NICOSIA, CYPRUS June 2006
After more than two years of stagnation, the leaders of Greek and Turkish Cyprus are due to meet early next month to see if there’s any way the island can be re-unified. The island has been divided by a UN buffer zone since Turkey invaded in 1974 – it says, to stop killings of the Turkish Cypriot community. The two leaders Tassos Papadopoulos and Mehmet Ali Talat never speak and there’s been no official contact between the two sides since a UN referendum on unification failed in 2004.
My meeting with Sevilay Berk and Maria Georgiades was only about half a mile away, so I opted to walk, stepping out from my hotel down a slight slope where there’s a butcher’s store with a polished counter and displays of fresh meat in the window.
And right there – outside his door – things change.
The next building is a shell with rusted wire instead of windows. Broken glass and debris lie on the floor inside. A United Nations sign, badly in need of a fresh blue paint, announces that I have entered a buffer zone.
The road curves round with a church to the right, then a watch-tower, rusting razor wire, then a once-magnificent hotel, its sweeping driveway now blocked by walls of sandbags with the laundry of British UN troops draped over its balconies.
Just beyond is a sign across the wall of a building – ‘Our Demand Turkish troops and settlers out of Cyprus.’
Cyprus has been divided since Turkey invaded in 1974 and there had been open violence between the Turkish and Greek communities for more than ten years before that.
The buffer zone has been left a time warp. Finally I reach an immigration post with efficient uniformed young women who run my passport through a computer and issue a visa for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Sevilay and Maria are sitting a few hundreds on under a huge bright blue café umbrella, laying out photographs of their murdered relatives, with old ID cards showing each of them as young women who ended up embroiled in a war.
Sevilay is Turkish, and her mother and father were killed by Greek Cypriots in 1964, their bodies thrown down a well. Maria is Greek, and her mother, father and sister were killed by Turkish troops when they invaded ten years later. Her brother went missing and has never been found. They are now matriarchal figures best of friends and disgusted at their governments.
‘What exactly do you want?’ I asked.
‘I want to get back the bones and build a grave for them.’
Not an unreasonable expectation, given that in a special UN has overseen a committee to do precisely that was set up as long ago as 1981.
‘Me too,’ says Maria. ‘I want only what Sevilay wants. To build a grave, to put flowers.’
‘What about punishment?’ I asked.
Maria’s voice rises. ‘Whom you will punish?’ she challenges. ‘Whom? Tell me whom?’
‘They’re punishing people in the Balkans,’ I said defensively. ‘In Rwanda. After the Second World War.’
‘Will you punish ordinary people and let free the big politicians who allowed this happen. No. No. Revenge is not going to bring my family back.’
The big politicians of those days were controlled by military governments in Greece and Turkey. But now they’re meant to be modern leaders who on both sides have signed up to the values of the European Union – the Greek part of Cyprus has actually become a member.
So why can’t they respond to the very human needs of Maria and Sevilay? And why do they not make peace with each other?
‘We accept EU principles,’ explains Demetris Syllouris, a Greek nationalist politician, adding as if it seals the argument, ‘so how can we forget what happened thirty years ago and accept Turkish occupation forces stealing our property. We won’t compromise on our principles.’
Just over two years ago, Mr Syllouris was among 65 per cent of Greek Cypriots who voted ‘no’ in a referendum on a UN plan to unify the island. The referendum failed, but Cyprus, its scars unhealed, was allowed to join the EU anyway.
And there, it seems, lies the rub.
While before, the EU could play the role of honest broker, it is now seen as partisan, even symbolically with the European Commission appointing as its representative a Greek Cypriot closely associated with the anti-Turkish views of the present government.
‘He doesn’t even come over here,’ says Rasit Pertev, a senior official in the north Cyprus which voted overwhelmingly for the peace plan. ‘How can the EU have credibility. The Greek Cypriot government is all powerful now that it has joined the EU, so it thinks it can create a mega-ghetto for Turkish Cypriots and isolate us from the rest of the world.’
But it doesn’t seem like a ghetto when I drive with Rita Severis through northern Cyprus to the coastal town of Kyrenia.
Her family home used to be on the waterfront in the beautiful little harbour filled with restaurants and tour boats. Rita lost the house after the 1974 invasion.
‘Ah there she is,’ says Rita excitedly.
A young woman, with a baseball cap and dark glasses, jumps up from a comfy rattan chair, runs out and embraces Rita. She is Anbar Onar the Turkish Cypriot who now owns part of Rita’s old home.
They embrace. They, too, are best of friends. While Maria and Sebilay are from the villages of Cyprus, Rita and Anbar are from its jet set.
I ask about finding a settlement.
‘Search me,’ says Rita. ‘I don’t know. Look at our politicians. How can it ever be solved?’