Kebabs and sherbet: a recipe for peace in divided Cyprus

The breeze fanned the aroma of lamb kebabs in the sweltering afternoon air. And under the shade of pine trees last Saturday, two friends from different sides of the divided nation met at long last. They shook hands, wept, and then locked in an emotional bear hug. "I feel like a young man again," says Hussein Yusuf. "He was my best friend."

George Christoforou, nodded vigorously in agreement. "We used to get some information about each other from relatives in other countries, but this is the first time we've actually met in 26 years."

Similar scenes were being played out around them as youths sang songs of peace, served drinks, and tended barbecues at this historic bicommunal picnic.

It was an uncustomary occasion in Cyprus. The former British colony has been split into a Greek Cypriot-controlled south and the Turkish-occupied north since Turkey invaded in 1974 in the wake of an abortive coup by supporters of union with Greece.

Since then, Cyprus has been a land of anomalies. As "proximity talks" aimed at reuniting the divided nation resumed Wednesday in Geneva, the scenes were far from festive. Greek Cypriot leader Glafcos Clerides and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, who have known each other since the 1950s, sat in separate rooms as UN mediator Alvaro de Soto shuttled between the two delegations.

While little headway has been achieved on the political level, individuals are making efforts to reconnect, especially in a Nicosia landmark, the Ledra Palace Hotel in the UN-controlled buffer zone.

Mr. Yusuf, a Turkish Cypriot, and Mr. Christoforou, a Greek Cypriot, used to live in a mixed village until Cyprus was split along religious and ethnic lines in 1974. Since then, contact among ordinary Cypriots across the "green line" that divides the island has been minimal. For many years, it was easier for Greek and Turkish Cypriots to meet 2,000 miles away on holiday in London than on their own island.

The Cyprus problem, the Gordian knot of international diplomacy, has defied mediation for more than a quarter of a century. And as the leaders of the estranged communities are hoping to revive long-stalled settlement negotiations there is little optimism at home or abroad.

The latest stumbling block is a demand by Mr. Denktash, for international recognition of his breakaway state, which is currently recognized only by Turkey. Any re-unification of the island also must come under a confederal system, rather than the federation proposed by the UN, he says.

On Wednesday, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said it was impossible to say when the situation might be right for Clerides and Denktash to begin face-to-face negotiations.

"I certainly hope there is progress but I am not very optimistic," Richard Holbrooke, US Ambassador to the UN, said recently. The position of the Turkish Cypriots on sovereignty had "stopped the process cold."

Meanwhile, frustrated by years of deadlock, ordinary people are no longer waiting for politicians and outside powers to bring a settlement. In recent years, small groups of people from both sides have organized low-profile meetings to bring about a thaw. Those meetings are now on the increase, aided by the Internet, which is proving an invaluable tool in making and keeping contact. Building confidence at a grass-roots level can only boost the political process, participants say.

Saturday's meeting, for instance, was organized mainly by youth groups from both sides of the island who keep in touch through e-mail. The organizers' aim was to bring together Greek and Turkish Cypriots who used to live in mixed villages before the violence.

"Our target audience was not just well-known people who usually attend these events, but also the people who used to drink coffee together and attend village weddings," says Nicos Anatassiou, a Greek Cypriot who coordinated the picnic.

Hundreds attended the event that was held in neutral territory near Pergamos, a village within territory administered by a British military base that straddles the dividing line in the southeast of the island. Many Turkish Cypriots brought photographs so that many Greek Cypriots could see again the villages they were born in but were forced to leave.

"We had no problems, we all got along well," says Cemil Ahmet, an elderly Turkish Cypriot. Like many at the picnic, he is at a loss to explain what went so wrong if, as he argues, ordinary Greek and Turkish Cypriots co-existed peacefully. "Ask the Americans, ask the English," he says, voicing the common refrain that Cyprus was a strategic island that fell victim to the interests of outside powers. But he adds with a shrug: "I suppose both sides here were also to blame."

Diplomats take comfort from the fact that despite decades of estrangement, people still yearn for contact and some recent events have revealed a deep reservoir of goodwill. In a remarkable display of compassion, people on both sides recently buried their differences to save the lives of two little boys, Andreas Vassiliou, a six-year-old Greek Cypriot, and 12-year-old Kemal Saracoglu, a Turkish Cypriot, both of whom were diagnosed with leukemia. When their plight was publicized, thousands of people from both communities queued up to offer blood samples to see whether any of them could be a match for either boy.

"The Turkish Cypriots saw my problem as their problem and my son as their son. I am deeply grateful," Andreas's father says. "I hope this will help Greek and Turkish Cypriots to live together.... It proves we can."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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