The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus marked its 50th anniversary in March. The mission, which supervises cease-fire lines and maintains a buffer zone, has involved 32 countries that have contributed troops and police, among whom 184 peacekeepers have died. About 850 troops and 60 police officers make up the mission now, operating currently on an annual budget of $56 million.
Although the violence and bloodshed between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities in Cyprus has died down since 1974 — when there was a coup by Greeks on the island and an intervention by the Turkish military that resulted in Turkish control of the northern side — negotiations have been virtually stuck in time.
Until recently. Reunification talks restarted on Feb. 11 after an 18-month lull, and leaders of the Greek Cypriot and the Turkish Cypriot communities issued a joint statement emphasizing their desire for a united Cyprus. It is hard to imagine either side agreeing to a proposal any time soon. On Feb. 27 for the first time in more than four decades, chief negotiators from both Cypriot communities held talks in Athens and Ankara, but views on the nature of a possible compromise remain far apart.
In December and January, I explored Cyprus for the first time. I live in Istanbul and peace talks in Cyprus started trending in the Turkish news, so I was curious what life felt like on this divided island. I wandered around both sides for a week, talking to people, hearing their personal histories and checking if popular sentiment matched the sudden optimism expressed by Turkish government ministers about the prospects for compromise on North Cyprus’s status.
I stayed on the northern side, the self-declared state called the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the Turkish-occupied territory of the Republic of Cyprus by the rest of the world. On my second day, I traveled to Nicosia, the capital city of the island. It remains the capital for both sides as the Green Line that divides the island runs right through the city, with a Turkish Cypriot community in the north and a Greek Cypriot community in the south, a buffer zone of varying depth separating them.
On this island split in two, the symbolism improbably deepens when the buffer zone coincides with an ancient moat and becomes an actual gash. On the edges of this zone, life has been evacuated for decades, with most houses surrounding the zone abandoned and business nonexistent. The UN built guard towers in the zone as conflicts continued, but gradually the fighting dissipated, and in 2003 the borders started to open, one crossing point at a time.
The Ledra Palace crossing is particularly evocative. The first time I went through, the two-minute walk between the Turk Cypriot checkpoint and the Greek Cypriot checkpoint took me past bombed-out buildings, UN barracks and desolate parks. Someone threw a rock at me from a walled area above; when I looked up, I saw a kid at some distance from his parents ready to huck another, but I couldn’t tell what that area was: Greek, Turkish or the buffer zone.
It didn’t speak of danger, yet it was a complete mystery what function the border area had at this section. The graffiti on a UN sign warning against photography in the area indicated that at least some paint-wielding locals felt that the UN troops stationed there had basically been posted to a vacation site.
Later in my weeklong visit, I slept in a home on the southern side of Nicosia, the area controlled by the Republic of Cyprus. The owner is an engineer from Limassol, farther south in Cyprus, and she started renovating her home seven years ago. Her house is in the heart of the old city, a block from the buffer zone, an area only recently repopulated as the border openings and a cooling down in hostilities made it possible to live within firing distance of the other side.
The old city is a perfect circle of Venetian walls punctuated by 11 bastions, each stretch in various stages of disrepair, with some sections beautifully renovated. From her house, you can walk two blocks over cobblestone alleyways to an eastward-facing bastion with an upscale restaurant recently built into a nearby wall.
In the morning, church bells compete with the muezzins at the one remaining mosque in the Greek Cypriot quarter and the mosques across the Green Line, just blocks away.
On that day, I went back to the Turkish Cypriot side to check out the Arabahmet quarter, the old Armenian neighborhood. The owner of a bookshop on the Greek Cypriot side had described this area to me a few days before, speaking with earned bitterness about the fate of the Armenian people — fleeing to Cyprus from persecution in Turkey only to be uprooted again by the Turks in 1974. The neighborhood is still one of the prettiest parts of the whole city, with whitewashed buildings and colorful shutters lining dusty streets.
On the edge of the neighborhood, I walked into a deserted park with some of the saddest playground equipment I’ve ever seen. A young Turkish solider manned a post near the entrance, looking confused with his gun. The far side of the park is actually the top of one of the city wall’s bastions, and below lies a semideserted football field in the moat area as well as a UN tower with cracked windows.
A church bell rang from across the divide. I realized as I looked below that I was standing where the kid throwing rocks had been standing. And I thought about what might be going idly through that kid’s mind, acting out a mild frustration that a checkpoint nearby separates him and that football field and the rest of the city he calls home.
I asked everyone I met, “Do you think that the latest talks will be any different than the many attempts over the past couple of decades?”
The answer was invariably no. But the response varied in tone, some vehemently opposed to compromise, some justly pessimistic after many failed attempts and some lightly wry about “official” solutions.
The latter mood came from people who are working hard on unofficial solutions — those who have been working for years to build a civic foundation for peaceful co-existence in the absence of any government’s ability to provide it. For example, the House for Cooperation takes advantage of the neutral zone to create a space where everyone can feel comfortable and neither side is privileged. They provide a place for people to read the history of this island, which is both shared and not shared. Places and people like these gave me the most hope.
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Maria Luisa Gambale, a graduate of Harvard University, lives in New York City. In addition to writing, she produces film and media projects and is director of the 2011 film “Sarabah,” about the Senegalese rapper-activist Sister Fa. She has produced and directed video for National Geographic, ABC News, The New York Times and Fusion Network. Gambale’s work in all media can be viewed at www.veradonnafilms.com.