WINTER 2000/01
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peacemaking in cyprus


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- reactionary forces
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After 26 years of bitter division, Cyprus seems as faraway as ever from reconciliation and reunification. But, in a dusty park on the edge of no-man's land, young activists inspired by two teachers-one from the north, the other from the south-are bypassing the politicians and making their own bid for peace.

It's June 30, 2000, and Nicos Anastasious is driving fast along the motorway in southern Cyprus when his mobile rings. He pulls onto the hard shoulder to take the call. 'They've found Ibrahim, one of my classmates. I haven't seen him in 26 years,' he says.

Like many people in Cyprus, Nicos and Ibrahim found their friendship cut short in 1974, when Turkish troops invaded and the island was split into two mutually hostile zones, Turkish-Cypriot in the north, Greek-Cypriot in the south. But Nicos, a 42-year-old secondary school teacher in Larnaca, with others like him on both sides of the divide, are using modern technology to reach out to people they haven't seen in more than a quarter of a century. They're part of a grassroots campaign aiming to break the political impasse and bring down the barriers between the two sides.

'Ibrahim is an archaeologist in the north and he wants to meet an archaeologist in the south,' Nicos says, before urging the caller to spread the word about tomorrow's meeting in Pergamos, a village situated on the edge of the UN buffer zone separating north from south.

Nicos has been organising the meeting - a bi-communal reunion of friends and neighbours wrenched apart by partition - for months; but there's plenty of last-minute work to be done. They need 2,000 copies of a leaflet reproduced by tomorrow in Greek, Turkish and English. The Turkish version is being sent by e-mail from the USA, the Greek one is being translated by a schoolgirl in Nicosia. 'We have to find friendly photocopying facilities,' says Nicos. 'We don't have any money.'

With Ulus Irkad, a 43-year-old primary teacher in the north. Nicos has been instrumental in setting up youth groups to work for peace. Tomorrow's reunion, when villagers from both sides meet up in a dusty park on the edge of the buffer zone, is the activists' most ambitious project to date.

The success of a bi-communal youth festival they organised there in March encouraged them to tackle the older generation. 'What counts is not only to bring the youngest together,' says Charis Achilleos, 16, the leading youth link in the south. 'We need to reunite those who lived together before.' Using mobile phones and Internet links to beat the restrictions on contact between the two sides - imposed in 1997 by Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash and reinforced by no more than one telephone line between the two parts of the island - they've been collecting lists of people who want to find old friends on either side.

Nicos parks by a roadside café in Anglissides, a village once inhabited by both Greek and Turkish Cypriots - an era the locals remember with affection. Dimitris Ptohopoulos, 47, tells the story of his cousin, who was taken prisoner by Turkish soldiers during the 1974 invasion: he was questioned by a Turkish-Cypriot officer from the next village who turned out to be a good friend of his father and set him free.

The talking is interrupted by news that earlier in the day Turkish troops moved 300 feet forward from their positions along the barbed wire 'border', raising tension. It's a tit-for-tat political move in retaliation for renewal of the UN peace-keeping force's mandate, which Rauf Denktash hasn't been asked to sign because the Turkish-Cypriot statelet isn't recognised.

But Nicos fears it may also be an attempt to put people off attending the reunion. Previous demonstrations in periods of tension have led to shootings in the buffer zone. He hurries back home to scour his e-mails for more news - and more lists: he's been getting up to 30 a day. He's up until 3 am answering them, before snatching three hours' sleep - as he has most nights for the past three weeks.

By 10 am on July 1, in the park at Pergamos, six Turkish-Cypriot youths and several adults are busy pinning up names of districts on trees: the park is turned into an imaginary map of Cyprus with place-names distributed accordingly, so people will know where to look for their old friends. The trees will also provide shade from the blistering afternoon sun.

Nicos paces up and down talking animatedly into his mobile. The Turkish Cypriot youngsters joke that the rest of the Greek Cypriots, being Greek, will be late. Getting there has been no joke for them. Tanyel Cemal, 16, has taken two buses and hitched two lifts to get to the checkpoint. They've all had to leave their identity cards with the 'border' police, knowing that they may be given a hard time when they return.

Opponents of the divide have faced various forms of harassment from the military and civilian authorities. Peace activists say their phones are tapped and they are followed when they go to meetings. One of the youngest Turkish Cypriots at the park (who doesn't want to give her name) says she was picked on by police on her way back from a planning meeting: they asked questions about whom she had met and searched her bag before they returned her identity card. 'They're trying to make us scared,' adds Hasan Veruglu, 18, from Kyrenia.

When Charis Achilleos arrives, Tanyel introduces her as her 'sister'. They're both veterans of Seeds of Peace, an organisation that sends young people from opposing sides of political disputes to the US to take part in a conflict resolution project, set up to help the peace process in the Middle East. Last year a 3-week workshop was attended by 20 Greek Cypriots and 20 Turkish Cypriots. 'l had never met Turkish Cypriots before,' says Charis. 'It was the best experience of my life.'

