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Waging peace between Greeks, Turks in Cyprus

April 1, 2017 at 3:25 PM EDT
Since the mid-1970s, the island of Cyprus has been politically divided between its two main ethnic groups: Greeks and Turks. This conflict has at times brought two members of the NATO military alliance, Greece and Turkey, to the brink of war. But now, analysts see an opportunity for resolution. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Livesay went to Cyprus to the explain the history and the prospects for peace.
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CHRIS LIVESAY: The Mediterranean island of Cyprus is a country divided. The majority, ethnic Greeks, live in the south, in the Republic of Cyprus, an internationally-recognized government and member of the European Union. In the North are mostly ethnic Turks, calling themselves the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, officially recognized by only one country, Turkey.

It’s a standoff born of a war four decades ago. The flags of each nationality still fly opposite each other across a United Nations-controlled “buffer zone,” which stretches the entire 180-mile length of the island and cuts right through the divided capital city, Nicosia.

People passing from one side of the island to the other must go through checkpoints. It’s a really short distance. Rita Severis, a Greek Cypriot, is the founder of an art museum located steps away from the buffer zone. The whole city is divided in two?

RITA SEVERIS: Yes. With one street.

CHRIS LIVESAY: This is like the Berlin Wall.

RITA SEVERIS: Exactly.

CHRIS LIVESAY: …of Nicosia.

RITA SEVERIS: Exactly. Exactly. Only there isn’t a wall. You see, the UN patrols. They’re doing their patrol at the moment to make sure that nobody is in.

CHRIS LIVESAY: Where is the Turkish side?

The Greek Cypriot government granted us permission to enter the buffer zone with a military escort. Watch for the low hanging wires here. We saw a bizarre maze of ruins, crumbled walls. Home to nothing, but the occasional stray cat or dog.

These armed soldiers are the only other sign of life in the buffer zone. Although Greek and Turkish Cypriots have lived together in peace for centuries, tension and violence grew in the middle of the last century, just as Cyprus was gaining its independence from Britain.

Abdullah Cangil, a Turkish Cypriot, says Turks felt safer under British rule and feared Cyprus would become part of Greece. Violence erupted between the two ethnic groups.

ABDULLAH CANGIL: It was terrible years, you see. Nobody had the courage to travel from one side of cyprus to another. Sometimes they were taken, killed, and never seen.

CHRIS LIVESAY: In 1974, the situation exploded. Encouraged by Athens, Greek militias sought to unify Cyprus with Greece. To stop that, Turkey sent troops on the pretext of protecting the Turkish minority and occupied the northern third of the island.

RITA SEVERIS: We could see far away in the distance the Turkish parachutists, coming down. We could see the planes that were bombarding the hospitals full of bodies and wounded people.

CHRIS LIVESAY: The war lasted only a few days. But more than two thousand Turkish and Greek Cypriots were dead or missing.

One of the fiercest battles took place at the island’s main airport in Nicosia, now abandoned. Major Robert Szaksazon says these runways are used now only by UN peacekeeper helicopters.

ROBERT SZAKSON: You can see some bullet holes in the fuselage.

CHRIS LIVESAY: This Cyprus Airways jet has sat here for 43 years.

ROBERT SZAKSON: It’s a symbol of the fighting from that time. It’s still here in the buffer zone.

CHRIS LIVESAY: The buffer zone was supposed to be temporary. But partition went on year after year with failed negotiations among the Cypriots and the island’s so-called guarantors, or “motherlands,” Greece and Turkey, each backing up their ethnic kin.

RITA SEVERIS: We’ve had many times when our hopes had risen, and we thought, ‘Oh, tomorrow it will be over.’ We’ll join our land again. Always fell flat on our face!

CHRIS LIVESAY: Now, there is new hope for reunification. In January, Greek Cypriot President, Nicos Anastasiades, and the head of the Turkish Cypriot minority, Mustafa Akinci, who hail from the same small village in Cyprus and are especially eager for peace, met in Geneva for high level talks brokered by the UN.

Ozdil Nami is the chief negotiator for the Turkish Cypriots.

OZDIL NAMI: This is final stage. Make or break time. Everyone realizes this.

CHRIS LIVESAY: On the other side is Greek Cypriot foreign minister Ioannis Kasoulides.

