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04 Apr 2008 07:41
For Koula Hadjipieris and Hassan Chirakli the wall of hate came down at 10am on Thursday. That’s when Hadjipieris called her lifelong Turkish Cypriot friend and said: “I’m coming over.” They were words that in Nicosia, the last divided capital in Europe, Chirakli had hoped to hear all his adult life.
Ledra Street, the barricaded boulevard in the heart of the medieval-walled city that had symbolised the tensions and partition of the island for the best part of half a century, was no more.
Finally, Chirakli and Hadjipieris could do what they had long wanted—cross it freely.
At 10.45am, as clapping and cheering filled the air and balloons rose into the skies while television crews captured the moment, Hadjipieris, a Greek Cypriot, walked into the slither of land she had only ever known as the “dead zone”, past crumbling mothballed buildings and rusty gunports and cheery United Nations soldiers, to meet her Turkish Cypriot countryman, Chirakli, at the other end.
For the first time in her 53 years she had traversed the length of Nicosia’s most strategic boulevard; a street whose ability to attract violence even under colonial British rule had earned it the moniker Murder Mile.
“At long last, I thought, I can walk freely down this tiny stretch of road and meet an old friend for coffee,” said Hadjipieris, who has known Chirakli since the age of 12, when the two attended Nicosia’s English School.
“If I had wanted to meet Hassan before, it literally meant travelling for an hour through one of the other checkpoints [outside the walled city of old Nicosia], almost the time it takes to fly to Greece.”
No other locale conjures the effects the passage of time has had on Cyprus, or the durability of fear, as much as the barricades that have kept the island’s Greek and Turkish communities apart on Ledra Street.
Until 6.30am on Thursday, when municipal workers moved in colourful flower plots and the last guardsmen left their sentry posts, this was the place where Greek Cypriot troops had encouraged tourists to gawp at the terrible Turk, nervously eyeing their enemy down the barrel of a gun.
For the Turks, buried behind forward positions established when the ceasefire lines were formalised on August 18 1974, no other barricade was as emblematic of the ethnic strife that first sent the minority scuttling into enclaves in 1963. Along the 180km of UN-patrolled buffer zone that divides the island, war debris can still be seen among the spring blossoms and butterflies.
“It is a crack in a very strategic point of a wall that will, I hope, rock and weaken its foundations,” said Lellos Demetriades, Nicosia’s veteran former mayor who attended the opening of the passageway. “For a very long time we were only connected underground, through the sewage system, now we are connected overground. I think we have to be optimistic.”
The euphoria elicited by the decision to open the street was reflected in the feverish efforts to shore up dilapidated buildings and cement the 70m long stretch of road after both sides agreed to demilitarise the area in a move aimed at kick-starting reunification talks.
Turkish Cypriots, bereft of international recognition and trade, see successful negotiations as the start of reintegration with the international community.
Unlike their Greek compatriots who have flourished amid one of the EU’s strongest economies, the Turkish minority has been marooned in a 1960’s time warp, with cars that are often miracles of improvisation, headscarfed women settlers from Turkey, and a crumbling architectural backcloth increasingly reminiscent of a dusty Anatolian town.
Ledra’s opening, announced barely three weeks after a veteran communist, Demetris Christofias, was elected Greek Cycpriot president, is seen as the first tangible proof of progress after five years of deadlock under the nationalist president Tassos Papadopulos.
Christofias, a moderate, said the dismantling of the barricade would be a “goodwill gesture”, after holding talks with his fellow leftwinger, the Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat.
“It’s a hugely important move,” said the anthropologist and political analyst Yannis Papadakis. “Ledra as a shopping district has always been a main point of contact and exchange, but also an area of great conflict, so psychologically, suddenly being able to walk from one side to the other is going to be a huge boost.”
As fellow leftwingers who appear willing to talk about the painful compromises that Cyprus’s Greek and Turkish communities will need to make if they are to reunite under the umbrella of a federal state, Christofias and Talat have injected a rare sense of enthusiasm into the island’s political scene.
This week, for the first time in years, a senior UN official sent to gauge the mood on the island and determine whether the political will exists to relaunch peace talks expressed enthusiasm that a solution could be reached.
“There is a very positive tone in Cyprus at the moment and a palpable sense of momentum,” said Lynn Pascoe. “The two leaders have set their sights on achieving a fair and lasting solution .”
Talks are set to restart in June after working groups from both communities decide on an agenda. At the head of the list will be power-sharing, territory and security - especially the withdrawal of some of the estimated 30 000 Turkish troops on the island.
“Time is against us and we both know that,” said Hadjipieris, adding that she did not want yesterday’s historic event to be simply a goodwill gesture. But the day ended on a sour note last night when the checkpoint was closed on the Greek side amid claims Turkish Cypriots had violated an agreement.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when the Turkish military invaded in response to a coup, inspired by the military junta in Athens, to unite the island with Greece. Thousands of Greek-Cypriot refugees fled south as Turkey seized the island’s northern third, while Turkish Cypriots headed north.
Following the death of the Greek Cypriots’ spiritual leader, Archbishop Makarios, in 1977, mutual antagonism became firmly entrenched. UN-sponsored talks between the Greek Cypriot president, Glafcos Clerides, and the leader of the Turkish-occupied north, Rauf Denktash, in the 1980s and 90s collapsed, with neither capable of persuading their people to compromise.
The north, only recognised by Turkey, slid into poverty and corruption and became a mecca for British criminals and refugees from Turkey. Tourism and offshore banking brought prosperity to the south. When the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, presented a reunificationplanin 2002, suggesting a two-part federation with a rotating presidency, hopes were raised. But while Turkish Cypriots were in favour, Greek Cypriots rejected the plan in a referendum in 2004.
This disappointed EU officials, who had agreed to allow Cyprus to join that year partly in the hope it would encourage a solution to the Cyprus problem. Now both sides are led by representatives of a new generation unencumbered by past grievances. Demetris Christofias and Mehmet Ali Talat, both leftwingers, are expected to sit down for full negotiations this summer. - guardian.co.uk Â
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