Between Europe's Borders

Life in the Last Capital City Still Split by a Border Zone

For decades, a hard border has divided Greek Cyprus and Turkish Cyprus, through Nicosia. One photographer spoke to those on both sides.

by Marcos Andronicou
07 August 2019, 8:45am

Anti-nationalist graffiti in south Nicosia on a wall along the city’s Green Line.

A green line drawn on a map by a general of the British peace force in 1964 has come to define the world's last officially divided capital city. Nicosia, the capital of the eastern-Mediterranean island of Cyprus, is a town spotted with military guard posts – its bustling streets sometimes end in walls of barrels and sandbags.

Following armed clashes between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots – the island’s two largest ethnic communities – Nicosia was first partitioned in 1964. The Republic of Cyprus had only come into existence a few years earlier, in 1960, when the island gained independence from British rule. Nicosia’s north-south division was truly cemented in the summer of 1974, when Turkish troops invaded the northern part of Cyprus in response to a Greek coup d’état that was aimed at overthrowing then-President Archbishop Makarios and uniting the island with Greece.

Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus
Nicosia’s UN-controlled buffer zone as seen from a Greek-Cypriot guard post in a northern suburb of south Nicosia. Locals often refer to it as the ‘dead zone’.

Nicosia is the epicentre of one of Europe’s most intractable conflicts, and the headquarters of one of the UN’s longest-running peacekeeping missions. Its infamous dividing "Green Line" spans 180 kilometres across the island, split today by a UN-controlled buffer zone. That zone yawns only a few metres wide at its narrowest points in the city centre of Nicosia, which is the capital of both states.

About those states – there's some fine print. The Republic of Cyprus, south of the line, is an EU member state with its sovereignty recognised by the United Nations and all foreign governments apart from Turkey. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, effectively the northern third of the island, is a de facto state established in 1983, and only Turkey recognises its status.

The two sides hardly interacted regularly until 2003, when the Turkish-Cypriot leadership eased restrictions on a foot crossing in Nicosia’s historic centre, allowing thousands of Greek and Turkish Cypriots to cross the island’s dividing line for the first time in almost 30 years. The summer of 2019 marks 45 years since Cyprus became officially divided and so far all international negotiation efforts aimed at reuniting the island have failed.

Here, Nicosia-based photographer Marcos Andronicou explores both sides of the divide for a few days last spring, and speaks to other residents about what the border means to them.

Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus
Sarah, 26, waitress, outside the café where she works in north Nicosia, a few metres from one of the main foot crossings into south Nicosia. She has a Cypriot grandfather and she moved with her parents from Germany to north Nicosia when she was 7 years old.

She says she was too young to remember when she first crossed the border with family in 2003 to visit the south, where she now has some friends and lived for a while. “After so many years, I pass to the other side every day, and I don’t see [the border] anymore,“ she says. “I can imagine the city without it, it would be easier and nicer.”
Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus
South Nicosia. An illuminated flag of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus [TRNC], is seen on Pentadaktylos mountain from a suburb in south Nicosia. The mountain flag is widely visible from south Nicosia, approximately the size of four football stadiums and illuminated with thousands of light bulbs at night.
Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus
Dionysis, 27, project manager, sitting in a park where he often takes a break from work in south Nicosia. Due to "ethical reasons", he has never crossed the border to north Nicosia or the northern part of Cyprus. “A lot of things have changed since the Turkish invasion and by now people from both sides have gone out and met each other. That makes me believe that we could coexist. But the influence Turkey has in the occupied territories – economic and political – does not let us have interactions based on humanity. We end up being the hostages of any Turkish leader,” he says.

“I feel that if I go [to the north], if I show my ID or passport to cross, I would be recognising a fake state, an illegal occupation, and that I would be helping Erdogan to prove what he wants. I really want to go, but I wouldn’t like the feeling of visiting my father’s house or half of my country as a tourist.”
Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus
North Nicosia. Children play football near central north Nicosia’s old city walls. The city's walls were constructed by the Venetians when Cyprus became part of the Republic of Venice in 1489, and they're still almost intact today.
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Melodi, 20, second year music student, at the Buyuk Han or Great Inn in central north Nicosia. The first time she ever crossed the border was in 2004 to visit her mother’s village in the south. “I remember the people’s reactions, the happiness. I don’t know, everyone was nervous, nervous but happy.” These days she frequently crosses the border with her family to go shopping or go to the Troodos Mountains. “[The border] means nothing, because it doesn’t have to be there. We can pass and go there, they can pass to come here – we are all together.”
Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus
South Nicosia. A dog park inside the moat of central south Nicosia’s historic city walls.
Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus
South Nicosia. Christians participate in a Good Friday procession in south Nicosia. While the north is inhabited by a predominantly Muslim population of Turkish-Cypriots and Turkish settlers, in the south, the Republic of Cyprus consists mainly of Orthodox Christians alongside some Catholic minorities.
Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus
North Nicosia. Muslims pray inside the Selimiye Mosque.
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Andreas, 30, outside the bar where he works, located exactly on south Nicosia’s Green Line. While he grew up in south Nicosia, the first time he ever crossed to visit the north was less than a month before this picture was taken. He says that it wasn’t a conscious decision not to go, but that maybe subconsciously he was still attached to the comfort and familiarity of south Nicosia.

