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

The Turkish army invaded Cyprus 40 years ago this week. Ever since then, what should be the island nation's most popular resort town has been a cut-off, increasingly dilapidated ghost town. I stopped by to take in the sights.

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Aug 13 2014, 7:42am

If you've heard of a place called Varosha lately, you're unlikely to think of what it once was—a sunny millionaire's playground on the sea—because today it's one of the world's biggest ghost towns. Its crumbling houses and buildings are slowly being reclaimed by nature, a reminder that an unresolved conflict isn't over just because people aren't killing one another there anymore. But it may hold the key to reunifying the divided country of Cyprus.

The Turkish army invaded Cyprus during the summer of 1974, and Varosha's population went from 39,000 to zero almost overnight. The two waves of Turkish attacks were a response to a coup by Greek-Cypriot nationalists. The Turkish troops captured Varosha during the second wave, which began 40 years ago this week. Since then, no visitors other than Turkish patrols have been allowed inside.

The grim anniversary of the war that resulted in the capture of Varosha brings new hope that a solution can be found to revive the town. A grassroots effort by people from both communities of this bitterly divided country, along with renewed geopolitical interest in Cyprus, has motivated more efforts to find a solution. 

Turkey invaded in order to counter Greek-Cypriot nationalism in Cyprus, to suppress citizens who wanted to unite politically with Greece, which at the time was ruled by a far-right military junta. Turkey then claimed to be protecting the Turkish minority on the island by invading. One month later, the second invasion set the stage for what would become of Cyprus ever since then.

The invasion and partition of the island resulted in the killing of around 1,500 Turkish-Cypriots and 8,000 Greek-Cypriots due to Turkish bombardment, as well as what has been labeled ethnic cleansing by both sides. Turkey occupied the northern 36.2 percent of Cyprus and continues to do so to this day.

When the fighting stopped soon after the invasion, the result was a partition of the island between the Greek-Cypriot south, an internationally recognized EU country, and the Turkish-Cypriot north, a breakaway state only recognized by Turkey. The two sides are separated by a UN buffer zone, referred to as the “Green Zone.” Varosha lies just north of the Green Zone in the Turkish occupied part of Cyprus.

Unlike other towns, it was not resettled, as many towns on both sides of Cyprus were. The Turkish army has kept a tight lock on Varosha, knowing it is important enough to be used as a bargaining chip against the Greek side. This has resulted in 40 years of sustained decay that has arguably become the most obvious symbol of Cyprus's unresolved conflict. 

It was possible to get to Varosha but only on the outer edges, where the fence is located. There I saw life going on as normal in the neighboring town of Famagusta. People swam and sunbathed at the beach, used the functioning hotels, and drank at beach bars. All the while, just behind a fence, buildings were crumbling. The vast majority of the beach is permanently closed, leaving only a small strip. And of course, to jump over the fence into Varosha—or even take a pictures from the outside–is to risk arrest.

The first thing I saw as I approached Varosha was a hotel building that is one of two directly hit by Turkish airstrikes. The damage from the bombing is still visible. The bodies were all removed, but the site of the battle wasn't otherwise cleaned up. 

Before the division of Cyprus, Greek-Cypriots and the Turkish-Cypriot minority lived in each other's midst throughout the island, albeit not always peacefully. This is no longer the case, but the desire to reopen and restore Varosha has drawn people from both sides.

Serdar Atai, a Turkish-Cypriot who lives near Varosha compared living with the abandonment of Varosha to "being forced to sleep with a dead person every day." He and other Turkish-Cypriots have been working together with Greek-Cypriots to lobby for Varosha's reopening through the Bicommunal Famagusta Initiative. George Lordos is one of the Greek-Cypriots involved in the initiative who had to flee Varosha during the invasion, leaving behind a home and family business. The initiative has been advocating for the reopening and restoration of Varosha, and the return of property to its rightful owners. It has conducted studies through Eastern Mediterranean University on the costs and engineering needs involved in the restoration of an entire town that has been closed for 40 years.

Turkish-Cypriots, the Cypriot minority, once worked in Varosha, and proponents of its reopening say it will be a chance for Greek and Turkish Cypriots to live and work together again, paving the way for a wider reunification of the island. The plan has run into opposition from both communities in Cyprus, and from Turkey. Turkish-Cypriot hardliners want Turkey to retain control of Varosha, perhaps because it's a useful bargaining chip against when they need something from Greek-Cypriots. Some Greek-Cypriots reject the plan because they see a deal with an illegal occupier as granting legitimacy to a breakaway state that has no rights to the land in the first place.

Mertkan Hamit, a Turkish-Cypriot member of the initiative was part of a team who conducted a public opinion poll that showed that the vast majority of Turkish-Cypriots do support the plan even though most of those who would return to Varosha would be Greek-Cypriots. Mertkan and Serdar were quick to cite the economic benefit of having Varosha back, saying the area around it has been especially hurt by the occupation, and Varosha would help them just as much as it would the Greek-Cypriots. 

A wider look at Cyprus shows that Varosha may be closer than ever to being freed. The discovery of natural gas in Cypriot waters, and increased desire to be less dependent on Russia has sparked renewed geopolitical interest in resolving the Cyprus question. US Vice President Joe Biden visited Cyprus and met with the leaders of both sides this year, hoping to announce a deal on Varosha. Though the deal fell victim to political deadlock, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that he will soon visit Cyprus. 

Natural gas and the possibility that Varosha could be reopened could create momentum for a solution to Cyprus. But so far, the writing on the crumbling walls of Varosha says that the Cypriot question hasn't been answered. 

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