Green Light: Border Opening in Cyprus

A Turkish Cypriot returns to his old home.
Turkish Cypriots Hussein Pil (L), 80, and his son Guner visit their old home in Paphos on May 30, 2003, a week after the inhabitants of Cyprus began crossing the "Green Line" for the first time in decades (Photo: Laura Boushnak/AFP).

A spontaneous unification process may have been started on the island of Cyprus, now divided for 29 years, since Rauf Denktas, the president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus—who had previously been unable to reach an agreement with Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos on unification of the island—opened the Green Line separating the island’s two sections.

Actually, it was the foot of Cypriot woman Marula Mihaili that first planted itself across the border, when last Wednesday [April 23], after 29 years of exile, she visited her childhood home in the town of Yerolakos, which is in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, an entity recognized solely by Ankara. The widow, now 75 years old, found almost everything as it had been left on July 20, 1974, when she was forced to leave it a few hours after the Turkish takeover.

The Turkish family that occupied the house still uses the silver set that Mihaili received as a wedding gift and the abandoned and now somewhat worn furniture. Her grandfather’s cuckoo clock is still hanging on the wall. “I was surprised to see that they kept the family pictures,” she said happily to the Nicosia correspondent of the London paper The Independent. Other Greek Cypriots told the same story: Among them were those forced to leave as children with their parents and who have now returned with their own children to show them their childhood homes.

At the same time, it was a bitter experience for many Greek Cypriots to see how impoverished the Turkish-occupied northern half of the island has become. What until then they had only heard they could now see with their own eyes: The seaside resorts, once counted as tourist attractions, were now lifeless, abandoned, in a state of decay. There is no sign of the once-bustling life, apart from the few poor-looking businesses, restaurants, and cafes that can be seen. Not to mention the fact that the Greek Orthodox churches have been transformed into mosques. There is now nothing to suggest that the buildings were once Christian churches: The crosses have been removed from the roofs, and the icons and wall paintings removed from the interiors.

Observers likened the event to the fall of the Berlin Wall, initiating a spontaneous process of unification; but above all, it was a symbolic neighborly gesture that Denktas made possible after he agreed that the Greek and Turkish Cypriots, isolated from one another, could make one-day visits across the so-called Green Line that separates the two parts of the island.

The 180-kilometer-long separation zone crossing the island in the Mediterranean Sea—at some points 20 kilometers wide, at others 7 kilometers wide, lined with barbed wire—was established following the Turkish occupation and is overseen by peacekeepers from nine designated United Nations countries, as well as by 13,000 Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot soldiers. The Green Line divides the capital, Nicosia, in two, which is why the international airport on the island is not functioning. Aircraft land instead at Larnaca [in the Greek-Cypriot section].

Permission to cross the Green Zone—two of the four checkpoints were opened—was more popular among the Greeks, to judge from first indications. According to data supplied by the Cyprus News Agency, on Wednesday, the first day, some 5,000 Greek Cypriots crossed the border, while only about 2,000 Turks took advantage of the opportunity.

The “Dry-Land” Turks relocated by Ankara are still barred from crossing the Green Line; only their Cyprus-born compatriots may do so. An individual’s “Turkishness” can easily be determined by existing documentation. Turkish Cypriots can cross the border only on foot, because allowing Cypriot automobiles bearing foreign license plates into the country would have meant de-facto recognition of the Northern Cyprus government by the Cypriot government. Most indications seem to point toward attraction by the Turkish Cypriots to the sights of the wealthier lifestyle across the border; mainly, they marveled at the businesses in the Nicosia shopping district.

On Tuesday night, many Greek Cypriots slept in their cars at the checkpoints, so they could be among the first to cross the Green Line. These checkpoints include the Ledra, once a luxury hotel and now the headquarters for the U.N. peacekeepers. A queue running 10 kilometers long stood on the Greek side, and the waiting time to cross was five hours.

Still, the Cyprus government accepted the announcement by Denktas with reluctance. Government spokesman Kypros Chrysostomides declared that permission to cross the Green Line did not mean that the symbolic wall between the two sections had fallen, adding that this was not the way to a solution of the Cyprus question. The Cyprus government regarded Denktas’ move as illegal, saying that the fact that Greek Cypriots had to show their passports at the checkpoint was in effect an admission that they were traveling to a foreign country. It also angered Nicosia that Denktas made the move unilaterally, without consulting his counterpart. Both U.N. and European Union (E.U.) diplomats blame Denktas for the breakdown in unification talks on Nicosia, which were held under the aegis of the U.N.

The majority of Turkish Cypriots also hold Denktas responsible for the breaking off of the unification negotiations, which could have meant the accession of the northern section of the island to the E.U. as well. In recent weeks, there have been numerous demonstrations against him and calls for his resignation.

Indeed, a number of Turkish-Cypriot opposition leaders, a few days before the border opening, were willing to discuss unification with Costas Simitis, the Greek delegation leader who holds the rotating E.U. presidency, at the residence of the Greek consul. Seeing this, Denktas’ son, Serdar, who holds the office of deputy prime minister, suggested that his father make at least a symbolic step toward rapprochement. According to the younger Denktas, recent moves could be a test of whether the two parts of the island are capable of living side by side in peace.

The opening of the border was carefully timed: It came a week after the signing of Cyprus’ E.U. accession treaty. If the two sides cannot reach a conclusion to talks by the date set for expansion, May 1, 2004, then Cyprus will enter the E.U. without the northern section of the country.

There is also growing pressure on Denktas from the Turkish side. Since both E.U. Enlargement Commisioner Günter Verheugen and Greek delegation head Simitis announced that Brussels would tie the start of negotiations for E.U. accession with Ankara to a resolution of the Cyprus question, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s new Islamist prime minister, is also pushing for a speedy resolution to the conflict; he suggested to Denktas the immediate opening of talks on the basis of the U.N. organizational plan.

Still, Ankara considers the Cyprus E.U. accession treaty invalid, since the Turkish Cypriots are not included, and without a unified Parliament and government, the present Cabinet does not represent the entire nation. At the same time, Ankara seems to be signaling a cooling on the Cyprus question. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul announced a few days ago that if Cyprus wished to establish an embassy in Ankara, the Turkish government would be willing to examine the possibility.