Peace comes to Pergamos

28th July 2000 at 01:00
After 26 years of bitter division, Cyprus seems as far away as ever from reconciliation and reunification. But, in a dusty park on the edge of no-man's land, young activists inspired by two teachers - one from the north, the other from the south - are bypassing the politicians and making their own bid for peace. Words and pictures by Brendan O'Malley.

Nicos Anastasiou is hurtling along the motorway in southern Cyprus in a Toyota Starlet strewn with empty beakers and papers when the mobile rings. He pulls on to the hard shoulder to take the call.

"They've found Ibrahim. He is one of my classmates. I haven't seen him in 26 years," he says.

Like many people in Cyprus, Nicos and Ibrahim found their friendship cut short in 1974, when Turkish troops invaded and the island was split into two mutually hostile zones. But Nicos, and others like him on both sides of the divide, are using modern technology to reach out to people they haven't seen in more than a quarter of a century. They are part of a grassroots campaign that aims to break the political impasse and bring down the barriers between the two sides.

"Ibrahim's an archaeologist in the north and he wants to meet an archaeologist in the south," Nicos says, before urging the caller to spread the word about tomorrow's meeting in Pergamos, a village situated on the edge of the UN buffer zone separating north from south.

Nicos, 42, a teacher in a secondary school in Larnaca, has been organising the meeting - a bi-communal reunion of friends and neighbours wrenched apart by partition - for months, but there is plenty of last-minute work to be done. It's 9pm and they need 2,000 copies of a leaflet reproduced by tomorrow, July 1, in Greek, Turkish and English. The Turkish version is being sent by e-mail from the United States, the Greek one is being translated by a schoolgirl in Nicosia. "We have to get hold of friendly photocopying facilities," says Nicos. "Schools or offices will do. We don't have any money."

We hit the road and head for Anglissides village in the dark to round up more participants.

The meeting in Pergamos has been billed the biggest attempt to bridge the military divide and work for peace on an island that remains split by a barbed wire corridor. The northern third has been guarded by up to 40,000 Turkish troops since 1974, when they landed on the island after the military junta in Athens engineered a coup in Nicosia. But the only country that recognises the Turkish-Cypriot statelet is Turkey.

Many rounds of peace talks - the latest reopened this week - have come to nothing in what has become one of Europe's most intractable political problems. It has left 200,000 Greek-Cypriot refugees unable to return to their homes in the north and 80,000 Turkish Cypriots unable to visit their homes in the south.

Observers wonder how the two sides will ever agree a settlement if ordinary Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots never meet each other face to face. But Nicos and his friends have come up with their own answer.

With Ulus Irkad, a 43-year-old primary teacher in the north, Nicos has been instrumental in setting up youth groups on both sides of the barbed wire that are working for peace. Tomorrow's reunion, when villagers from both sides will meet up in a dusty park on the edge of the UN buffer zone, is the activists' most ambitious project to date.

The success of a bi-communal youth festival they organised in the buffer zone in March encouraged them to try to tackle the older generation. "What counts is not only to bring the youngest together," says Charis Achilleos, 16, the leading youth link in the south. "We need something else to reunite those who lived together before. There is a treasure buried in the heart for 26 years or more and we have to find the key to unlock the treasure."

Using mobile phones and Internet links to beat the restrictions on contact between the two sides - imposed in 1997 by the leader of the Turkish-Cypriot statelet, Rauf Denktash, and reinforced by the lack of any telephone communication other than a single line between the two parts of the island - they have been collecting lists of people who want to find old friends on the other side. These have been e-mailed to activists across the barbed wire so they can look for the named friends and invite them to the reunion.

Nicos parks by a roadside cafe in Anglissides, a village in the south that used to be inhabited by Greek and Turkish Cypriots, in an era the locals remember with great fondness.

Dimitris Ptohopoulos, 47, still has the old credit book for his father's grocery business. It shows that he used to charge Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots the same fee for his billy goat to have "fun time" with their nanny goats.

More poignantly, he recalls the story of his cousin, who was taken prisoner by Turkish soldiers during the 1974 invasion and went missing for three months. During that time the cousin had been too scared to say he was from Anglissides as he did not know if Greek-Cypriot soldiers had killed any Turkish Cypriots there, as happened in some villages during the fighting.

