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On Divided Island, Barriers Lifted Despite Failed Talks

For the first time since 1974, Turks and Greeks on Cyprus are able to cross the 'green line.'

May 25, 2003|Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

PATRKIKI VILLAGE, Cyprus — It was the moment that he had been awaiting the past 29 years, a return to the mud house where he was born in this village near the seaside town of Famagusta.

"It's not there anymore," Yiannakis Antonaki said as he pointed to an empty lot surrounded by eucalyptus trees. "The Turks must have destroyed it."

Antonaki, a 50-year-old restaurateur, is one of tens of thousands of Greek Cypriots who have visited the Turkish sector of this Mediterranean island since April 23, when Turkish Cypriot authorities, in a surprise gesture, lifted travel restrictions across the "green line" that has separated the two communities for nearly three decades.

Unlike Antonaki, many found their homes intact in the villages they fled when Turkish troops invaded northern Cyprus in 1974 to abort a coup that was backed by Athens and mounted by Greek Cypriot nationalists. Turkish troops, now numbering 30,000, have been stationed in the north since.

"We went to our old house. The Turks offered us tea and biscuits. They were very nice, but the place wasn't as clean and there weren't as many flowers in the garden," said Andri Pilava, a 73-year-old homemaker, walking toward a checkpoint in the divided capital, Nicosia, as United Nations peacekeepers looked on.

According to Turkish Cypriot border police, as many as 200,000 Greek Cypriots and about 70,000 Turkish islanders made their way back and forth in the first two weeks after the border was opened at Nicosia and another location.

Makeshift lanes, one for ethnic Turks and another for Greeks, go across the dividing line. On the Greek side, freshly erected signposts saying "Welcome brothers" now compete for attention with others that read "Stop Turkish inhumanity" and "Our demand: Turkish troops and settlers out of Cyprus."

And leaflets providing the Greek and Turkish names for villages are handed out to ease the journey home.

The influx of Greek islanders to the Turkish sector has been accompanied by infusions of sorely needed cash, much of it spent on local produce and garments and at casinos, which are banned on the Greek side.

Meanwhile, in a further goodwill gesture, Turkey this month announced the opening of its own borders to Greek Cypriots for the first time.

Western diplomats, local politicians and ordinary Turkish and Greek Cypriots have different explanations as to what prompted these moves.

Rauf R. Denktash, president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is recognized only by Turkey, insists that the relaxation of controls on the island's border was intended to prove to Greek Cypriots that the Turks "are still on their feet and thriving.

"The Greek Cypriots had a wrong image of us. They are surprised to find us developing, in good shape and not under the bayonets of Turkish soldiers," the ailing 79-year-old Turkish leader said during a recent interview in Nicosia. "They now see that we are their equals."

But a number of critics among the 200,000 Turkish Cypriots inhabiting the north offer a different explanation. "The Turkish Cypriot people were in a state of rebellion against Denktash and his policies," said Mehmet Ali Talat, leader of the opposition Republican Turkish Party. "It was meant to defuse their anger."

Tassos Papadopoulos, the Greek Cypriot president, has downplayed the move as a public relations ploy.

Denktash has come under mounting domestic and international pressure in recent months over his failure to endorse a new U.N. peace plan during the latest round of reunification talks with Papadopoulos in March. The proposal would create a unified nation with two autonomous "component" states and give Turkish Cypriots several key advantages -- including control of half the island's coastline, which is vital to the tourist industry.

"It was the best deal we were ever going to get," Talat, the opposition leader, said. "Denktash has committed a grave crime against the Turkish Cypriot people."

Like many here, he believes that the idea to open the borders originated in Ankara, the Turkish capital, in a bid to restore the credibility of Turkey and Denktash in light of their opposition to the U.N. plan.

Acceptance of the proposal would have enabled a united island to sign a treaty of accession to the European Union last month. Instead, the Greek Cypriot administration did so April 16 on behalf of the whole island. But in the absence of a peace deal, the Turkish Cypriots will not be able to enjoy the fruits of EU membership.

The Greek Cypriot administration, recognized by the vast majority of the international community as the legitimate government of the island, is set to sign a membership agreement in May 2004. By that time, the parliaments of EU member states are expected to have ratified Cyprus' accession.

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