Too - long division

4th July 2003 at 01:00
Teachers are attempting what politicians have failed to do - find ways to reconcile the peoples of Cyprus, reports Tabitha Morgan from Nicosia

Greek-Cypriot Marios Antoniou lives in the pleasant south Nicosia suburb of Strovolos, about 30 minutes' walk from the Turkish-Cypriot half of the island's capital. For the first 15 years of his life he never saw a Turkish-Cypriot. His first encounter was not in Cyprus, but the USA - at a US-sponsored peace camp.

For Marios, now 20, it was a humiliating experience. The Cypriot youths were encouraged to list important dates in the island's history. He found that he knew virtually nothing about recent events from the Turkish perspective.

Nicosia is Europe's last divided capital, split in two by the UN buffer zone that runs across the island. There is also a Berlin-style wall in many people's minds, encouraged by biased versions of history taught in school.

Most Greek-Cypriot children learn of the existence of Turkish-Cypriots through reading the school primer I Never Forget, an anthology of writing by Greek-Cypriot pupils and their teachers compiled soon after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. The walls of most primary schools in the south are decorated with children's paintings depicting the event, which was prompted by a Greek-backed military coup.

The recent inter-communal violence is a sensitive subject. Many Greek-Cypriots believe the problem began in 1974, even though the previous 10 years had seen outbreaks of fighting in which the majority of those killed were Turkish-Cypriot. Teachers like "Anthoula Demitrou" - who doesn't want to be identified by her real name for fear of recriminations - say that even suggesting that Turkish-Cypriots also suffered is "pretty much a forbidden subject". Teachers on both sides complain that the emphasis on learning by rote makes discussion of problematic issues even harder.

Secondary school teacher Nicos Anastasiou of the American Academy is a leading Greek-Cypriot in the peace movement. He believes Greek-Cypriot children quickly learn that the words "Turk" and "Turkish-Cypriot" have negative associations. One evening after watching news of floods in Africa, he recalls that his seven-year-old daughter turned to him and said: "Dad, who did this terrible thing? Was it the Turks?"

Changing the way history is taught requires movement from the politicians, who have failed to change the curriculum, even though Cyprus has successfully applied to join the European Union and embrace the multiculturalism it represents.

Former education minister Ouranios Ioannides, for instance, says more time is needed before Cypriots will feel comfortable including multicultural values in the classroom. "We are still just trying to survive the consequences of the Turkish invasion," he says. "It is too soon for this sort of thing." This stance infuriates Nicos Anastasiou, who retorts: "I cannot accept that it is ever OK to teach our children racism and hatred."

Teachers who encourage reconciliation face pressures in school, too. When Anthoula Demitrou and her colleagues tried to set up a sporting event for students from both sides last year they were advised by their school authorities that they would throw away their chances of promotion if they persisted.

Tackling extreme nationalism in the curriculum is also a problem for Turkish-Cypriot teachers. Selma Atasu was shocked when her three-year-old daughter came home from nursery reciting a poem: "Before Attaturk was born we had lots of enemies; then Attaturk came and we won a great victory against them."

As children get older they are taken on school trips to sites that commemorate events in a highly charged way. Ahouse in Nicosia where, in 1963, Greek-Cypriot fanatics shot dead Turkish-Cypriot children hiding in a bath has been preserved as a "Museum of Barbarism".

In recent years some teachers on the Turkish side - supported by their trades unions - have refused to take children on visits to these gruesome sites. "We have to prepare the next generation to live together," says Sener Elcil, general secretary of the Cyprus Turkish Teachers Trade Union.

Since the easing of travel restrictions between the two halves of the island in late April, young people have had their first chance to meet freely. Sener Elcil is already planning a programme of joint activities with Greek-Cypriot trade unions and hopes to arrange a seminar for teachers.

So far there has been no political move to capitalise on today's goodwill among Cypriots. So it could fall to the island's teachers to try to stop this spirit of reconciliation being undermined by nationalistic and divisive government policies - as reflected in school curricula.

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