Common Folks Try To End Cyprus Rift

A presidential runoff Sunday drives politics of reunification. But social effort leads way.

The view from Fatma Azgin's front-line front porch has slowly changed since the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus was divided by conflict in 1974. The address still reads 8 Tevfik Fikret Street, but a wall of barrels has cut her house off from the road.

Trees have pushed through the tarmac, obscuring the view of the United Nations buffer zone beyond. The barrels have rusted, bright clumps of clover grow wildly from them like weeds, and ethnic Turkish soldiers constantly patrol a path inches from Ms. Azgin's front window.

This is the unlikely, bullet-scarred abode of one of the most influential peace activists from Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus.

But with like-minded people from both ethnic Greek and Turkish communities - who face intimidation, threats, and violence from hard-line nationalists - she has helped shape an unprecedented grass-roots peace movement that has brought more than 2,000 Cypriots together to reconcile their differences.

Largely facilitated now by American Fulbright scholars, the UN, and aid money from the US and Europe, the local peace movement has gathered so much steam that it worries Old Guard community leaders, who say Cypriots are not ready for peace.

Though activists now call it "unstoppable," Rauf Denktash, the leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state, recognized only by Turkey, sparked a diplomatic crisis in late December by banning all bi-communal peace contacts with Greek Cypriots.

The issue of reunification is again in focus now during presidential elections on the internationally recognized Greek side. Last Sunday, President Glafcos Clerides and former Foreign Minister George Iacovou each won about 40 percent of the vote, with a Socialist Party candidate taking the rest. A runoff vote is scheduled for this Sunday.

Weary of the divide

For Azgin, her front-door view reminds her daily that the divisive status quo is unacceptable. She and her husband now use the back door, but the partition of Cyprus has become so routine that some neighbors plant their front-line barrels with flowers.

"Thousands of people have been coming together and want a solution, but at the state level they resist it, they don't care," says Azgin as a military patrol steps by outside, their rifles bobbing past the window. "For years we said we wanted peace, but we did not know how to build it. Now we have learned."

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkish troops invaded to "protect" the minority ethnic Turkish-Cypriots after a right-wing coup that aimed to unite Cyprus with Greece. The coup soon collapsed, but 30,000 mainland Turkish troops are still deployed on the third of the island they occupied. They face off against a 10,000-strong Greek Cypriot national guard led by mainland Greek officers.

After the two Koreas, Cyprus is the most militarized piece of real estate in the world, and nationalists on both sides have ensured that propaganda keeps ethnic tension high. A force of 1,200 UN peacekeepers controls a 112-mile-long buffer zone that runs the breadth of the island, and reports nearly three incidents a day.

The cease-fire lines are sometimes no more than 10 feet apart, and calls to prayer are clearly heard across the line that divides Nicosia's ancient walls: Greek Orthodox church bells ring across town toward the north, and the call of the Muslim muezzin, singing out from the minarets of mosques, wafts over the south.

Along one section of this Green Line, abandoned shutters of the same building are painted blue or green, indicating either Christian or Muslim inhabitants from a period when both Greek and Turkish communities lived side-by-side without conflict.

But despite the division, peace activists have sought to change perceptions, and, as one Greek Cypriot said, to "prepare the earth so that politicians can sow seeds of peace."

"I am fully convinced that, given the chance, people will make any solution work," says Benjamin Broome, a professor from George Mason University in Virginia who served here as the first Fulbright scholar for conflict resolution for 2-1/2 years beginning in 1994. When he arrived, he found a local initiative by activists in need of a strong third party to help make further progress.

"Nationalism has deepened, and that voice is widely heard," he says. "But it is a minority view. If a different voice is made, people will gravitate toward it."

Already the peace movement has grown beyond anyone's expectations. From the core group of 30 - 15 from each side - that Professor Broome worked with in 1994, the number had grown to 300 by the end of 1996. Now it has expanded to more than 2,000.

Ironically, the boost came in the aftermath of violence in August 1996, when Greek Cypriot nationalists charged the Turkish front lines to claim their "right" to the whole island. The clash of demonstrators left two Greek Cypriots dead.

"That was the turning point for Cyprus," says Broome. "It woke a lot of people up to the volatility and danger of the status quo."

The result has been remarkable, says Gustave Feissel, the chief of the UN operation in Cyprus. "In a sense, people are coming out of the closet," he says. "For a long time, people working for peace were viewed with suspicion, and seen as disloyal and naive. That ... is wearing off."

Seeking common ground

But finding common ground has been difficult, says Azgin, the Turkish-Cypriot whose porch opens onto the Green Line. When she first took part in a small mixed meeting of 20 Cypriots in Oxford, England, in 1993 - a meeting that included the son and daughter of the Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders - they all wanted to talk.

"We tried to build a shared vision, but we couldn't write it down," she recalls. "Even words like 'Cyprus' and 'island,' and other trigger words like 'occupation' or 'peace operation' [terms used by either side to describe their view of the 1974 Turkish military intervention] got in the way. Since then we've been trained and know how to communicate, without blaming, so we can have a dialogue."

Mr. Denktash, who heads the self-styled Turkish Cypriot regime of the north, at first supported the bi-communal activities. Turks and Greeks were represented equally - a small victory, diplomats say, for a minority long clamoring for recognition of its rights on the island. But, says one, "Denktash now stops them, because he fears they are not a waste of time."

Denktash has long held that Greeks and Turks can't live together, and has called for either recognition of his statelet or full integration with Turkey. Some say the strong reaction against bi-communalism shows that reconciliation is still a dream.

"Rapprochement has polarized the issue," says Caesar Mavratsas, a Greek Cypriot expert on nationalism at the University of Cyprus. "Most Greek Cypriots know nothing about crimes committed against Turkish Cypriots, and vice versa. I went through the whole education system, and did not know we did anything bad to them.

"This [peace movement] shows that people can't trust their politicians."

Still the movement continues to grow. One Greek Cypriot computer whiz has charted its evolution from one or two sources to a multiheaded Hydra.

"When you see this, one gets an idea of the forest, its not just this or that group, it's a movement," says Costis Kyranides, vice chairman of The Peace Center, holding the chart.

"The peace movement started as a small stream, and ... faced a lot of obstacles," says Mr. Kyranides. "We have created a culture of dialogue, and can now go to politicians and say: 'If we, as simple citizens, meet every week to talk to each other, why can't you?' "

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