Turk Cypriot Poet Nese Yasin Puts Unity Into Words

Two Women Try to Bridge a Greek-Turk Divide

"If we can ignore the slogans and the politicians' rhetoric, then we can live together again," says Nese Yasin, a Turkish Cypriot whose wistful poetry has struck a chord with a growing number of young Greek Cypriots on the divided island of Cyprus. Love, loss, and reconciliation are her main themes.

In "Which Half?" she writes: "They say a person should love their homeland,/ That's also what my father often says./ My homeland has been divided in two,/ Which of the two pieces should I love?"

The simple, four-line verse was put to music by the popular Greek Cypriot composer Marios Tokas. And Ms. Yasin's occasional poetry readings in the Greek Cypriot half of Cyprus's divided capital, Nicosia, are thronged by people delighted at the rare chance to meet a Turkish Cypriot. "It was very moving when I heard that poem sung both in Turkish and Greek," Yasin says.

Since 1974, it has been easier for Greek and Turkish Cypriots to meet on vacations abroad than on their own island. A United Nations-patrolled buffer zone, sewn with minefields and bristling with machine-gun posts and barbed wire, splits the island. A generation has grown up apart, practicing different religions, speaking different languages, learning rival versions of history, and knowing the other side only as a potential enemy.

For Yasin to travel the few miles across the divided city from her apartment in Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus takes a whole day: She has to fly to Istanbul, Turkey, then Athens, Greece, and then on to southern Cyprus. Her desire for reconciliation is one the UN hopes will gain wider currency as it launches yet another attempt this summer to reunite the bitterly divided island under a federal system.

'Bi-communal' approach

The UN is also trying to build confidence at a grass-roots level. A recent UN-sponsored pop concert featuring mainland Greek and Turkish singers brought together thousands of young Greek and Turkish Cypriots for the first time in 23 years. Barriers that separate them in daily life were forgotten as they held hands, gave each other flowers, and sang "Give Peace a Chance."

But there were ugly scenes when mobs from both communities tried to disrupt the concert. The worst violence erupted in the Greek Cypriot south, where police battled with stone-throwing youths.

The protesters insist such gatherings were a travesty while Turkish troops were still in northern Cyprus. The violence underlined the divisions within both communities over a settlement - and highlighted the difficulties facing mediators.

Despite the violence, the UN insisted it would sponsor more bi-communal activities. "The concert was a huge success," says Gustave Feissel, the UN's most senior official in Nicosia. "The only hope is for the two communities to come back together again." To those opposing such attempts at reconciliation, he says: "It's time to wake up. Your way is doomed to failure."

Forced to flee

It is a belief Yasin has long acted on by bravely reaching out to Greek Cypriots, despite opposition from Turkish Cypriot nationalists who branded her a traitor. Like most Cypriots, she has had good reason to love and resent the two halves she refers to in her bittersweet poem. She was born in the mixed Greek/Turk village of Peristerona, 20 miles from Nicosia, in 1959.

Intercommunal conflict erupted four years later, shortly after the island won independence from Britain and her family was forced to flee their home to seek refuge in a Turkish-controlled enclave. Their house was looted, and her mother briefly held hostage by Greek Cypriots. Yasin grew up fearful of Greek Cypriots, who outnumbered Turkish Cypriots 5 to 1.

"When our parents wanted to frighten us into being good, they would warn, 'Listen, or the Greek will get you.' They were the bogeymen for us," Yasin says.

That perception changed in 1974 when the uneasy truce between the two sides was shattered. A group of right-wing Greek Cypriots determined to unite the island with Greece staged a coup backed by the military junta then ruling Athens. Turkish troops invaded five days later.

Turkey argued it came in to save Turkish Cypriots from the coup, which collapsed within days. The Greek Cypriots say Ankara wanted an excuse to expand.

Either way, the division between the two communities was completed.

"I saw the fear and pain of Greek Cypriots as they fled their homes. Before they had always seemed the strong ones, the oppressors. Now I saw they were ordinary people like us, also suffering," Yasin says. The invasion displaced 180,000 Greek Cypriots and 40,000 Turkish Cypriots.

"We were given a Greek-Cypriot home, and it was hard for me to stay in this home, another person's home, and sleep in their bed and use their sheets," she says. "I felt very sorry for them. Also, I couldn't believe I could never see my home in Peristerona again. It hurt a lot to be divided."

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