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Exploring Nicosia, the Last Divided Capital City In the World

Is the animosity between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots still too great for any chance of reconciliation?
14 January 2015, 6:00am

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, only one capital city in the world remains divided in two. Forty years after escalating ethnic tensions and inter-communal violence across Cyprus prompted an Athens-orchestrated coup d'état – followed, five days later, by a retaliatory invasion by the Turkish army – the Cypriot capital of Nicosia is still riddled with the physical and mental scars of the West's longest running diplomatic dispute.

At its slimmest, the "Green Line" – the UN-controlled buffer zone that snakes through Nicosia, keeping the de facto TRNC, or "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" (unrecognised by any nation save Turkey), and the Republic of Cyprus at arm's length – is no wider than the hulking ramparts of the old Venetian walled city, intimate enough for Turkish-Cypriot youths peering through mesh fences and razor wire to pelt occasional marches of the Cypriot far-right with stones. At its widest, on the city's western fringes, it swallows a now abandoned airport.

For the most part, the Buffer Zone is a Call of Duty screenshot, a post-apocalyptic sliver of abandoned, crumbling, bullet-specked buildings dotted with spindly UN observation towers and concrete foxholes framed by oil drums and sandbags. Yawning soldiers in Cambridge blue berets watch Greek Cypriots watching Turkish Cypriots, all with a half-hearted eye on intrusive tourist lenses. It's a city with bad feng shui, a place of dead ends and otherness, a marriage soured by interfering parents in which neither party is inclined to admit their culpability in the tetchy bickering that slid into all-out bloody war.

Where the division of Berlin was overnight, ideological and thus relatively simple to reverse, Nicosia's schism – setting down its roots slowly and organically either side of independence from Britain in 1960 – is a far more entrenched, entangled and complex affair to unravel. While Greek-Cypriot nationalists calling for enosis ("union") with Mother Greece mixed ambushes on British troops with sporadic acts of violence against the Turkish-Cypriot minority, the latter began to speak of taksim ("partition") as they retreated into barricaded enclaves across the city. Indeed, the "Green Line" was named after the wax crayon used by the commander-in-chief of the British peacekeeping forces in 1963 to draw a ceasefire line through the capital.

Throughout the countryside, mixed villages and relatively harmonious co-existence remained common, yet the tumult of 1974 saw the cracks become a chasm as busloads of people abandoned their homes in panicked mass internal migration, and the definitive separation of the population ensued.

Cyprus has since stewed in decades of mutual suspicion, with few olive branches held out. The closest the island has come to re-unification was in 2004, a week prior to Cyprus joining the EU, when a blueprint for settlement drafted by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan went to referendum on both sides. The "Annan Plan" was accepted by 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots, but rejected by 76 percent of Greek Cypriots.

Thereafter has been a tale of frosty stalemate and diminishing hope, yet talks resumed earlier this year, the catalyst being Cyprus's recent discovery of vast offshore reserves of gas and oil, and a potential convergence of economic interest. By far the cheapest way to get the hydrocarbons to market would be through a pipeline to the Turkish coast, and with the US looking to diversify its energy supply and lessen dependence on Russia, experts felt that Washington would finally bring some pressure to bear on Turkey, a key NATO ally in the Middle East and a partner who has been hitherto indulged. Instead, Ankara sent a gunboat into the Cypriot "Exclusive Economic Zone" and belligerent rhetoric into the air, scuppering another pathway to peace.

The fracturing of the island's common history has not only created these acrimonious and seemingly intractable barriers to reintegration – any political resolution and process of transitional justice must bring closure to the everyday traumas of war, particularly the question of missing persons, as well as address Turkish demilitarisation and the incredibly complex issue of property reparation – but also asymmetrical development either side of the border.

If not quite the pickled cabbage versus Coca-Cola of Good bye, Lenin!, the contrast between the two sides of old Nicosia is palpable. While not without its drab quarters, south Nicosia has all the neon-lit amenities of a modern city, its portion of the old north-south drag a pedestrianised commercial Everytown with its Starbucks, Debenhams and McDonald's. Walk 20 metres through the Lidras Street crossing, amid the "genuine fakes" of those brands in abundance to the south, and it feels as ramshackle and hand-to-mouth as a Middle Eastern bazaar.

When the border, closed for 29 years, was first opened in 2003 at the Ledra Palace Hotel – a once opulent six-storey sandstone structure a grenade's throw from the old city, now pock-marked with the acne of gunfire and serving as a barracks for UN forces – it was, for those who could remember living together, like a mass sign-up to Friends Reunited.

Ahmet, 70 years old and part of a steady trickle of Turkish Cypriots crossing each day to sample the West and its consumer palliatives, tells me that, despite returning to his village after 30 years to find his father's grave at the bottom of a newly formed reservoir, his only desire is for the Turkish army to leave, "so that us Cypriots can sort our problems out".

