06 May 2000

Nicosia waits for the Green Line to fade away

Letter from Nicosia
Patrick Comerford


In the fashionable pedestrianised shopping area of Nicosia, close to the Green Line dividing Cyprus, a little shop in Lidhras Street still sells John Hinde postcards of the Ledra Palace Hotel, dating back to 1963 and still praising it for its “extensive gardens … luxurious bedrooms and suites and the largest conference and banqueting facilities on the island”.

But the Ledra Palace has not been used as a hotel for more than a quarter of a century. Instead it serves as headquarters for the UN peacekeeping forces on the island, standing at the only crossing point in the world's last divided capital.

All along the Green Line in Nicosia, sentry boxes are posted at every gap between buildings and tense soldiers stand guard. A few short metres from the postcard shop in Lidhras Street, an exhibition of photographs outside the police station is a reminder of the 1,619 Greek Cypriots still missing and unaccounted for in the 26 years since the Turkish invasion in 1974: a young boy in tears as he holds up his parents' wedding photograph, a group of women in mourning black, holding single photographs of missing husbands, brothers or sons.

From a viewing platform at the nearby checkpoint it is possible to peer into the buffer zone where Lidhras Street continues straight through into the northern sector, on towards the Kyrenia Gate in the Venetian Walls on the other side of city.

Greek and Armenian names can still be seen on the forlorn, empty shops: Artin Bohdjalian and Sons; an Avis car rental agency with its faded, rusting, signs in Greek; Loizos Theophanous, who sold Harrison worsted suits; the hang-over balconies of neo-classical and modern buildings, the deserted and abandoned shops and restaurants. A stray, mangy tomcat picking his way through the overgrowth and rubble of deserted Ermou Street is the only sign of life in the buffer zone.

But the barbed wire, bricked-up walls and sentry boxes fail to hide the fact that this is a mixed city, no matter what has happened in the past. No armies and no political stubbornness can mask the fact that Nicosia was – and still has the potential to be – a mixed and cosmopolitan city. The cafe at the checkpoint dividing Phaneromeni Street has two names that are equally apt: “Berlin 2” and “Check Point Charly”.

Sitting, sipping a Cypriot coffee – it tastes the same whether it’s called Greek coffee or Turkish coffee – in the shade from the noonday sun, I hear the bells from Phaneromeni Church in the square nearby mingle with the call to prayer from the twin minarets of the Selimiye Mosque, once Ayia Sofia Cathedral, a few metres away inside northern Nicosia.

Ermou Street continues through the northern side of the buffer zone to the Paphos Gate in the old Venetian walls, ending in the most anomalous enclave. Holy Cross Church, run by the Franciscans and used mainly by domestic workers from Sri Lanka and the Philippines, is technically within Turkish-Cypriot territory. But the street has been cut short and blocked off before its front door, and the rear of the building has been sealed off, so access to the church can be gained only from the southern-controlled side by passing through an unmanned UN barrier. The surrounding buildings have been sandbagged and blocked up.

But then, Nicosia is a city of anomalies and contradictions. There are mosques in the heart of the Greek Cypriot quarters, and churches in the Turkish-controlled areas. Ethnic cleansing is never clean, and it seldom achieves its intended aims.

At the opposite end, on the eastern side of the city, Ermou Street emerges once again into the government-controlled side of the Green Line, close to the Archbishop's Palace with its larger-than-life statue of the late Archbishop Makarios. The surrounding Tahtakale and Khrysaliniotissa districts could be the settings for pretty postcards from sun-kissed Greek islands in the Cyclades or the Dodecannese, with domed churches, whitewashed houses and wrought-iron balconies.

The “dead zone” is narrower here, and houses and businesses are full of life and commerce right up to the barriers. Dozens of homes have been renovated for young families in an effort to bring new life into the area.

The mayors and officials on both sides have agreed that when the barriers eventually tumble, Nicosia should not confront the same problems that faced Berlin when the wall came down. Pedestrianised streets on one side continue on to pedestrianised streets on the other, at least on the maps; shopping areas match shopping areas; housing renovation projects complement each other, and there are surprising stories of co-operation when it comes to laying sewage pipes or supplying electricity.

But the Ledra Palace Hotel, with its UN checkpoints flanked by Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot barriers and photo exhibitions, remains the only legal crossing from one side of Nicosia to the other. Walking along Markhou Dhrakou Avenue as it changes into Ikinci Selim Avenue is a sad experience. Neo-classical villas of a similar vintage stand beside one another. But one can have all the happy signs of family life, and stand beside another caught behind the zigzag of the Green Line, deserted and dilapidated, with the unpicked oranges rotting on the trees in the overgrown garden.

The contrasts are sharp. Cypriots on the southern side are told they live in Europe’s fourth richest economy. In northern Nicosia, the pockmarked streets badly need repairing, poverty is visible in the side streets, shops are badly stocked, buildings are crumbling, and the overbearing enthusiasm of officials in the tourist information kiosk close to the Kyrenia Gate betrays the fact that this side of Cyprus gets few visitors compared to the 2.5 million tourists expected to visit the rest of the island this year.

There can be no doubt about who stands to make the most economic gains when Cyprus is reunited. Talking to the people in the streets on each side, there is no doubt that they trust each other, and possibly want to trust each other’s politicians. Before he underwent his operation yesterday morning, President Glafkos Clerides received a goodwill message from the Turkish-Cypriot leader, Mr Rauf Denktash.

Whether the politicians can offer each other concessions that match the generosity of people on the streets remains to be seen. A new round of proximity talks are due to begin once Mr Clerides has recovered. Sadly, there are no major concessions on the negotiating table to date.

This international news feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on Saturday 6 May 2000

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