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Media Watch 2003

27 April 2003
Source: Independent
Comment: The following editorial appeared in the Independent of London on 27 April 2003.
Cypriots vote with their feet to reunite

The people of Cyprus are voting with their feet and their hearts. Greek and Turkish Cypriots have poured across the fortified line which has bisected the island for nearly 30 years since it was unexpectedly opened last week, putting pressure on their leaders to abandon the stalemate which kept them apart.

The English-language Cyprus Weekly called the cross-border traffic "a clear indication that the people are eagerly waiting for the day of reunification, return to normality and living together as free and equal citizens of the wider European Union family".

In a seaside bar in Kyrenia, Salih Cambaz and Andrea Metekis were drinking "to peace" in Turkish and Greek. Both are former taxi drivers in Nicosia. "We used to share a taxi rank, good banter and the occasional bottle of cognac," one said, "but our conversation was interrupted in 1974."

That was the year an abortive coup by supporters of union with Greece triggered a Turkish invasion of the north of the island, leaving the two men on opposite sides of barbed wire barricades. Yesterday, the pair, in their 60s now, but with sense of humour unchanged, finally picked up where they had left off.

Similar reunions are taking place by the thousand across Europe's last great dividing line – 112 miles of barbed wire guarded by UN peacekeepers – since it was opened to day trips on Monday in a surprise move by the Turkish Cypriot leadership. What officials on both sides said would be just a trickle of crossings has turned into floods of people braving traffic jams that stretch for miles to visit the other side.

The Cyprus government has welcomed the opening, but called it a ploy by the embattled Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash to win back public support after he rejected a last-resort United Nations plan earlier this year that would have seen a united Cyprus join the EU, instead of just the Greek south. Some 40,000 Turkish Cypriots took to the streets, calling for his resignation, and his party is expected to do poorly in elections this year.

"We consider that this is not the solution to the Cyprus problem. There is a long way ahead," said Kypros Chrisostomides, spokesman for the government on the Greek side of the barricades. But thousands of Greek Cypriots ignored calls not to cross the line because they would have to show their passports to Turkish Cypriot police, which might seem to constitute recognition of the north.

Mr Denktash's son Serdar, a more flexible politician widely seen as being behind the decision to open the border, has said the move is an experiment to see if the two sides can live together. The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, has been pushing the sides toward a unifying peace deal, and conditions of the island's future membership in the EU hinge on its reconciliation. Under an agreement signed last week, Cyprus will join the bloc on 1 May 2004, but EU laws and benefits will not apply to the occupied north pending reunification.

A lasting political settlement will be harder to achieve. Previous talks broke down earlier this year over the thorny issues of land and population exchange. In 1974 160,000 Greek and 40,000 Turkish Cypriots fled their homes to the other side. The UN plan would require Turkish Cypriots to give back some of that land, a move that Mr Denktash senior has opposed. But at least now, for the first time in four decades, there is a sense of optimism in the island.

"The land exchange is not such a big deal," said Prokopis Pattakis, an architect from Nicosia visiting his wife's home town on the Turkish side. "The important point is that Greek and Turkish Cypriots don't have a problem with each other – the rest can be worked out.""