A visit to divided Nicosia's Greek-Turkish 'green line'

On both its Greek and Turkish sides, Nicosia is a modern, bustling little capital -- its Greek half relatively more prosperous than its Turkish. But unseen to most residents and tourists on this Mediterranean island is a narrow corridor that zigzags through the center of the old Venetian-walled city. Greeks and Turks had coexisted in this area -- though not always amicably, and sometimes segregated into their own quaters -- until 1974. Now this is an eerie wasteland of gutted buildings, booby-trapped houses, and weeds pushing through asphalt.

"Turks on the left, Greeks on the right," says a United Nations soldier from Canada who is giving journalists a rare glimpse of the inside of Nicosia's "green line" sector.

Along winding, uninhabited streets, we pass makeshift barricades of oil drums , bricks, and old doors, and stare into the gun slits of centuries-old ethnic animosity. Residents of this area fled during intercommunal warfare in 1974, leaving so quickly that in one shuttered storeroom is a consignment of factory-condition 1975 Toyotas.

At various locations here and in an adjoining area outside the city walls we see open-air bunkers built like boys' forts and surmounted by either the red-and-white crescent and star of Turkey or the blue-and-white cross of Greece. Turkish and Greek Cypriot soldiers, not yet past their teens, sit in full view of each other, occasionally heckling, but in the past six years, rarely shooting.

"Sometimes," says our UN guide (one of 2,300 UN soldiers here to keep the peace), "There is an accidental discharge, or shots are fired behind the lines for range practice. Sometimes they yell, or throw rocks, or otherwise insult each other. But the job of our soldiers is to act like the nicest kids on the block and negotiate at the lowest possible level to prevent escalation. And we get good cooperation."

As an afterthought, he says: "It makes you wonder, though, these kids facing each other over gunsights instead of schoolbooks. After seven years, many of them have no concept of what it is like to live with each other."

If there is a central problem in Cyprus, it seems to be as the UN officer described it: the institutionalization of division, the breeding of intolerance. In conference rooms, government offices, and in the opinionated Greek and Turkish press, the blame for what often is called "the Cyprus tragedy" is pinned to one conspiracy or another -- but never to oneself. No party accepts responsibility for the persecution or the fighting that left the island divided.

But today there is at least very cautious optimism that, as UN special representative Hugo Gobbi recently said, "There is movement, and where there is motion there is hope. When there is complete stagnation, that is when we are lost."

The movement has come as a proposal by the Turkish Cypriots to relinquish control of about 3 percent of the territory they control, including the once-fashionable hotel district of the coastal city of Varosha.

With 20 percent of the population, the Turks control 38 percent of the island. The Greeks says this has created 200,000 displaced persons; the Turks that it gives them long- needed security. In exchange for territory, the Turkish Cypriots want constitutional guarantees to protect them from Greek domination in a future two-state federation.

But the Cypriot government and the Greek government in Athens have expressed displeasure at the Turks's small offering, saying at most only 31,000 refugees could go back to their homes in the Turkish north.

The Greeks have hastened to add, however, that they would still like to talk about it. The Turks, meanwhile, say the bargaining is just beginning: "We are discussing everything that has been put on the table," said Turkish Cypriot negotiator Umit Onan last week.

A veteran diplomat in Nicosia characterizes the proposals as an "opening wedge" and cautions that percentages are not overly important at this point: "The Turks made an offer that was designed to elicit a counteroffer." He says that this fall may be a time of testing each side's flexibility, and he, like Mr. Gobbi, puts much hope in the fact that there is a talking point.

Further aiding the situation, say Western diplomats, are Athens and Ankara, which would like progress on the Cyprus problem for different reasons. The centrist Greek government of Prime Minister George Rallis, while reluctant to express much optimism in an election year, could benefit from a genuine Cyprus breakthrough.

The military government in Turkey actively encouraged Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash to make the offer. This was because, according to diplomats, Turkey is trying to improve relations with Greece and with its aid benefactors in Europe and te US.

As now stands, says a senior diplomat, both sides in Cyprus realize that the appearance of intransigence would hurt if the United Nations again is presented with Cyprus for debate this fall. Moreover, he says, there is a growing perception that the Cyprus problem is fast being forgotten by the world and that if a solution is not reached soon, de facto division could become permanent.

back in the no man's land, a UN soldier whose batallion was stationed in Nicosia during the heavy fighting of 1974 volunteers that he, too, is optimistic. He says many of his fellow soldiers believe this is "a historic time" for Cyprus.

As we drive out of the zone into Greek Nicosia's shopping district, sunburnt tourists and window-shoppers stroll along, enjoying a sunny island holiday, unaware of the ghost town several hundred yards away.

"As many times as I make this trip," says the UN officer, "the contrast still amazes me."

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