Is this just the umteenth example of negotiations that will ultimately fail, or are we really on the brink of a breakthrough?

IOANNIS KASOULIDES: We are nearly at the brink of a breakthrough.

CHRIS LIVESAY: The biggest issue, both sides agree, is security. Turkey still has some 35-thousand troops stationed in northern Cyprus.

OZDIL NAMI: In order to feel secure, we demand a certain number of Turkish troops remain.

CHRIS LIVESAY: You don’t see the presence of Turkish troops in Cyprus as a non-starter for the Greek Cypriot side?

OZDIL NAMI: No, these issues are all under discussion. There are alternative ways of providing security for everybody involved. Military element presence of troops is one dimension. We will wait and see how strong, how many troops.

IOANNIS KASOULIDES: For us, it makes no sense to keep troops from Turkey on the island.

CHRIS LIVESAY: But aren’t the Turkish troops guaranteeing the security of the Turkish minority?

IOANNIS KASOULIDES: Well, why don’t you put the Russian troops to guarantee the Russian minority in the Baltic states? Come on! You have to be reasonable about what we can do and what we cannot do. This we are prepared to negotiate.

CHRIS LIVESAY: Another major issue is property rights. After the 1974 war there was a mass migration of both peoples. More than 160-thousand Greek Cypriots living in the north fled or were forced to move to the south and 40-thousand Turkish Cypriots living in the south moved to the north. In the northern coastal town of Kyrenia, Rita Severis’ family had been one of the biggest property owners with an olive oil factory, land, and several houses.

So before partition, before Turkish invasion, your property was featured on tourism posters?

RITA SEVERIS: Oh, Yes.

CHRIS LIVESAY: Overnight, her family, like other Greek Cypriots in the north, lost it all.

So, what will happen to that property and the other property you lost if Cyprus is reunified?

RITA SEVERIS: We would have three choices. Restitution. provided that it is not used by somebody. That means they take our land in the north and give us land of equivalent value in the south or compensation.

CHRIS LIVESAY: It’s a difficult problem for Turkish Cypriots too. Take Abdullah Cangil, one of those forced to give up his property in the south and move north.

ABDULLAH CANGIL: I was 24 years old when I came here and now I am 67.

CHRIS LIVESAY: Cangil put a lot of work and money into the house. Put in a pool. Planted a grove of orange trees. It’s where he raised his family.

ABDULLAH CANGIL: I have been living here 43 years, but I never think this property is mine, you see, because it is not mine.

CHRIS LIVESAY: Cangil believes without unification there’s little future for the Turkish minority on Cyprus.

ABDULLAH CANGIL: The younger generation immigrate to other countries. No one recognizes us. No relations with the world. No trade with the world.

CHRIS LIVESAY: If he has to move because of reunification, he says, it will be hard but he’s willing to make the sacrifice.

Chief Turkish Cypriot negotiator Ozdil Nami says whole towns may change hands in the remapping, but past mistakes won’t be repeated.

OZDIL NAMI: If there is going to be relocation of those, it’s not going to be through forced eviction of any sort. We are not going to have a refugee crisis.

CHRIS LIVESAY: Economics are another factor driving unification. Under one unified federal government, all of Cyprus could reopen trade with Turkey and have access to the EU common market. And something else offers benefits for both communities, newly discovered deposits of natural gas off the southern, or Greek Cypriot, part of the island.

IOANNIS KASOULIDES:
It will give substantial revenues for both. It will be promising not just for the present generation, but for the future generations we have no plan B. Our determination is to resolve the problem.

CHRIS LIVESAY: Abdullah Cangil, the Turkish Cypriot man we met, says the people of the island are ready to live together again. In fact, he’s in contact with the Greek Cypriot he considers the real owner of his home.

They’re now friends.

ABDULLAH CANGIL: This beautiful small island is not so much big to be divided, and it is enough for us, you see, to live together in peace.

CHRIS LIVESAY: Is peace possible?

RITA SEVERIS: I would say that if the Greek and Turkish Cypriots were left on their own with no “motherlands” or anybody else interfering then, yes, peace would be possible. If it doesn’t happen now within this year, it will never happen. So either it is now or never, I feel.

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