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Nicosia, a capital straddling two cultures

June 29, 2012
NICOSIA: “A few steps take you from one culture to another,” said Vedia Izzet, a Turkish Cypriot, speaking of her daily trips between the Cypriot capital’s Turkish-controlled north and Greek Cypriot south.

“It’s like walking through a film between two parallel space-time dimensions, as if the film were punctured,” she said of the divide in a country that assumes the European Union’s rotating presidency on Sunday.

Nicosia has been divided by a UN-patrolled buffer zone since 1974, when Turkish troops invaded the island in response to a Greek Cypriot coup seeking to unite the eastern Mediterranean island with Greece.

The northern third of the island, including roughly half of Nicosia, is controlled by the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is recognised only by Ankara.

The rest of the country is under the jurisdiction of the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus.

Vedia, an archaeologist, lives in northern Nicosia. She travels south each day, to take her children to school, for shopping or even to the doctors.

A sign proclaiming Nicosia as Europe’s last divided capital overlooks one of the checkpoints guarded by Turkish and Greek Cypriots 24/7.

In between is the buffer zone, whose depth runs literally from one building’s wall backed up against that of another in the heart of the Old Town to several kilometres at the now disused Nicosia International Airport.

Much of the Old Town’s buffer zone is like a no-man’s land, with abandoned buildings caught in a 38-year-long time warp.

Until two-way traffic was opened in 2003, no one could pass from north to south. Only foreigners could travel north, and then only until 5pm, with laggards risking being put on a blacklist.

There are now no time limits in either direction.

In the old days, there was only one crossing. It passed by Nicosia’s once plush Ledra Palace Hotel, now a barracks for UN peacekeepers, and both pedestrians and vehicles used it.

Since 2003, seven crossings have opened along the buffer zone across the island. The most symbolic was that of pedestrianised Ledra Street, which had once been the capital’s main shopping thoroughfare.

To make the crossing north, a visitor must show an ID card and obtain a “visa.” In the other direction, the Greek Cypriot authorities do not consider there to be any border, but police can and do check people for “contraband.”

Jobs in the south, casinos in the north

Now that the divide is relatively open, many Turkish Cypriots come south for work, most of them men in construction, metal-working and other blue-collar jobs.

Turkish Cypriot Seyfi, who refused to give his surname, said: “I come to work everyday on the Greek side. Now, with the crisis, it is only short-term jobs, but it pays well – nearly twice as much as in the north.”

And a number of middle-class families bring their children to schools in the south of the capital, such as the century-old English School, which has always maintained a quota for Turkish Cypriots.

Others, when they can afford it, will opt for hospitalisation in the south.

The car trip can take half an hour or more because of the checkpoints at the vehicular crossings, but Vedia cycles across.

“It only takes a few steps, a few minutes to cross, and I end up doing it with no psychological stress. But we have to make sure we always carry our passport with us,” she said, as she commented on the stark differences.

“It’s not the same language, or the same brands. In the south, there is European-style marketing; cars and air conditioning everywhere. In the north, there is a more relaxed attitude. Windows are open; business relies on individuals.”

Like Vedia, thousands now cross the divide, with the United Nations estimating the figure at more than 125,000 a month.

In the other direction, along with the tourists drawn to the bazaars, an old caveransary and a Roman Catholic cathedral converted into a mosque by the Ottomans that ruled Cyprus for centuries, many Greek Cypriots also head north.

They are particularly attracted by the casinos, which are not permitted in the south.

“We like to have dinner in the north and enjoy the calm and the local specialties,” said one Greek Cypriot parent, who bemoaned the fact that her mobile phone would be out of reach of the babysitter.

Nicosia is still very much divided, because the mobile phone networks are not compatible.

But many Greek Cypriots live, work and shop without ever crossing the line, either out of political conviction or for emotional reasons.

Thousands of Greek Cypriots fled south during the 1974 fighting, losing their properties and livelihoods.

“Crossing to the north is a way of accepting de facto the creation of a new country,” says government employee Christina Chrysanthou, was only two years old when her family was expelled.

“I grew up with the urge of going back to our home” in Morphou, renamed Guzulyurt by the Turks. “Then I discovered that we were strangers in our own home. I cannot accept this situation.

“I do not want to interact with these people, nor show them my passport. It bothers me that other people go to Turkish businesses, casinos. They support occupation and forget the war and the bloodshed.”

–  AFP


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