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Media Watch 2003

25 May 2003
Source: Cyprus Mail
Comment: The following article appeared in the Observer of London on 25 May 2003.
Home sweet homeland

The following article appeared in the Observer of London on 25 May 2003, written by Kevin Toolis. The article makes some incorrect references. Morphou in the currently occupied north of the Republic of Cyprus is referred to by the Turkish name which was invented by the occupation regime as part of its Turkification programme. The area of Cyprus under Turkish miliary occupation is referred to as the 'Turkish Northern Cyprus' which is deemed illegal by international law. What is important however is the point is raised that the Greek Cypriot refugees and their descendants still, after 29 years yearn to return to the homes and lands that are morally and legally theirs.

"Home sweet homeland

For 30 years, the exiled people of Morphou in Turkish Northern Cyprus have dreamed of going home. But the past has not waited for them. Kevin Toolis goes in search of a lost generation

Like most small-town mayors, Pittas is proud of his local football team. Morphou might struggle near the bottom of the amateur Cypriot league, but he is always there on the terraces to cheer them on at every away match. But Mayor Charalambos Pittas never bothers with home matches because there aren't any. Until last month no one from Morphou had set foot in their town for the past 30 years. None of the youthful footballers on the pitch was born in the lush orange-growing town they play for.

Morphou are a team in exile. The grassy football pitch, the tackles and the shouts from the terraces are all real but the football club Digenes Akretas Morphou, like the mayor's office, is part of a dream. A dream of return.

'We try to keep this club alive until the moment we will go back - all the people of Morphou,' says Pittas, who as mayor-in-exile is elected by his fellow exiles. Pittas wants to turn the wayward clock of history back and regain what was lost. The mayor and an unknown number of the once 16,000 residents of Morphou and their descendants want to return and live in the town in Northern Cyprus from which they were expelled by the Turkish army in August 1974.

The mayor wants to lead his people back to their own promised land. 'The town of Morphou exists for our children because we have told them about it. My daughter knows everything about it through the pictures, videos and the stories of her grandparents. She knows all about the orchards we had in Morphou,' says Pittas.

Until a month ago, Pittas's words were nothing more than a dream, but as the barriers between Northern and Southern Cyprus have come crashing down, his wish may soon become reality.

Cyprus is still divided. For centuries the island, the largest in the Mediterranean, has been the stomping ground for clashing empires. The Venetians, the Ottomans and the British have all come and gone, leaving only the trail of conquest behind them; Cyprus's Turkish minority, 12 per cent of the 790,000 population, is a legacy of the Ottomans.

The last invaders were the Turkish army who landed on the northern beaches in July 1974 to save that endangered Turkish-Cypriot minority from a right-wing Greek-Cypriot nationalist coup. The invasion was the final chapter in nearly 20 years of the murky soup of intercommunal violence, most of it perpetrated by Greek-Cypriot terrorist gangs.

The Turkish army seized a third of the island and expelled 142,000 Greek-Cypriots to the south. In the south the entire Turkish-Cypriot population, around 70,000, was expelled or fled north out of fear. The ceasefire line of 16 August 1974 hardened into a wall of division that has cut the island, and the capital Nicosia, in two for the past 29 years.

Morphou, a Greek-Cypriot agricultural town in the main fruit-growing area in the northeast of the island, and its population, was on the wrong side of the line. For 29 years no Greek-Cypriot could cross the line of division. The town of Morphou is just 45 minutes' drive from the centre of the Greek side of Nicosia, but the barrier between them became as great as the Berlin Wall.

Then, in an act of revolution, the Turkish- Cypriot President Rauf Denktash suddenly opened the border in late April. Within a few days 150,000 people crossed over into hitherto forbidden territory to see the homes and towns they had so hurriedly left behind; but at night they had to return to the other side or else stay as tourists in hotels.

Mayor Pittas was not among them. He doesn't want just to visit his birthplace, he wants to return. He refuses to return to Morphou as a tourist, to queue at a Turkish-Cypriot checkpoint, to show his Cypriot passport to visit another part of Cyprus, and pay extra insurance on his car, to visit a place he regards as his home. After half a lifetime of waiting he is prepared to wait for a few more weeks, months, until he can go home for good.