When she came back she tried, through schools, to organise an opinion poll of Cypriot youngsters on rapprochement in Cyprus. But she ran up against resistance, first from her own school, fearful of breaking ministry of education rules, and then from the ministry itself. When she went ahead and canvassed 300 pupils during school breaks, she used techniques she'd learned at Seeds of Peace to persuade a disciplinary meeting not to punish her. 'The idea is to be calm, not angry,' Charis says. 'If someone attacks you don't attack back, because that will just become an argument. You try to find a way for them to realise that what they are saying doesn't make sense.'

For too long, the young activists agree, schools have been part of the problem. Both Greek and Turkish Cypriots use history textbooks that are full of propaganda: 'They teach us to hate each other,' says Kucutou, 23, from Famagusta.

By late afternoon, as the first cars grind up the dusty road to Pergamos, the youths are moving about in pairs - one Turkish-Cypriot with one Greek-Cypriot - guiding new arrivals to the right trees. Elderly people are looking for friends they used to meet at the village coffee shop or at work in the fields. 'We lived like brothers and sisters,' says one old woman.

Nicos has supplied a stack of southern phone directories so that Turkish-Cypriots who can't find their friends can call them on a mobile to arrange a meeting. Leaflets handed out by Tanyel, Charis and their friends urge people (police estimates suggest 1000 of them) to make this 'only the start' and to begin planning bigger meetings in the park.

Everywhere, wrinkled faces are smiling. Men stand with their arms around each other's shoulders. One of the most poignant reunions is between two wizened men in the midst of a throng of Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Andoni, 86, muktar (headman) of Silicou village for 22 years, and Ibrahim Sahli, also 86, can't hold back the tears as they talk about how they were parted during the war. 'I have come for unification,' declares Ibrahim. 'We want one Cyprus, in peace,' echoes Andoni. Ibrahim says: 'If I was going to live one more year, I am going to live five more years after today. We were best friends in the fields, in the vineyards and on the road for many years.' He is sad that he can't visit his wife's grave near Limassol. But Andoni has a surprise for him. His family have brought soil from the grave (and given it to Ibrahim's son, lest the emotion proves too much for Ibrahim in one day).

As the sun sets, Dimitris Ptohopoulos and his friends from Anglissides are implored to join in the Turkish dancing. For those villages that turned out en masse, the day has been a turning point. For many others, whose friends from the other side didn't show, the numbers are disappointingly low.

Nicos admits that the meetings of villages where both sides once lived in harmony is indeed only the start, as many Turkish-Cypriots fear that any rapprochement would bring more violence. 'Next we have to address the shame and the pain,' he says, citing the southern village of Tochni, where Turkish-Cypriots were allegedly slaughtered in revenge for the 1974 invasion.

At the end of the day at Pergamos he summons his fast-draining energy to rally the young people to keep on working.' We are always talking about heroes of the war on this island,' he tells them. 'One day we will have heroes of peace.'

Within a week, Greek and Turkish Cypriots who used to live together at Lapathos and Kazafani were back at the park for full bi-communal village meetings. Within a fortnight, 8,000 Turkish-Cypriots (backed by their Teachers' Union) demonstrated against detentions and arrests of people speaking up for an end to the divide. Meanwhile, Nicos had flown to America to help run more workshops for peace: 42 young people - half of them Turkish-Cypriot, half of them Greek-Cypriot - were for the first time meeting their peers from the other side.

'It's started happening now,' says Charis. 'Even if the politicians come to a solution, nothing will be solved if people can't trust each other. But since I have been involved I have seen much progress. In place of suspicion and ignorance there's more knowledge and trust.'

In addition to Seeds of Peace, the groups organising the villagers' reunion include Youth Promoting Peace, formed by students living in Nicosia; Youth Encounters for Peace, which organises penpals/e-pals from each side; and Cypriot Youth for Peace, based at the American Academy of Larnaca (where Nicos Anastasious teaches).

They face many difficulties. The Turkish-Cypriot 'government' is opposed to reunification. The legacy of Cyprus's divisive recent history, including bloody ethnic fighting, is a formidable obstacle. Many Turkish-Cypriots have left the north, replaced by Turkish settlers: it's feared that soon there may be few Turkish-Cypriots to reunite with. Neither Rauf Denktash nor the Greek-Cypriot president, Glafkos Clerides, seem able to make the concessions that might break the political deadlock.

But the struggle for peace and reunification continues, with the Pergamos meeting one of the biggest attempts so far to bridge the military divide.Brendan O'Malley is international editor of The TES and co-author with Ian Craig of The Cyprus Conspiracy: America, espionage and the Turkish invasion, published by IB Tauris and was shortlisted for the 1999 Orwell prize.

Brendan O'Malley

See also peace-cyprus
A longer version of this article first appeared in the Tmes Educational Supplememt


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