was reinforced by the UN, who controlled the No Man’s Land, rather the Buffer Zone, the Green Zone, running right through the middle of the walled city of Lefkosha, Nicosia. Makarios got guns from Nasser in Egypt as well as Greece. It was the time of the Cold War. The possibility of Cyprus exploding into a Cuba was the worst scenario of all for the US.
An uneasy peace reigned till 1974, when the generals took over in Athens. They wanted Cyprus to be reunified with Greece and replaced Makarios with paramilitary leader Nikos Sampson. Seven days after, on 20 July 1974, Turkey invaded, claiming it was upholding the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee. Talks failed, and Turkey took over 37% of the island, as in the map, the present limits. 200,000 Greek Cypriots were displaced, and thousands were killed or massacred on both sides. There are still many unaccounted for.
A divided country. A divided capital city. Belfast, Beirut, Berlin of old. The rather snooty website of the British Commission in Cyprus tells me it is completely illegal to enter the EU from an unrecognized country and I am liable to a fine, but there is no hassle at all as I walk through Checkpoint Charlie. A cinch, and now open to Turkish Cypriots. Visitors are returning with their shopping bags from Nicosia, for there is not yet a Debenham’s in Lefkosha.
At the end of the main pedestrian shopping street, Lidras Street, after the boutiques, Starbucks and Macdonald’s we see photos of those who are still unaccounted for, “The missing persons as a result of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus”. We can climb the wall, patrolled by a lone young soldier and look out over the waste No Man’s Land, where one shop sign, reminding you that this was a thriving economic area in the 1950s and 60s, advertises “Harrison Worsted”, and onto the poorer Turkish side. Look at all this, just look at what you are missing. The Greek banner accuses the Turks: “Hundreds still missing, no evidence. Turks refuse to give any information”. And the Turkish Cypriots retort with: “To those who are watching from the wall of shame this is the bridge of Grace”. But No’s Man’s Land, the Buffer Zone, or the Green Zone, is coming to life. UN posters tell us about the excellent habitat it provides for undisturbed wildlife. The Goethe Institüt, the Fulbright Foundation and the International Press Club have all occupied the fine old unossupied houses there. There is an exbibition of the regeneration of the inner areas of Lefkosha/Nicosia. Let’s get it all going again, it seems to say.
But the reunification referendum in 2004, which would provide a federative system, was rejected by a majority of Greek Cypriot voters, though not by the Turks. The Kofi Annan Proposals did not provide for the recovery of property taken over by Turkey in 1974 and Turkish demilitarisation. And for its EU talks to progress Turkey must open its ports to Greek Cyprus ships.
Map of Cyprus at http://www.infoplease.com/atlas/country/cyprus.html