Thirty years is half a lifetime. But Pittas's memories are fresh. 'I really feel that I've just left the town for a few weeks. When I close my eyes I feel that I am in my house and in my gardens in Morphou.' When his eyes are open Pittas, now 55, lives in an elegant modern house in Limassol on Cyprus's southern coast. He is an odd sort of refugee, a banker who runs the small Bank of Morphou - which, of course, has no branches, no customers and no loans in the town it is named after. When he is not running the bank, Pittas's days are filled with meetings about the return. Morphou is twinned with the London suburb of Barnet, and Sparta in Greece, and there have been several receptions in the House of Commons.

Inside Pittas's front door, the first object that catches a visitor's eye is a holy relic enthroned on a small table. It is a blown-up snapshot of another house, 7 Likourgos Street, Morphou, Cyprus.

In the picture, the house, with its clunky metal balustrades, towers over whoever took the photograph. There is just a glimpse of sky to the side but the building has been almost deliberately excised from its surroundings. The house is what the mayor calls his real home even though he last stood on the doorstep as a 26-year-old on 15 August 1974.

For Pittas the picture is almost sacred. In monetary terms his Limassol house is worth 10 times as much as 7 Likourgos Street, but the Morphou dwelling is the focal point of his life. Grasping the picture, he explains: 'We borrowed money to build the house. It was our first home together. We had our daughter. Everything was brand new, the Formica kitchen, and the furniture. It has four bedrooms, two sitting rooms, a hall and two toilets. When we left, we left with nothing, no clothes, no food, nothing. And I was, through the bank, in a better position than most people.'

The picture that he holds in his hands was taken, before the limited border opening, by the mayor's relatives, expatriate Greek-Cypriots who have foreign passports, Canadian or British, and who could therefore travel north in the guise of foreign tourists.

Pittas pulls out a sheaf of other photographs taken inside the house with permission of the current occupier and an old photo album that was handed over by the same man, a retired Turkish-Cypriot geography teacher, who has lived in Pittas's house for the past 29 years.

Amid the 70s family wedding and christening snaps, Pittas compares pictures of the furnishings with the set taken last year. 'See the carpet - it's exactly the same. And the chair. And the table. Even the glasses in the cabinet. They tried to change the history of the town and the looks, but some things are exactly the same.'

Pittas has never met or spoken with the Turkish-Cypriot Aktan Imamzade, but says he feels no anger towards him. 'I'm sure he feels the same thing as when I was moved from my house. He is a teacher. He has told my relatives that he is looking after the house. He does not regard himself as the owner. I have a good feeling about him. And he has given my relatives the opportunity to go inside the house and take photos.'

To console himself in this limitless exile, Pittas plants orange trees in the street outside his Limassol house. 'In the spring the smell of the flower of the orange reminds me of Morphou.'

The mayor is one of many exiles. For most of his life fellow Morphouian Spyros Yiallourides has lived in Nicosia, but his life is forever marked by that August of war.

'I remember waking up at five in the morning and the sky was full of aeroplanes. I heard them dropping bombs. I knew they [the Turks] were against us. That they would do violence against us. I got out my spear gun, ready to resist,' says Spyros, who was 12 in 1974.

'It was 15 August and my family decided to spend the night in a village in the nearby mountains to get away from the advancing Turkish army. My parents thought we would return in a few days' time and did not take anything apart from food and water. The next day they tried to go back to rescue our small dog, Poupy. But the road to Morphou was blocked by Turkish troops.'

In his den at home, Spyros also keeps a blown-up picture of the family house he left behind and has now inherited from his father: 31 Miaouli Street, Morphou, Cyprus. 'I have very strong memories of the past. And even after all this time living in the south I don't feel as if I am part of society. We became refugees and I am still a refugee.'

In Spyros's mind, Morphou with its lemon groves, its May Orange festival, the splendid St Mamma's church filled with glittering gold Orthodox icons, and the nearby beach, was paradise.