He finds it unfortunate that his parents refuse to visit the north if they have to show their passports or IDs in order to cross the border. He is jealous of the cats and birds passing through Nicosia’s buffer line without the need of passports and paperwork, completely oblivious to any political situation. “What does it mean to show a passport to cross? It is a fake paper you show to cross a fake line in order to go and see a land that is real,” he says. “I have faith in people, I believe that we can get out of this situation, slowly. We just have to be careful, because there always has to be some ‘enemy’ outside of us. But how much hatred can be left in you when you sit down with someone and eat and drink and listen to music?“
Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus
North Nicosia. Dervish dancers perform daily inside the former Catholic cathedral of St. Paul and St. Peter in north Nicosia. Mevlevi culture and its dervish dancers were first introduced to Cyprus when the Ottoman Empire conquered the island in 1571.
Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus
Yagmur, 27, freelance illustrator, in north Nicosia with the city’s UN-controlled buffer zone in the background. Some of her best friends are Greek-Cypriots and she regularly crosses the border, but is still frustrated with how problematic it can be to have to present yourself to authorities and cross a border to go to a different part of town.

She thinks that in Nicosia, you get to see the reality and absurdity of the island’s division on daily basis. “Unfortunately, because I’ve grown up with this, it feels normal to me. I never had the chance to see how it could be otherwise. When the border opened in 2003 I was too young to fully understand what was going on. But after the border opened and we could pass, I started to question it. It’s weird that it’s so normalised for our generation," she says. “Even if the authorities are not going to make peace in Cyprus, I’m living in peace because I’m passing through the border. I’m seeing my friends, meeting new people and we do art together. I’m living in peace as much as I can. ”
Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus
South Nicosia. A café located on the Green Line in central south Nicosia.
Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus
North Nicosia. A café located a few hundred metres from the Green Line.
Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus
North Nicosia. A street scene a few metres from a foot crossing point to south Nicosia.
Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus
Gokhan, 33, barista, inside the warehouse where he stores his coffee cart in north Nicosia. Gokhan is not officially married, because he says he doesn’t need to tell any government about who he loves – but his partner Christina is a Greek-Cypriot and they both live together in south Nicosia. He has many friends in the south and he crosses the border at least two times per day. When asked about his feelings regarding Nicosia’s division, he says: “I feel terrible, because this city is my city, and this city was divided by people who were not born in this country and who didn’t live in this country. I don’t believe that Cypriots divided this island themselves.”
Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus
South Nicosia. A little café, located a few hundred metres from the Green Line.
Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus
South Nicosia. A statue of Markos Drakos on a roundabout in south Nicosia. Drakos was a Greek-Cypriot fighter of EOKA, a Greek-Cypriot paramilitary group which fought against the British rule of Cyprus between 1955 and 1959, and had an ultimate goal of uniting the island with Greece.
Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus
North Nicosia. A memorial statue which celebrates the existence of the Turkish element in Cyprus – from its Ottoman conquest in 1571 until the de facto establishment of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1983.
Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus
Lenia, 29, art therapist, in her studio in south Nicosia. Up until a few years ago she had no relationship with north Nicosia or Turkish Cypriots. Only after she returned to Cyprus after a few years of studying abroad, she became curious about what was on the other side of the border. While she still doesn’t have as much interaction with Turkish Cypriots as she would like, she believes that people from both sides of Cyprus are capable of coming together.

About the first time she crossed to the north with her family in 2003, she says: “From what I had heard around me and from what they told us in school, I went over to the other side with a very negative feeling and a very heavy heart, to see what they had taken from us. But over the years, my feelings have changed. It’s not like that anymore.” She adds: “The bad thing is that you get used to this, that it’s not extraordinary anymore that we have a border. But the fact is that you can't do anything about it."
Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus
South Nicosia. People walk their dogs in south Nicosia’s historic centre.
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Sergen, 21, waiter and journalism student outside the café where he works in north Nicosia, a few metres from one of the main foot crossings into the south of the city. He doesn’t remember much of the first time he crossed the border with his mother to go and visit her village in the south. “I know I was afraid a bit, but that was normal. I didn’t know the place and I had heard so many things, like that the Greeks didn’t like us – but after that, I realised it’s people. We are the same, there is nothing different.” Today he crosses the border regularly to see Greek-Cypriot friends and to attend music gigs.
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Marilena, 29, freelance actor, theatre teacher and activist, outside the Home for Cooperation, an inter-communal NGO enabling interaction between Greek and Turkish Cypriots from inside Nicosia’s UN controlled buffer zone. She grew up in south Nicosia and had almost no relationship with the north and its people before 2013, when she became involved with various activities between the two communities. Today she crosses the border on a regular basis and has many friends and colleagues on both sides.

“I understand why many people don’t want to show their passports [in order to cross the border] – because you actually do recognise the division that way. On the other hand though – if you want to meet the people from the other side, if you want to communicate with them, you might find a common solution. I feel weird and a little frustrated that nothing is happening to change it,” she says. “Even if politicians came to a solution tomorrow, if the people are not ready to accept it, it will not happen – it won’t move forward.“

Read more stories from VICE.com's series about how the national borders dividing and surrounding Europe affect the lives of the people living near them.