Lost in time – the Cyprus buffer zone

April 10, 2014

Nicosia, Cyprus

By Neil Hall

If you look at a map of Cyprus, there is a line that cuts across the island like a scar. This is the buffer zone, a United Nations-controlled no-man’s land, also called the ‘Green Line’. It is a constant reminder that the country remains physically and symbolically divided.

The zone is a product of Cyprus’ turbulent history. When the island became independent from Britain in 1960, tension simmered between Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, boiling over into political disputes and violence in 1963. Soon the first peacekeeping troops were sent in and the capital was effectively partitioned.

The situation escalated in 1974 when the Cyprus National Guard, who favored union with Greece, staged a coup and Turkey responded with military action. The island was left split in two along the ceasefire line – and it remains so today.

The buffer zone is some 180 km (110 miles) long, and is controlled by United Nations peacekeepers. According to this U.N. force, the Green Line is almost seven and a half kilometers across at its widest point, and takes up about three percent of the island.

The buffer zone is most visible in Nicosia, where it is common to see streets blocked off by concrete walls, barrels and barbed wire. Outside of built-up areas the Green Line seems more symbolic. It is monitored by checkpoints and watchtowers, but is not marked by a great wall or fence. Occasionally roads will be blocked off and abandoned towns dot the route. But the area feels more like a wildlife preserve than a zone where troops operate.

It can be a frustrating place to work as a photographer. Photography is not allowed in or along the Green Line, and I had to get special permission and be accompanied by a U.N. observer to enter. On a number of occasions, police and soldiers told me to move on, and I was stopped and questioned by a U.N. patrol.

There are checkpoints allowing movement between the north and south of the island if you show your passport and both Greek and Turkish Cypriots are able to cross.

This doesn’t mean that things are easy. One Greek Cypriot confessed to me that he did not always tell his relatives, particularly the older ones, when he went into the Turkish Cypriot-controlled side of the city as they would disapprove. Many of the older generation still bear strong grudges and refuse to cross the divide.

The buffer zone in Old Nicosia is a surreal oasis of calm. Overgrown houses and shops stand slowly crumbling along the winding route and there is hardly a sound to be heard.

A common description of the buffer zone is that it is “frozen in time.” However, to me it was not so much a forgotten city as a testimony to conflict. Many of the houses bear the scars of war: bullet holes, sandbag fortifications and firing positions hint at the conflict that took place.

Many of the shop signs still remain and some buildings give the impression that the owners will be back in five minutes. In a former cafe, bottles, pots and pans seem hardly touched.

Some of the most famous residents in the Green Line are imported Toyotas stored in an underground garage. They were brought to the island from Japan but fighting broke out before they were sold. Dusty and rusting, some still have their import stickers and just 32 miles on the clock.

Similarly, further out of the city, the old Nicosia International Airport looks more like a scene from a post-apocalyptic horror film than a travel terminal.

A Cyprus Airways passenger plane still stands outside, never to fly again. According to the U.N. Peacekeeping Force, its engines were stripped in 1974 to enable another plane to fly.

However, there are glimmers of hope that the island could one day be reconciled. The village of Pyla actually lies in the buffer zone and its residents are a mix of Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The small village still shows signs of division, though, with separate schools and a Greek Cypriot café facing a Turkish Cypriot café on the town square.

The village has a Greek Cypriot Mayor and a Turkish Cypriot deputy Mayor, who carry out their jobs in the U.N. controlled zone. Both are keen to demonstrate that Pyla could be a model for the rest of the island.

Simos Mytides, the Greek Cypriot Mayor argued: “It is very easy for Cyprus to reunite. See how Pyla has been for 40 years. No serious problems and the communities live in peace. They play cards and backgammon together and go to each other’s weddings.”

He admitted, however, that there were some tensions in the community, partly caused by economic crises in Cyprus and Greece.

In spite of these problems, Nejdet Enver, the Turkish Cypriot Muhtar (mayor) remains hopeful for the island: “We have to trust the next generation to live in peace,” he said.

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