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World Perspective | DIPLOMACY

Mayor in Divided Nicosia Tries to Be a Conduit for Change

April 25, 1998|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NICOSIA, Cyprus — A black-and-white photograph of Nicosia taken from the air on Nov. 14, 1963, hangs in Lellos Demetriades' office as a lost ideal.

Demetriades runs part of the world's last partitioned city. As mayor of Nicosia's Greek quarter for 26 of its 34 years behind barbed wire, he has worked as hard as anyone for reunification.

"Nations can be divided, but cities? Never!" he said in an interview at City Hall. "Berlin is reunited. So is Beirut. This division cannot last forever."

A visitor might wonder about his optimism. An alley studded by dirt bunkers, makeshift barricades and United Nations foot patrols zigzags across the Cypriot capital like a festering wound. The buffer zone, marked in yellow on the glass covering of the aerial photo, has separated Nicosia's Greek and Turkish communities since an outbreak of sectarian violence one month after the photo was taken.

What was to be a temporary cease-fire line stretched into an unofficial border across the entire Mediterranean island after a 1974 war in which Turkish troops invaded to prevent a takeover by Greece and seized 37% of Cyprus' territory.

After two decades of fruitless peace talks, many Cypriots are resigned to permanent division into ethnically cleansed communities--Turks in the north, Greeks in the south. But not Demetriades, who views the buffer zone as a temporary obstacle.

Working quietly with Turkish Cypriot counterparts, the 65-year-old mayor has produced a "master plan" that presumes the city will again be one. It prohibits either side from building anything adjacent to the buffer zone that would prevent rejoining what are now dead-end streets in a single urban grid.

He has also cooperated with the Turkish side on a citywide sewer system--a project now threatened by the politics of division.

Nicosia has a population of 185,000 on the Greek side and 50,000 on the Turkish side. The 1974 U.N. cease-fire agreement obliges both parts of the city to share water, which flows from the north, and electricity, which flows from the south, as they did before the fighting.

Sewage is not mentioned. The Greek side started building a modern sewer system only after 1974. Because the Turkish side is lower and already had a treatment plant, Demetriades decided to extend his project under the buffer zone.

"Gravity required us to cooperate," recalled Mustafa Akinci, mayor of Nicosia's Turkish quarter at the time.

The two men became friends in 1977 and met about once a week for 13 years. Akinci would pass through two checkpoints in a U.N.-chauffeured car to have lunch at Demetriades' home inside the Old City's 16th century Venetian walls.

Their cooperation became known and aroused nationalist opposition on both sides. But they moved quickly to hook influential entrepreneurs into the nascent sewer system.

"We succeeded by avoiding nationalist politics and doing what's good for the city," said Demetriades, a colorful, outspoken figure.

Until recently, it worked. The European Union, which recognizes only the Greek Cypriot government, helps pay for the sewer works by channeling money through Demetriades' office.

But now the Turkish quarter has a new mayor, and he is blocking an expansion of the sewer system and demanding direct payment from the EU for work on his side. Demetriades blames the work stoppage on the Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf R. Denktash, who is seeking recognition for Northern Cyprus as a sovereign state.

"The sewers are getting overloaded," Demetriades warned. "Nicosia is going to start stinking about a year from now. I've told Mr. Denktash that I hope the wind will blow toward his house."

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