Breaking down the wall

Opening northern Cyprus to free movement could be one of the most significant ice-breakers in almost 40 years of mutual suspicion


    Where politicians failed: Leaders of the North
    and South have been criticised for being too
    set in their ways to effect a breakthrough

    One of the few divided islands in the world came one step closer to being reunited last week, whenTurkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash allowed free movement to resume between the two halves of the island.


    Cypriots, both Greek and Turkish, reacted with delight as they queued up at the UN-administered Green Line to visit lands they have never seen before or remember only from childhood.


    On the first three days the border was open, an estimated 10,000 Greek Cypriots crossed into northern Cyprus - off-limits to them since the Turkish invasion of 1974 - while over 7,000 Turkish Cypriots headed in the opposite direction.


    UN peacekeepers were drafted in at the Ledra Palace checkpoint in Nicosia to reinforce Greek and Turkish Cypriot police Friday as they struggled to control more than a thousand Greek Cypriots trying to visit their former homes in Turkish-held northern Cyprus.


    The sudden pressure on the previously deserted green line created colossal traffic jams as Greek Cypriot families took advantage of the Easter holiday weekend to make the pilgrimage to villages they had not seen for decades.


    Just beyond the cordon, Valentina Anastassiou, in her 50s, had resigned herself to a long wait. The news that it might take the best part of the day to cross had not filtered back and she still fondly hoped that it would be a matter of a few hours before she set foot on what for most of her life had been forbidden soil.


    "Oh well," she said, "it has taken 30 years, another day won't make any difference."


    To date, only Ankara has recognised the

    Headed for the family home in Prastio, between Nicosia and Famagusta. "I feel like I am going to a place of worship," she said, tears welling up in her eyes. "When I see the door of my house again I will kiss it as I would kiss an icon."


    On Friday, as the main crossing became jammed with holiday crowds, northern Cyprus authorised the opening of a further two crossing points from British bases, a UN spokeswoman said.


    Greek Cypriots were allowed to head north through the Pergamos and Strovilia crossings from the British sovereign base area around Dhekelia, Major Ingrid Tomekova told AFP.


    But there was no immediate move to open direct crossing points from the government-held south as thousands of would-be travellers continued to bring traffic at the main post in Nicosia to a virtual standstill three days after it was opened for the first time in decades.


    At Astromeritis, west of Nicosia, scores of frustrated Greek Cypriots were still waiting to cross to the Turkish-held town of Morphou amid rumours the crossing would soon open, Greek Cypriot public television reported.


    Ground zero


    The confidence-building gesture has pumped some warmth into the island's divided capital. Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the green line that runs through Nicosia renders it the world’s last physically split capital.


    On ground zero, elegant restored apartments from the Thirties give way to ramshackle structures, unrepaired since Turkish troops occupied Nicosia and a third of Cyprus in 1974. These buildings, neglected giants presiding over an eerily calm dividing line, mark where the island and its capital are dissected in two.


    Twenty-eight years on, rampant weeds climb through the urban skeleton, grass punches through the cracked asphalt and broken windowpanes survey the deserted commercial centre of Nicosia.


    Sandbags stand stacked up against the windows of a carpentry shop abutting the Green Line. Unchecked vegetation swells on the other side of the barred window and the only moving figures in the no-man's land are patrolling United Nations soldiers.


    At regular intervals, Cypriot army posts mark where Greek Cypriot territory ends and the dead zone begins. Nationalistic slogans such as, "I don't forget -- I struggle on" and "There's no north, no south; only Cyprus", are matched by the awesome backdrop of the massive outline of a Turkish flag engraved into the Turkish-occupied mountain with "Proud to be Turkish" carved alongside it -- a permanent reminder of the occupation for Nicosia's residents.


    An uncertain future


    Now, the stalemate looks as if it might break. The events of recent days have gone some way towards answering the question of whether Cypriots can learn to live with each other again.


    The Greek authorities of the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus, who consider the TRNC illegal and free movement a right throughout the island, cautiously welcomed the move. They said they could not stop Greek Cypriots going the other way, but warned it was not a solution to the Cyprus problem.


    Serdar Denktash, son of Rauf Denktash and deputy premier of the TRNC, told Turkey's NTV channel: "We will try to speed up passages as much as possible... This flow must continue."




    Analysts on both sides have questioned his motives for the move, which came days after the Republic of Cyprus signed an accession treaty to the European Union that excluded the TRNC.


    Tens of thousands of furious Turkish Cypriots demonstrated in March after Denktash blocked a UN reunification plan on nationalistic grounds, depriving them of the benefits of EU membership.


    In Athens, US Secretary of State Colin Powell welcomed the move, saying he hoped it would jump start the stalled reunification process.


    "I am somewhat fascinated by the opening of the border areas... it will be very interesting to see what happens in the days ahead as people start to interact with one another more closely," Powell told Greek state television.


    "Maybe that would bring pressure to bear on their political leaders to find a way forward."


    Some commentators have speculated that this kind of grass-roots confidence building measure may jump-start the peace process where the region's leaders and the UN failed to find a solution.


    In 1999, relations between Greeks and Turks dramatically improved following the dispatch of emergency rescue and disaster relief crews to Istanbul after a massive earthquake hit the city.



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