Show of 'solidarity' in Cyprus ghost town before Erdogan visit

·4-min read

Ahead of a visit Tuesday by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the Cypriot ghost town of Varosha, activists from both sides of the divided island made an emotional call for unity.

Their voices echoing off abandoned and dilapidated buildings, some 50 Greek and Turkish Cypriots held hands last Friday to form a human chain symbolising solidarity and their desire for reconciliation.

Erdogan's controversial visit will mark 47 years since Turkey's invasion of northern Cyprus split the Mediterranean island and left Varosha, a former playground for the rich and famous, a fenced-off no-man's land.

"We're in front of our houses which were looted 47 years ago," said Nikos Karoullas, a Greek Cypriot in his sixties, during a visit to the area adjacent to the UN-patrolled Green Line.

"Our houses are unreachable. But we say: the Turkish Cypriots are our friends, we will fight for a reunified country."

The former resident of Varosha said he had originally only wanted to meet up with some friends and show them his childhood home town, where bougainvillea now shoots through caved-in roofs.

But then he found that Cypriots from both sides had turned up for a brief show of solidarity with those who had fled and lost everything decades ago.

On July 20, 1974, Turkish troops invaded northern Cyprus in response to a coup aimed at attaching the country to Greece.

The island has since been divided between the Republic of Cyprus, a Greek Cypriot-majority state and European Union member, and the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognised only by Ankara.

- 'I want to scream' -

Varosha, still surrounded by barbed wire, was placed under Turkish army control and left to rot, a crumbling bargaining chip in years of negotiations that have failed to resolve the island's divisions.

Then last year, on October 8, the self-declared TRNC reopened Demokratias Avenue, which crosses through Varosha and leads to its long and golden beach.

That sparked protests in the south.

But the same month also saw the election of Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar, who is close to Ankara and pushing for international recognition of TRNC statehood rather than an island-wide federation.

When Erdogan travels to Varosha, in a visit that has infuriated Greek Cypriots, he is expected to announce the reopening of other parts of the town.

Andreas Anastassiou, 67, another former Varosha resident back there last week, struggled to control his anger.

"I see the buildings are destroyed. I want to cry and I want my cry to be heard all over Cyprus," he said.

"They stole our town from us."

According to a University of Nicosia poll of 1,000 former residents, 73 percent would refuse to resettle in Varosha if it were reopened under Turkish Cypriot control -- a move that would defy UN resolutions.

"It's easy for them (to) tell us to come back because they know we will say no. No one will accept to live under Turkish law," said Anastassiou.

He pointed to a Turkish worker cementing a wall.

"That's my old school," he said, raising his voice. "Look, they've already removed the name!"

- 'Death and sorrow' -

At the end of their reunion in a military zone where demonstrations are banned, Yilderim Hasoglu, a longtime Turkish Cypriot friend of Karoullas, sighed.

"I see nothing but death and sorrow here, a big waste," he said. "I came to show my solidarity with Nikos."

Landscape workers and builders have been racing to spruce up Demokratias Avenue in time for Erdogan's visit to the area that has become a magnet for tourists on bikes or rollerblades.

Local officials say over 200,000 people have visited Varosha since its partial reopening, mainly Turkish Cypriot residents of the city of Famagusta -- Ammochostos in Greek or Gazimagusa in Turkish -- of which Varosha is a district.

Nigerian student Goodness said she had seen photos of Varosha on social media and wanted to see it for herself.

"I keep asking my friends what happened during the war and they said I should go read about it," she said. "It's scary also -- what if there were ghosts here?"

For Karoullas, the ghosts have never left Varosha.

"We used to come here for a drink after class, to dance, to flirt," he reminisced with a smile.

He pointed to the gutted facade of the Cafe Edelweiss, near the school where he studied on the same benches as Anastassiou.

"Many of us fell in love here," he said.