'I would go with my mother to our orchards. There were two kinds of oranges. And there was a special time to pick them just after the winter. And we had grapefruits and lemons. We had Turkish-Cypriot workers to help us pick them. After the main picking my mother would tell the workers to pick the rest of the fruit for themselves. The Turkish-Cypriots owned their own village, their churches and their schools. They were free to move and work with us.

'I was a hunter of birds - with my catapult. I'd take my bike and go out into the orchards. I was free to go wherever I wanted. I went all round the town. My father was principal in the school. I was his pupil. I remember all my friends. We had a big house and a big garden with a walnut tree. I used to play there a lot.'

The invasion tore his world apart. After the flight from Morphou his father was posted to a remote village school in the mountains by the Greek-Cypriot government. Spyros says he grew up alone. Now Spyros wants to go back. 'We want to rebuild the house. All the people who live there now must move to another place.'

But like Pittas, he refuses just to visit as a tourist.

The Cyprus 'problem' is so old, so ingrained, that even the propaganda posters have faded in the harsh Mediterranean sun. The 'disappeared' who stare out from them are now far longer dead than they ever were alive.

Despite the recent border openings, the island is still scarred by the barbed wire and mine-field of division. British troops from the UN peacekeeping force still patrol the Green Line - the shattered no-man's-land in the heart of the divided capital Nicosia. The Green Line takes its name from the green-coloured pencil used by a British military commander to divide the ancient Venetian city into Turkish and Greek areas in the early 60s in a bid to quell inter-communal violence.

Today the width of his green crayon marks a frontier zone of pockmarked ruins, shuttered shops, collapsing buildings and makeshift oil-drum fortifications sprouting with weeds. Nothing can be moved or altered without the agreement of the Turkish military or the Cypriot National Guard. And nothing is ever agreed. The heart of the old city has become a cathedral of ruin.

In Cafe Otto - a shuttered cafe nicknamed after a long-term Swedish UN peacekeeper - the tables are still adorned with the Keo beer bottles and glasses that the bar staff never had time to clear before they fled. In a nearby underground garage lie 20 dusty but otherwise pristine 1974 Hondas - which, like Keats's Grecian Urn, are forever waiting on a buyer. Just like Cyprus itself, which awaits the undoing of its division.

In March the latest tediously brokered UN- sponsored peace plan broke down. The real sticking point was the return of refugees such as Mayor Pittas. Neither side could agree on the formula or numbers of Greeks who would be allowed to resettle in what is now Turkish-Cypriot territory.

The border opening is another move in this convoluted political game. The border opened just a week after the Greek Cypriot state signed up to the European Union, leaving the impoverished north even more isolated. The Turkish-Cypriot state is, in all but name, a satellite state of Turkey, that itself wants to join the EU but cannot even apply until the Cyprus issue is resolved. Inevitably soon, from economic self-interest, there will be a political solution. Peace and reunification will come.

The mayor is undeterred. 'After I left I dreamed about Morphou every night. And the dreams have now started again.'

Officially, when you cross the Green Line, you are standing in the territory of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). But the TRNC is an unrecognised illegal statelet whose economic promise has withered like a blighted vine. Tourism, trade, banking have all been crippled by international sanctions. Holiday flights have to go via Turkey and then spend another hour flying backwards towards Cyprus. The average income, at £3,000, is a quarter of the Greek-Cypriot south and 55,000 Turkish-Cypriots are said to have gone into economic exile, many in north London. They have been replaced with 120,000 poorer Turkish settlers from the eastern provinces of Turkey.

Despite the years, the settlers, with their darker colouring and heavy Islamic garb, are still easy to distinguish from the more secular Turkish Cypriot population.

Aside from Iraq, Northern Cyprus remains one of the most militarised places on earth. The countryside bristles with army barracks and the roads are filled with convoys from the 50,000 Turkish troops stationed in what is really a military outpost of Turkey. There are, of course, no road signs to Morphou. All the old Greek road signs, all trace of a Greek past, have been obliterated and the town renamed Guzelyurt, meaning 'beautiful place'. Forty-five minutes after crossing the border, we are walking its streets.