When one day he was questioned by a Turkish-Cypriot officer who came from the next village, he had to admit he was from Anglissides. But it turned out the officer was a good friend of his father and set him free.

The story is cut short by the news that earlier in the day Turkish troops moved 300 feet forward from their positions along the barbed wire "border", raising tension. It is a tit-for-tat political move in retaliation for the renewal of the UN peace-keeping force's mandate, which Mr Denktash has not been asked to sign because his state isn't recognised.

But Nicos fears this may also be an attempt to put people off attending the reunion. Previous demonstrations in periods of tension have led to shootings in the buffer zone. He hurries back home to scour his e-mails for more news - and more lists. He gets up to 30 lists a day of people who want to meet Cypriots from the other side. He will be up until 3am answering them, before snatching three hours' sleep - as he has most nights for the past three weeks.

Nicos says he has had a dream that tomorrow will be the biggest bi-communal meeting Cyprus has ever seen. But in his next breath he wonders if the Turkish army will let the Turkish Cypriots through the checkpoint.

By 10am the next day, six Turkish-Cypriot youths and several adults are busy pinning up names of districts on trees in the park at Pergamos. The idea is to use the park as an imaginary map of the island and pin the names where they would fall on the map, so people will know where to meet their old friends. The trees will also provide shade from the blistering afternoon sun.

Nicos is pacing up and down talking animatedly into his mobile phone. The Turkish-Cypriot youngsters joke that the rest of the Greek Cypriots, being Greek, will be here later. Getting there has been no joke for them. Tanyel Cemal, 16, has taken two buses and hitched two lifts to get to the checkpoint. They have all had to leave their identity cards with the "border" police, knowing that they may be given a hard time when they return.

The Turkish-Cypriot "government" is opposed to reunification. Mr Denktash insists recognition of his administration as an independent state is the first step to any settlement.

Opponents have faced various forms of harassment from the military and civilian authorities. Peace activists say their phones are tapped and they are followed when they go to meetings. Within a fortnight of the villagers' reunion, 8,000 of the 200,000 living in the north would demonstrate - backed by, among others, the Turkish Cypriot Teachers Union - against a spate of detentions and the arrest of three journalists on a pro-opposition newspaper charged with spying for the Greek Cypriots.

One of the youngest Turkish Cypriots at the park, a 15-year-old girl who wants to remain anonymous, was picked on by police as she returned from the last planning meeting in the UN buffer zone. She says they asked questions about whom she had met and searched her bag before they would return her identity card.

"They are trying to make us scared," adds Hasan Veruglu, 18, from Kyrenia.

The only place the youngsters from both sides can meet to plan events is in the sole village in the neutral UN buffer zone, Pyla. But e-mail and the Internet have made grassroots activity possible. When Charis Achilleos arrives, Tanyel introduces her as her "sister". They are both veterans of Seeds of Peace, an organisation that sends young people from opposing sides in political disputes to the US to take part in a conflict resolution project. It was set up to help the peace process in the Middle East. Last year a three week workshop was attended by 20 Greek Cypriots and 20 Turkish Cypriots. "I had never met Turkish Cypriots before," says Charis. "It was the best experience of my life."

When she came back she tried to organise through schools an opinion poll of Cypriot youngsters' views on rapprochement in Cyprus. But she ran up against resistance, first from her school, which was fearful of breaking ministry of education rules, and then from the ministry itself.

When Charis decided to go ahead anyway, and canvassed 300 pupils during school breaks, she had to persuade a disciplinary meeting not to punish her, using techniques she had learned at Seeds of Peace.

"The idea is to be calm, not angry," she says. "If someone attacks you don't attack back, because that will just become an argument. You try to find a way for them to realise that what they are saying doesn't make sense.

"I said it was just teenagers involved, and that it was right to do something. I talked about our Turkish-Cypriot friends, our workshops, and they realised what I told them was the truth."

For too long, the young activists agree, schools have been part of the problem. Greek and Turkish Cypriots use history textbooks that are full of propaganda against Turks or Greeks. "They teach us to hate each other," says Kuecuetou, 23, from Famagusta.

In addition to Seeds of Peace, the groups organising the villagers' reunion include Youth Promoting Peace, formed by students living in Nicosia; Youth Encounters for Peace, which organises penpalse-pals from each side; and Cypriot Youth for Peace, based at Nicos's school, the American Academy of Larnaca.

