Greek lights, Turkish bitumen on a Cyprus street
International efforts promote cooperation on the divided island,
PYLA, CYPRUS — The contested stretch of road is just 200 yards long and doesn't connect anything; it simply improves access to a handful of village houses.
But on the divided island of Cyprus, politics seems to infest every issue - especially if your village, like Pyla, and your road, happen to sit in the middle of the buffer zone between ethnic Greek and Turkish areas.
Once called a model village of cohabitation by the United Nations, this is the only place on the Mediterranean island where people of both groups live side by side.
But "harmony" is not a word that many residents use to describe their lives, and underlying tension points to the difficulty of forging peace in Cyprus.
"There was a big argument over who could build that road," says Alkan Batikent, a Turkish Cypriot resident who owns a popular bar and restaurant nearby. In the end, it was decided that the Turkish side could pave the road, and that the Greek side could install the street lights.
"The UN had to mediate," says Mr. Batikent, throwing his arms up in exasperation. "How stupid can you get?"
Cypriots have been divided since 1974, when troops from Turkey invaded northern Cyprus to protect their ethnic brethren from the results of a brief Greek-led coup that aimed to unite the island with Greece.
Some 30,000 troops are still deployed in the breakaway Turkish statelet in the north, while the internationally recognized Greek-led government of Cyprus in the south counters with 10,000 of its own national guards.
Though Cypriots of both communities live together here, residents say they rarely mix. A Turkish coffeehouse stands on one corner of the central square; a Greek bar stands opposite.
Further evidence of the larger Cyprus conflict is hard to ignore. Turkish troops occupy a high ridge that overlooks the village. A statue of Kemal Ataturk, who founded modern Turkey in the 1920s, stands on the edge of the cliff as if marching south to dominate Greek Cyprus.
On the Greek side, a similar message of defiance came with the recent building of a huge Greek Orthodox church, to join the two churches already serving the village's 600 to 700 ethnic Greeks.
"Pyla is a battleground for the two sides," says Batikent. "They have so much space outside the village [for the church], why did they have to squeeze it inside among the houses?"
Such exhibits of nationalism rarely encourage give-and-take searches for solutions.
For years, the Cyprus Fulbright Commission has worked to bring the two communities together. While UN and United States peace efforts have long been under way, most centered on a federal solution and rarely included grass-roots input.
One solution-oriented effort that does involve local residents is bicommunal activities. Sponsored by the Fulbright Commission, the US Embassy, and European missions, these joint meetings and peace-oriented workshops began in the mid-1990s. In 1997, as many as 3,000 participants were gathering to talk through their problems and misperceptions.
But anxious that the bicommunal activities were becoming too popular - and indirectly highlighting how little politicians were doing to encourage peace - Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash cancelled all links in December 1997, a move that analysts say Mr. Denktash hoped to leverage into recognition for his breakaway ethnic Turkish statelet, which so far is recognized only by Turkey.
"The Berlin Wall is still in effect," says a Western diplomat in Nicosia, who then notes the irony: "The bicommunal movement is being held hostage to the Cyprus problem that it is supposed to help solve."
Suspicions abound, even in Pyla. Locals do a brisk business of smuggling from the Turkish side. But some visitors who patronize Pyla pubs have been stopped and questioned by undercover Greek Cypriot police. More recently, Turkish Cypriots crossing into the neutral zone for bicommunal meetings have been harassed at the Turkish Cypriot checkpoint on their return - with soldiers picking through their papers and address books.
"There is no acceptance that people think differently, and no genuine willingness to understand" each other, says another Western diplomat of the vast majority of Cypriots on both sides.
Bicommunal activities often get little or negative press attention in Cyprus, and those involved keep a low profile.
"There is not an informed public out there, to make an informed judgment. It's not part of the debate," adds the first diplomat. "But once people get the bicommunal bug, they can't live without it."
Among those hooked on forging grass-roots peace is the Fulbright's "Oslo Group," which began work a year ago with 52 Cypriots - 26 from each side - in Oslo.
By December, the group had created a new peace plan to which they almost all agreed. Denktash has refused to meet the group, to be presented with the resulting plan. The Turkish parliament, angry that the north's obstructionism is giving the wrong impression abroad, is debating reopening the main border crossing for regular contact.
"In 25 years, our leaders have not made any progress," says a Turkish Cypriot member of the Oslo group. "But we really pushed ourselves to make compromises that might work."
"It shows what can be done," says Marco Turk, the Fulbright senior scholar in Nicosia who facilitated the Oslo and other meetings. The number of people and meetings continues to grow. A highlight in April was a picnic for 100 people in a park near Pyla.
"They are learning to believe that they can make a difference themselves, that they don't have to rely on politicians," says Mr. Turk, "and that they can do it in spite of the politicians."