Dream of reviving north Cyprus ghost town may turn sour

Anaïs LLobet
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Pavlos Iacovou sits near the ghost town of Varosha, fenced off by occupying Turkish soldiers in 1974

A wire fence on a Cypriot beach is all that separates Pavlos Iacovou from the hotel he owns but has not visited in decades -- now a sudden decision from Ankara could change all that.

The tourist resort of Varosha on the island's southeastern coast was once known as the pearl of Cyprus for its crystal waters and glitzy nightlife.

A premier holiday destination with some 50 hotels offering 10,000 beds, it became a Mediterranean playground for Hollywood stars such as Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot.

But since 1974, Varosha has fallen into disrepair, gradually turning into a ghost town, fenced off by occupying Turkish soldiers and abandoned to the elements.

Now Turkey and the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) have announced the resort may soon be reopened and passed from decades of military control to the TRNC.

It's a scenario which fills many Greek Cypriots like Iacovou and his wife Toulla with dread, but at least it could lead to some form of closure.

"I don't want to be here looking at my hotel from afar. I want to be on my terrace, sipping a lemonade and forgetting this nightmare," said Iacovou, who was 19 when he fled from the hotel his grandparents built.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu vowed earlier this month Varosha would be reopened, two weeks after Turkish Cypriot authorities organised the first ever press tour of the resort since the Turkish military invasion of northern Cyprus in the summer of 1974.

The intervention followed an Athens-engineered coup attempting to unite the island with Greece.

Then in 1983 the North declared independence in a move recognised only by Ankara. The international community still recognises the government in Nicosia as the island's sole authority.

- Price to pay -

The Security Council has in several resolutions called for UN administration of Varosha and for its original inhabitants to return.

And the European Court of Human Rights ordered Turkey to pay compensation to Varosha's dispossessed former inhabitants.

"In total, Varosha could represent more than five billion euros compensation," according to Cypriot economist Costa Apostolides.

"This is too much to pay for Turkey," he said, referring to the struggling Turkish economy.

To avoid reparations, Turkey could return Varosha's properties to surviving former inhabitants.

But Apostolides suspects Turkey may just transfer its jurisdiction to the TRNC, in effect retaining de facto control.

"If Varosha becomes a nice beach resort again, it would be an important economic driver for the TRNC," said Apostolides. "The TRNC won't let Varosha go easily."

This would be a disaster for the original owners, says Iacovou. "Which bank will give me a loan to invest in rebuilding my hotel in an occupied zone?"

Before any rebuilding can begin, ownership of Varosha properties will need to be certified, a process which could lead to potential new disputes.

The archives of land titles were lost during the Turkish invasion, said Greek-Cypriot architect Andreas Lordos.

"Reconstructing Varosha will be a daunting operation," said Lordos, whose family owns six hotels in Varosha.

"There is no water or electricity, and numerous walls are on the verge of collapse."

But after a freeze of more than four decades, Turkey may now be emboldened to act, said Amhet Sozen, a political science professor at Eastern Mediterranean University in Nicosia.

"For 45 years, Greek Cypriots have been asking the impossible: an end to Turkey's presence on the island. Turkey is now saying to them: you need to negotiate or we will open Varosha on our own terms."

With UN-brokered peace talks at a virtual standstill, Sozen sees the sudden focus on Varosha as Turkish "retaliation" for a row over offshore energy resources being developed by the Greek Cypriots.

Under a proposal from the north's foreign minister, Kudret Ozersay, reconstruction will be done in stages, starting with the part closest to Famagusta, a port city Varosha was part of before it was fenced off.

- 'Coming home' -

Greek-Cypriot owners of Varosha properties hope Nicosia, which advocates for either the direct return of Varosha or for it to be administered by the UN, will take a strong stance.

"We really need the (Greek Cypriot) government to stop being passive and start to find a compromise," said Lordos. "We cannot continue gambling, or we will lose everything."

He hopes that as it has been untouched by human activity ever since 1974, Varosha could be redeveloped as an eco-resort.

Just 14 kilometres (eight miles) south of Varosha on the Greek-Cypriot side, the beach resort of Ayia Napa welcomes millions of tourists each year -- to the detriment of its fauna and flora.

"The history of Varosha is tragic, but this could allow us to avoid the mistakes of the past decades," said documentary maker Vasia Markides.

As head of the Famagusta Ecocity project and daughter of an exile from Varosha, she is pushing for Varosha to be turned into a green city.

For 45 years, Pavlos and his wife Toulla dreamt of returning home. But they fear their dream may be fading.

"It's all speeding up," Toulla said. "They tell us to sell, to decide, but I need time. I want to come home, touch the wall of my house and shout in the streets the name of my neighbours who never came back."