The town we enter is nothing like the idyllic descriptions we were given by its exiles. The centre is a cluttered maze of pavement-less streets, cheap construction and collapsing ruins. Everything is shabby and broken, the gutters thick with dust from the surrounding orange groves. In the local market a few stallholders try half-heartedly to flog their fading vegetables, but nothing seems to lift the air of economic despair. The cafes are full of under-employed men watching the world go by. It is a scrappy piece of nowhere - a place that you'd easily pass through.

Guzelyurt is close to Morphou Bay - one of the last undeveloped beach areas in the whole of Cyprus. In the south, tourist resorts such as Agia Napa burst at the seams with hard-drinking and free-spending holidaymakers. But it will be some time before the tourist trade hits the beaches in Morphou; lethal pollution from a copper mine, abandoned during the war, has turned the bay's waters the colour of minestrone soup.

Most of Guzelyurt's 10,000 residents are themselves Turkish-Cypriot refugees forced from their homes in the south. But there is also a substantial settler presence. In a mirror of the exiled Morphou football team, the local club Binatl Spor Kulubu officially plays for Limassol in the south - although no supporter has visited there for 30 years.

In 1974, after the Turkish army captured the town they numbered the front walls of the vacant houses with spray paint, A29, B36, D17, before allocating them to refugee families. Many of the signs - no more than the width of a paintbrush - are still there.

Guzelyurt's residents have never bothered to paint over the marks or repair the houses they dwell in because the Turkish-Cypriot authorities have never claimed the town as their own.

Morphou has always been a bargaining chip, a Greek city, which would one day be traded for other concessions somewhere else on the island. Guzelyurt is on a short-term lease renewable only by political deadlock.

Children are born, there are schools, a massive new mosque, but everyone is afraid to build, add a new kitchen, or throw money away on a house that might not be their own next year. For years Guzelyurt families never buried their dead in the local graveyard, preferring established Islamic graveyards near Nicosia.

Morphou/Guzelyurt is blighted. A place of limbo where both the past and the future are stopped in that burning August of 1974.

Using the old Greek map Pittas had given us, we find Miaouli Street and knock on the door of number 31. Inside is another refugee. Havva Onbasioglulari, 74, and her son Gemal, 41, were rounded up by Greek fighters in their hometown of Limassol when the July 1974 coup broke out. They were imprisoned in the garden of a local hospital with her five other children. The Greek troops kept firing over the heads of the crowd. Eventually they fled to one of the sovereign British bases on the island - another legacy of empire - and eventually reached Morphou via Turkey.

'We came late to the town and all the best houses were distributed so we got this one. We found lots of books in the house. They are in Greek so I can't read them, but we knew the owner must have been a schoolteacher.

'Beforehand my husband worked as a mechanic on the bases. But here the only job he could get was selling children's clothes. He was the sole breadwinner and life was a struggle,' says Havva.

'At first I thought a Greek-Cypriot would come out of every room, but I got used to it. Just as I got used to Guzelyurt.'

Unlike Spyros, Havva does not want to return to her former home in Limassol. Like most Turkish-Cypriots, she doesn't want to live again among the Greeks. The past holds tortures, not treasures. 'Why did the Greeks do this to us? What did they want from us?' Anyway, there is nothing to go back to. Her former home in Limassol is now under a road.

Beside her on the sofa, incongruously wearing a London Underground flannel shirt, is her youngest son Gemal, whose mental-health problems have left him unable to work.

'We are poor and these houses are expensive to maintain. We've spent lots of money on it, but the roof leaks,' he says defensively. In a side room a huge red bowl sits in the middle of the floor as water drips from an angry black stain in the roof.

Like many of the older houses, built in the 30s, the grand sandstone entrance of 31 Miaouli Street belies the house's true construction. The walls are made of mud brick, whose cooling properties are ideally suited to the hot Cypriot summers. But without proper maintenance winter rain breaks through the walls' protective plaster layer and turns the bricks into a muddy slush.

The house is falling down.

To earn money Havva has rented half the building, cutting it in two with a makeshift chicken-wire barrier, to an even poorer Turkish-settler family.

But even these desperate tenants have fled. The back garden is a mess of rubbish and trampled earth. Most of their neighbours have abandoned their gardens as well or turned them into chicken runs. The Onbasioglularis now live on Havva's tiny widow's pension, but nothing could disguise the hopelessness that has engulfed them.

