In the 1960’s my Uncle Yannis had a shop just off of Ledra Street in the old Venetian core of the city. At that time, British troops who were part of the UN Peacekeeping force called Ledra Street the Murder Mile. A couple of hundred metres further down the street from the shop was an untidy barricade of wood and concrete, two stories high where Turkish snipers kept watch and took pot-shots at passers by.
In the 1963, three years after Independence, the Turkish community barricaded themselves inside the northern portion of the city and in enclaves throughout the island for “protection” against the Greek community. When I visited the island with my parents for the first time in 1965, relations were very tense. We passed through roadblocks near Fanagusta where Blue Berets guarded the crossings with their fingers on the triggers of their guns and in places we had to travel in convoy with armed guards in front and behind us.
The powder keg exploded in July 1974 and after a bloody conflict the island was divided. All of the enclaves were disbanded but due to its strategic position, the barrier on Ledra Street remained and was only dismantled in October 2008 after lengthy negotiations. I was visiting my family when the barrier came down. Later that day, after the President of Cyprus passed into the Northern part of the capital, I walked to the crossing point but did not pass across the barrier. Looking down the length of the street, I could see the low, crumbling, stone buildings of the old Turkish enclave and the silver topped minarets in the distance. I would have crossed but my cousin’s husband Athos did not like the idea of showing his passport to enter part of his own country, so we went to a bar and drank Keo beer instead…
Last night, I crossed that line with Sandra and my cousin Ritsa. With the minimum of formality, we walked from the thriving bustling Greek south through the dead zone of abandoned buildings with their crumbling balconies and peeling shutters into the Turkish north.
My cousin said it felt like being in a different country. Even the air smelt different, she said. The old stone buildings had not been modernised or replaced. Small shops huddled together in narrow lanes. Lighting levels were low and there were few people around. A door to a family home was open and as we walked past, we saw a man in his vest lying down, watching television in a barely furnished room with a faded low couch and peeling, dirty walls. It was she said, as if all the energy had been sucked out of the place.
We walked around the mighty Sophia mosque, built in medieval times as a Catholic cathedral by the Venetians. It is a huge edifice built of the beautiful mellow, local stone but now, sporting two minarets. It seemed strange to see Gothic architecture so far south.
To me, it did not seem so much a different country as a different time. It felt terribly familiar. This was the Lefkosia I first saw as a child. To me, this whole part of the city seemed like a time machine that was taking me back to 1965.
The driven pace of life in the Greek South, the commercialism, the designer shops and fast cars had nothing to do with this environment. It was as if the Turkish north had fallen into a deep sleep from which it was only now, slowly awakening.
Did I like it? That is hard to say. The entrance into the north of the city on Ledra Street is a symbol that after 45 years of division, things can change and the fact that the old buildings remain in profusion are a delight to my eyes but there was something oppressive in the air. The very buildings seemed to ooze despair and resignation.
The Turkish Cypriot population today is about 80,000 but 250,000 incomers were brought over from the Turkish mainland by the government to “balance” the populations of the island. Does that, combined with the isolation of the Turkish Cypriot state from the rest of the world have something to do with the feel of the place?
Until 1960, Cyprus was a pawn in the hands of outside powers, the Francs, the Venetians, the Ottomans, the British. Even now, Britain controls 10% of the island in the form of army and air bases. Then Turkey invaded the north and took an additional 37% of the land mass. I think Cyprus [both north and south] is still a pawn. The island is a bargaining chip for Turkey to enter the European Union and the British will never leave the island while it retains its strategic position at the junction of three continents. That will be the day that hell freezes over.
After and hour of walking around the dusty and darkened streets, we returned to the light and air of the Greek side.
Sitting in a lively bar at the top end of Ledra Street, we tried to make sense of the experience. Ritsa has every reason to dislike the Turks but instead, she said she felt sorry for them. Certainly, the “freedom” the Lefkosia Turks achieved thirty-six years ago doesn’t seem to have been translated into material advancement and it doesn’t appear to be a particularly joyous community either.
I’m glad to have walked into the past however and hope for small changes in the future…