Nevertheless, approaching the Ledra Palace checkpoint from the south provides a jarring reminder of the way in which the trauma of division is thrust into Nicosia's everyday lived experience, for there you pass two large laminated posters of cousins killed brutally in the Buffer Zone in August of 1996. Tassos Isaak was beaten to death by Turkish fascists after becoming entangled in barbed wire at the end of a biker rally protesting the partition, while Solomos Solomou was shot dead at the memorial three days later while attempting to shimmy up a flagpole to lower the Turkish flag. Clocking the CCTV, I ask whether I can take a photo of "the portraits", to which the border policeman – misunderstanding, while making sure I'm not misunderstanding – replies: "They're not portraits, they're real."

Many Greek Cypriots refuse to cross the border, resentful of having to show passports to an occupying force in order to move freely around the island and visit their old homes, scornful of compatriots who do pop over to gamble in the North's casinos. (Mavros, a 37-year-old hotel receptionist, has never been over, despite working a five-minute stroll from the Lidras Street crossing, blanking out the existence of the other side just as the Cypriot Tourist Board's maps omit street names from the shaded area marked only "Area Under Turkish Occupation since 1974".)

Meanwhile, crossing in the opposite direction – past the twin flags of parent state and illegitimate child, past the banner proclaiming, in English, the "Turkish Republic of North Cyprus FOREVER" – is a journey that many inhabitants in the North cannot make, for the ever-growing numbers of Turkish settlers aren't issued with Cypriot ID cards and are thus barred from entry to the South.

Rare is the public building in the North – mosque, bank, school – that doesn't fly the Turkish and TRNC banners. With November's anniversary of the declaration of the TRNC, the city is aflutter with flags, each a cipher of belonging, each a reminder of otherness.

Members of ELAM, far-right sister party of Golden Dawn, stage a protest march, flourishing the blue-and-white Greek flag while alternating between anti-Turkish and pro-Hellenic chants – all forefathers, blood and death. In the evening, it's AKEL, the opposition communist party, who hold a rally, raising Cypriot and party flags only. As their General Secretary addresses a crowd of around 500 in front of a backdrop proclaiming "No to the pseudo-state", young activists follow the speech on their phones and, at pre-arranged intervals, strike up chants, including, in Turkish: "The Turkish of Cyprus are not our enemy, they are our brother."

The largest flag of all – eight football fields in size – has been hewn into the southern face of the Pentadaktylos Range. Equally proud and provocative, serving simultaneously to unite and alienate, it is visible from any elevated position in the old city alongside the similarly vast inscription: Ne mutlu Türküm diyene ("How proud is the one who says 'I am a Turk'").

However, beyond the ubiquitous reminders of segregation – beyond the sound and fury of political deadlock – the desire for rapprochement can still be heard in the conversation that mingles with the muezzin's call to prayer in cafes daubed with antifascist murals a short walk south of the Lidras Street checkpoint; in forums such as Cyprus Academic Dialogue and The Cypriot Puzzle, who are resisting the dead-end of Them/Us thinking, and calling out the cheap demagogic potshots; and, most hearteningly of all, at the Home for Co-operation, which – since 2011 – has been the base for a clutch of NGOs working to build "empathy and critical thinking" on both sides – the original being the Association for Historical Dialogue and Research, a group of formerly nomadic schoolteachers who would meet in restaurants to discuss how to teach Cyprus's turbulent history in a sensitive manner, a small yet crucial part of the immense labour of reconciliation that this people must undergo.

Sitting opposite Ledra Palace, incongruously pristine amid the general ruination of the Buffer Zone, H4C's neutral location is important both symbolically and practically, allowing everyone on the island, whatever those political or emotional obstacles, to come along and interact in a more informal context: in the café, education rooms, or even fringe theatre. Amid the general strife and trauma, it's a heartwarming grass-roots attempt to transcend the mistrust and rancour, to erode the psychological barriers, to move on.

And yet the weight of history hangs heavy in the air here. For many, the "other lot" will always be demons, "barbarians", responsible – their scars are too deep, their animosity too visceral. If, as Churchill said, Russia is "a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, surrounded by a mystery" then, thanks to its labyrinthine political and ethnonational intricacies, its disproportionate geostrategic importance, Cyprus is all that boxed in a puzzle buried in a conundrum.

If the puzzle is solved, the ancient husk of Nicosia could be a pearl of the Mediterranean, a walled city to rank with Valetta, Dubrovnik, Rhodes or Ibiza towns. Instead it sits, slightly forlornly, as a blighted, fascinating, charming, grisly spectacle of division, a touristic curio of two half-cities standing back-to-back while peering over their shoulders at the frayed bunting of nationhood atop those ruined buildings, and, beyond that, almost always, at the deepest blue sky.


More stories from Cyprus:

I Went to the Cypriot Golden Dawn's Fifth Birthday Party

The Refugee Family Living in a Military Tin Hut Next to Ayia Napa

Stopping by the Ghost Town in Cyprus That's Been Held Hostage for 40 Years