Under the peace plan there has been talk of a new 'Guzelyurt' being constructed somewhere else. No one is sure if it's true. 'All my neighbours say they want a new house. But those who live in proper houses do not want to go at all. I'll not go unless I'm granted another place,' says Havva.

A few blocks away is Likourgos Street. It was easy to spot Pittas's house. But some things have changed. The big bush that dominated the entranceway in Pittas's photo has died.

Inside, the house has a temporary feel, as if the occupants were still camping out. The kitchen table is cluttered with shopping and unwashed plates. And the shuttered darkened living room, with Pittas's heavy dated furniture, feels more like a museum than a home. But it is the disorder of a man unused to being on his own rather than a hesitant refugee; Aktan Imamzade's wife had recently died. I recognise other tables and chairs from Pittas's 70s photo album. In the kitchen we spot some of the original glasses in a cabinet.

The contents might once have belonged to Pittas, but for Aktan Imamzade, 57, the house is now his. 'I've been living in this house for a long time. It's my nest and I don't want to move. I was a refugee in 1958, in 1963 and 1974 and I don't want to be a refugee again. My family had property, lots of property, in Paphos in the south. But I don't want to go back. I wouldn't feel secure. Here, in Guzelyurt, I don't even bother to lock the doors at night. I think there should be an agreement that we give up our rights and agree to live in two different zones so as to prevent us hurting each other.

'We want peace, but not by becoming refugees again. It's not just the house. You need to have more to survive than that. I have a life here in Guzelyurt, habits and my friends. I have a small garden where I plant things in the summer, tomatoes and vegetables. Even the nomads had a specified route, a set way of life. I want to know I will be living here for myself and for my children in years to come.'

Can you regain the past? Is it possible for Pittas and his fellow Morphouians to return?

Five years ago, Spyros Yiallourdies got the chance to visit Morphou as part of a rare cross- border intercommunal group. For an afternoon the line of division disappeared.

'I was very nervous beforehand. I was very conscious of what I would see, who the people were and how would they react to me.

'When we entered Morphou it was like a film going backward. All my memories started unspooling. There was the corner, the grocery store, my street. Someone knocked on the door and asked if we could come in. I was shocked from the entrance. I kept taking photographs for my family, but at first I couldn't say anything to the people there. There was a wall made of chicken wire right through the building and behind it were some children who must have been from a settler family from Turkey. It looked like a prison. I could not really believe it so I just kept taking pictures and walking towards the garden at the back. I was nervous. When I saw what happened to the walnut tree I burst into tears.'

Spyros's visit was organised by a small peace group run by Katie Economidou, virtually the only Greek Cypriot who did not seem caught up in the island's division. And she was there in the garden to see Spyros's tears.

'Spyros kept asking what had happened to the tree, the tree he must have played on as a child. And the Turkish people in the house did not really have an answer. They said it just did not get enough water and died. It was hard at that moment to know what was more sad; the lost past of Spyros's childhood or the unpredictable and not so bright future of those poverty-stricken settler children.'

For Economidou the return is an illusion: 'The old Morphou is dead. The sounds of 1974 will not be there, the neighbours of 1974 will not be there. The people of Morphou were scattered all over the island. They grew up carrying the memory of the past together, but not growing up together.

People fool themselves with the illusion that the day they return will be a continuation of the day that they left. But that can only happen in surrealist films.

'The return will be an equal punishment. It will torture them for some time, particularly the generation that remembers Morphou. The return should imply the restoration of their human rights, the regaining of their property and the vindication of all their years of struggle as refugees. All this pain can finally go away because there is justice in the world. But once they realise that cannot be, the past cannot be recovered and there is no way to reconcile the past and present, there will be a collective insanity.'

One day Mayor Pittas and some of his people will go back to Morphou not just as tourists but as residents. Maybe he, and some fellow Greek- Cypriots, will be there in the spring to smell the orange blossom in the streets. As they walk through those streets some of the houses, some of the buildings, will be familiar. But it will never be the return they have dreamed of. The war of 1974 and their exile has changed them for ever. They will not be going home but returning as foreigners to another country."