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Nicosia, the sole divided capital

Enjoy yourself in this land of racial purity and pure apartheid.

Enjoy the sight of our desecrated churches.

Enjoy what remains of our looted heritage and homes.

Signboard at the Greek Cypriot Checkpoint greeting tourists desirous of crossing over to the Turkish Cypriot quarter of Nicosia.

Nicosia (Cyprus), Oct. 8: At 18 hours on August 16, 1974, life came to a standstill in the buffer zone running across 224 km of the island of Cyprus from Famagusta in the east to Pomos in the north-east. In an area varying in width from 10 m in Nicosia to 5 km at other points across the tiny island of Cyprus, time suddenly stopped.

Restaurants, offices, factories were frozen in time in the area which defines an artificial and communal border between the Greek Cypriots — predominantly Greek Orthodox Christians — and Turkish Cypriots — Muslims. A car show-room in the buffer zone still has 200-odd Toyota cars of the latest model that year, all neatly parked and nowhere to go — as they were in 1974. Other buildings have been sealed with barbed wire running across their doors and windows.

There are sandbag embankments marking gun positions on either side. Nicosia is the only divided capital in the world today. Walking down the bustling Ledra Street in the middle of the Cypriot capital, one finds it suddenly bricked up across.

Looking over the brick wall from a viewing platform, on the Turkish Cypriot side one can see a stretch of territory where time has stopped. There is a tin wall erected a few metres down the street with holes for gun positions. The Crescent and Star flag of the Turkish Cypriots can be seen fluttering on the other side.

On the Greek Cypriot side there are restaurants, shops and well-heeled tourists. Within five metres of then is the buffer zone, policed by a 1,200 strong UN Peacekeeping Force.

If one goes up to the Shacolas Tower, which houses the Ledra Museum and Observatory one can see the Turkish quarter. One of the landmarks that can be seen clearly is the Ayias Sofias Cathedral. It has now been converted into a mosque with the erection of two minarets and the Greek Cypriots make it a point to show it to the visitors.

Cyprus was divided into two after the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974. For three centuries a part of the Ottoman Empire, Cyprus became a British colony in 1923 and gained independence on August 16, 1960.

The period of independence from 1960 to 1974 saw increasing communal tensions. After a coup d’etat against President Archbishop Makarios in July 1974 by the junta ruling Greece at that time, Turkey invaded the island and occupied nearly 37 per cent of its landmass.

Nearly 180,000 Greek Cypriots fled to the south and a smaller number of Turkish Cypriots moved north. An artificial “Green Line” (Atilla Line) now divides the island into the Republic of Cyprus and the so-called “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” — recognised only by Turkey and Pakistan.

There is Turkish military presence on the Turkish Cypriot side and some 115,000 settlers, mostly from Turkey, have been brought in to colonise the area. The UN has called for the withdrawal of the Turkish troops from Cyprus and for respecting the sovereignty, independence and the territorial integrity of Cyprus — but Turkey have been deaf to these appeals.

The divide in Cyprus is patently communal. The complaints one hears in Cyprus are the same as in all communally divided societies.

But even the deep wound running through the heart of Cyprus has been converted into a tourist venture.

Today, Cyprus allows diplomats and tourists to cross over to the Turkish Cypriot quarter at the only designated point in Nicosia — provided they do not get their passports stamped in any way on the other side.

On the Turkish Cypriot side, it is mandatory for the tourists to sign a declaration supporting the occupation.

“The other side is much poorer,” the people at the border checkpoint say. But there are still some Greek Cypriots living on the other side. They live in “enclaves” and hence the charge of apartheid in the signboard at the border crossing.

After primary education, many of them send their children to the Greek Cypriot side for schooling.

Now the government of President Glafcos Clerides is engaged in direct talks with their Turkish Cypriot counterparts to resolve what has come to be known the Cyprus question. The Turkish Cypriots want sovereignty but President Clerides wants a bi-zonal, bi-communal country that would be tolerant of ethnic and religious diversity.

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