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Media Watch 2003

03 May 2003
Source: Guardian
Author: Angelique Chrisafis
Comment: he following article appeared in the Guardian of London on 03 May 2003
Dazzled Cyprus fears a false dawn

Ten days after the 'green line' was finally opened, islanders start to wonder why, and what comes next

Two groups of people conditioned to hate each other were mingling in sweaty hordes at a barbed-wire border post, shouting: "We love the people's revolution."

On one side were Greek Cypriots, clutching branches of trees on their return from visiting houses they had not seen for thirty years, waving their wedding portraits fished from the tops of wardrobes. On the other were Turkish Cypriots, carrying cartons from McDonald's Happy Meals back to their pariah state to put on their mantelpieces.

In the past ten days, more than 170,000 Cypriots have been ushered through the bottlenecked checkpoints at the "green line" in Nicosia, Europe's last divided city. The mess of barbed wire, daubed walls and landmines had isolated both sides since Turkish troops invaded in 1974 in response to a coup engineered by the Greek military junta and backed by the CIA.

Now thousands queue to cross, crouching in metal pens in the wilting noon sunshine, with water rationed from plastic vats by British UN troops.

A thousand protesters from both communities made it across and held a march, unfurling a "No war on Iraq" flag and walking behind a bloodstained replica of the Statue of Liberty.

After ten days of crossings, they wanted to demonstrate against any potential American involvement here. They wanted the British military bases closed and no US bases to open. Their motto was "let us govern ourselves".

After the fall

Following the euphoria of days of what the Greek Cypriot prime minister called a "wave of fraternisation", questions are being asked about the role of "colonial and imperialistic" powers in the fall of the wall.

Many Turkish Cypriots feel their leader, Rauf Denktash, has opened the borders only after pressure from Turkey and in the face of mass discontent among electors.

Only weeks before, when he scuppered a joint peace plan for the island at the last moment, he was adamant that Greek and Turkish Cypriots could never live together. Would he now be replaced; and at what cost? Had he wanted what he called the "honeymoon season" to descend into violence just to prove a point? Could the border be sealed shut again on a whim?

One Turkish Cypriot woman reportedly died of a heart attack when Greek Cypriots visited her house saying it was theirs. They were only there to gather plant cuttings, but she feared she would be made homeless. Two Greek Cypriots are due in court after assaulting a Turkish Cypriot family for knocking on their door for the same reason.

There are torn bedsheets on the Greek side of the border post visa office bearing the message: "We should not need passports to visit our own homes. You can't solve the problem by treating us as tourists."

But for most people in this jubilant and somewhat confused community, the main topic of conversation this weekend will be money.

Today the first steps begin to open trade between the two sides. Farmers will no longer need to illegally push livestock under the fence at night while border guards are looking the other way, and have their lambs blown to shreds by landmines.

Cyprus's oldest bookshop, whose dusty jackets are piled up in a tiny shopfront in Nicosia, will no longer receive secret orders from Greek Cypriots, followed by surreptitious visits from British tourists to collect books and smuggle them over.

The Turkish Cypriot economy is 10% of the size of the Greek's. Turkish Cypriots say unemployment is crippling, estimating that it has now reached 60% in the cities, 40% in the countryside.

But Greek Cypriots crossing the border are believed to have poured £1.5m into the flailing Northern economy in 10 days.

More than £100,000 of this was spent on car insurance because Greek Cypriot policies did not give cover in the North. Another substantial chunk was spent on cheap tax-free cigarettes, which are now being seized at the border.

Turkish Cypriot fishermen are leaving their boats to work as waiters to meet the Greek desire to lunch at old harbours. Takings at garish casinos - one of the big industries in the North - are up 30%, although some managers complain that the Greeks are winning too much. In the South, sales at McDonald's grew by 60%.

"I never fired a bullet on a Greek," said Yahya Avci, a Turkish soldier who came to Cyprus with the invasion of 1974, stayed, and married a Turkish Cypriot woman.

Before the border opened last week, he could not afford to pay the tax on his kebab house by the border, and tax collectors were sizing up his tables and chairs for removal. Now the place is full of Greeks.

"This Berlin Wall of ours, it spoiled our minds, ruined our psyches, drove us mad," he said. "It was unsettling to sit here right by the line. Now I haven't been over the line - because business is good, I can't afford to take time out."

Zehra Cengiz, 46, a linguistics teacher, says she will begin applying for jobs in the South. She is the leader of a Turkish Cypriot protest group whose members have refused to pay their mortgages since the crippling devaluation of the Turkish lira. Several are due in court this week.

"How can I support my children on £200 a month?" she asks. "We are trying to encourage my daughter to play the cello, but sheet music costs £50."

Greek Cypriots have decided that trading with the North - and joining forces to sell agricultural produce to the rest of the world under one banner - will help to ease the misery of the Turkish Cypriot lifestyle.

But many Greeks have not forgotten the land they own in the North and what it is worth as potential hotel space on a coastline free from pollution by developers.

"Oh God, I don't want them to come here and build us a coastline that looks like Hawaii," said one Turkish Cypriot travel agent.

Andreas Elias, 23, who runs a car wash in Limassol, said he could not still his anger at crossing to view his fields of lemon trees, but not being able to have them back.

Sitting in his new four-wheel drive at the border, he said: "We were rich in the North before the Turkish invasion, before I was born. I have nothing down here ... we have to get back what we owned.""