By late afternoon, as the first cars grind up the dusty road to Pergamos, the youths are roaming in pairs - one Turkish Cypriot with one Greek Cypriot - guiding new arrivals to the trees bearing their district's name.

Old men and women are searching for the friends they used to pass the time with at their village coffee shop or at work in the fields. "We lived like brothers and sisters," says one old woman waiting under a tree.

Over a couple of hours about 1,000 Greek and Turkish Cypriots, according to police estimates, pour into the park in search of friends. The visitors include community leaders, politicians such as the leader of the Republican Turkish Party, Mehmet Ali Talat, and diplomats.

Nicos has supplied a stack of southern phone directories so that Turkish Cypriots who cannot find their friends can leaf through and call them on a mobile to set up a meeting. Leaflets handed out by Tanyel, Charis and their friends urge people to make this only the start and to organise bigger meetings in the park. People are soon busy thumbing through lists and chatting on their mobiles.

Everywhere, wrinkled faces are smiling. Men stand, arms around each other's shoulders. One of the most poignant meetings is between two wizened men, sitting on chairs clutching walking sticks in the middle of a throng of Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Andoni, 86, muktar (headman) of Silicou village for 22 years, and Ibrahim Sahli, also 86, can't hold back the tears as they talk about how they were parted during the war. "I have come for unification," declares Ibrahim. "We want only one Cyprus, in peace," echoes Andoni. "If I was going to live one more year, I am going to live five more years after today," says Ibrahim. "We were best friends in the fields, in the vineyards and on the roads for many years."

His one regret is that he cannot visit the the grave, near Limassol, of his wife, Zihan Svik, who died in 1971. He says of the politicians: "I hope they compromise, because being apart makes me sad every day. I want to see my wife's grave before I die." But Andoni has a surprise for him. His family have brought soil from the grave and given it to Ibrahim's son, lest the emotion proves too much for Ibrahim in one day.

"Let him be happy today," his son says, "because tomorrow he will be very sad."

As the sun sets, Dimitris Ptohopoulos and his friends from Anglissides are being implored to join in the Turkish dancing. For those villages that turned out en masse, the day has been a turning point. For many others, whose friends from the other side didn't show, the numbers are disappointingly low.

Some adults fear the youths' expectations have been built too high, saying peace will be a long time coming. The legacy of Cyprus's divisive recent history - the bloody ethnic fighting of 1963-4 and 1967, the invasion of 1974 - is a formidable obstacle.

There are also powerful international interests to contend with. In 1974 the US and Britain encouraged the partition of Cyprus, to safeguard spying and military facilities which they feared could be lost if the island turned communist. Since then, Turkish settlers have become the majority population in the north, and many Turkish Cypriots have left. Some of them fear that if a solution is not found soon, there will be no Turkish-Cypriot population for the south to reunite with.

The peace activists also believe that neither Mr Denktash nor the Greek Cypriot president of Cyprus, Glafkos Clerides, is bold enough to make the concessions necessary to break the political deadlock.

Nicos admits that the meetings of villages where both sides lived in harmony is only the start, as many Turkish Cypriots fear that any rapprochement would bring more violence. "Next we have to address the shame and the pain," he says, citing the southern village of Tochni, where Turkish Cypriots were allegedly slaughtered in revenge for the invasion.

At the end of the day at Pergamos he summons his fast-draining energy to rally the youths to keep on working. "We are always talking about heroes of the war on this island," he tells them. "One day we will have heroes of peace."

Within a week, Greek and Turkish Cypriots who used to live together at Lapathos and Kazafani would be back at the park for full bi-communal village meetings - and Nicos would be flying to Vermont, in the US, to help run more workshops for peace on neutral ground. Forty-two young people - half of them Turkish Cypriot, half of them Greek Cypriot - would for the first time be meeting their peers from the other side.

"It's started happening now," says Charis. "Even if the politicians come to a solution, nothing will be solved if people can't trust each other. But since I have been involved I have seen such progress. In place of suspicion and ignorance there's more knowledge and trust."

www.peace-cyprus.orgBrendan O'Malley is international editor of The TES and co-author with Ian Craig of The Cyprus Conspiracy: America, espionage and the Turkish invasion, published by IB Tauris, which was shortlisted for the 1999 Orwell prize

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