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The divided island

A general view of Turkish controlled Cyprus from the roof of the former Ledra Palace Hotel inside the United Nations Buffer Zone between the Greek and Turkish controlled areas of the island.


The Turkish flag on the side of the Kyrenia mountain range

I nearly killed the kid on the first day. We were heading to Buffa Vento, a twelfth-century castle built on a jagged peak that juts 3,500 feet above sea level in the knife-edge Kyrenia range of northern Cyprus. To get there from Girne, the ancient coastal city that until 1974 bore the same name as the mountain range, you must drive up the tortuous snaking highway to the Besparmak pass. The drive is rendered even more painful if you are in an overheated rental car with an excitable one-year-old and a pregnant partner and stuck behind a slow-moving lorry. It is natural, then, when you eventually reach the top of the pass after 40 minutes of cursing the sluggish disposition of the Cypriot HGV driver, to relax when you turn on to the unsigned road to the castle and enjoy what appears to be a pleasant woodland drive to Buffa Vento.

The place was named by the Venetians and translates as “defier of the winds”. Few castles are as aptly titled. Originally a Byzantine Greek watchtower, it was developed into an astounding military outpost by the Lusginan Frankish Crusader kingdom that thrived here after Islam reconquered the Holy Land in the thirteenth century. In 1489 the Venetians took the island, then, after a ferocious siege which saw the Venetian commander flayed alive and his stuffed skin sent to the Emperor in Istanbul, Ottoman rule began in 1571.

Finally the British came: capitalising on Ottoman decline they ruled from from 1878 until 1960 when a terrorist campaign by the Greek Cypriot EOKA organisation led to independence. It also led to the conviction among many Turks in the new republic that the only guarantee of safety was separation from the Greeks. That conviction was strengthened when a 1974 coup backed by the junta of right wing colonels in Greece and led by Tony Sampson, a former EOKA terrorist who had earned himself the sobriquet “butcher” and the “hammer of the Turks”, toppled (and just failed to capture and kill) the moderate Greek Cypriot president Archbishop Makarios. The Turkish army invaded and ethnic cleansing on both sides followed the fighting. Kyrenia changed to Girne as the north of the island became exclusively Turkish and the south Greek, the two peoples living in two separate states.

“The Green Line that bifurcates the island runs through the middle of its ancient capital Nicosia, where a UN buffer force patrols the 40-year-old ruins of no-man’s land”

Today both states are largely dependent on tourism but suffering from apparently intractable PR problems. The Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC) may boast what is possibly the biggest flag in the world, an Islamic red crescent and star on white background, painted on to the southern Greek-facing flank of the Kyrenia range below Buffa Vento, but it is a joke republic where everything – clothing, bottled water, beer, tinned food, motorcars – comes from mainland Turkey. Recognised by Ankara and no one else, it is a forgotten and illegal outpost whose citizens are condemned to live in limbo (Turkish-Cypriot athletes were not, for instance, allowed to compete in the recent Olympic games, an event watched with some bitterness by gymnasts, wrestlers and weightlifters on the northern part of the island).

Conversely, the (Greek) Republic of Cyprus has a reputation for being a haven for confidence tricksters, crooks and Russian money launderers where, if you are British and looking to buy a retirement home, there is a good chance that you will be fleeced with the connivance of the state, the police and the legal system (payback for 82 years of occupation, perhaps). As Sir Graham Watson, MEP for the brilliantly disparate constituency of South West England and Gibraltar, puts it, this part of the island is home to an “intricate intrigue of corrupted Cypriot lawyers and property developers who rob holiday homebuyers of their retirement savings”.

These two tragicomic states are separated by a border, the Green Line, which bifurcates the island west to east and runs through the middle of its ancient capital Nicosia, where a UN buffer force patrols the 40-year-old ruins of no-man’s land, watched from either side by the nervous conscripts of the Turkish Army and the Greek Cypriot national guard.

For the last six months of 2012, this battered capital was the de facto centre of Europe, as the Republic of Cyprus held the EU presidency. Fantastically, it would be ringmaster for budget negotiations which had the potential to send the world economy spiralling if they went wrong. Cyprus took up this grave responsibility suffering 15 percent unemployment and facing collapse. A €2.5 billion loan (that’s €2,980 per head of the 838,897 population) from the EU in 2011 had not been enough to secure an economy that was left flatlining by mainland Greece’s dire problems.

Greek Cypriot police take up positions facing the Turkish quarter on Ledra Street, Nicosia, in 1964

The Greek Cypriots went cap in hand to the Russians, which did nothing to discourage German fears that Greek Cyprus was, in essence, a money-laundering operation with nice beaches. The attraction of a loan from Moscow rather than Brussels or Berlin is obvious: it does not come with attached provisos about good governance or the rule of law. But equally it does not indicate a country in rigorous financial and moral health. When Cyprus took up the EU presidency, the Greek half of the island, like the euro, was on the edge of disaster.

And so, although I didn’t know it, were we. The one-year-old shouted cheerfully from her seat in the back. Her mother looked out over the dwarf pines and across the flat dusty plain of central Cyprus to the Troodos Mountains, 30 miles to the south. It was, we agreed, a magnificent stretch of earth, a natural bowl that held our rapt  attention until we realised, too late, that our road had become a goat track and we came round a cliff-face corner to find a battered pickup truck heading directly towards us. Instinctively I swerved on to the left verge – but there was no left verge, just a 1,000-foot drop to the rocks below. Somehow I kept us on the edge rather than over it. My partner was on the cliff side of the car so could not see how close we were to disaster, but gasped with fear nevertheless. The one-year-old, who could see clearly from her side, giggled happily at the void below. A moment’s silence followed. Then my partner spoke. “What are you going to do?” My hand tightened on the steering wheel and my jaw clenched. This was bad.

And yet it had started so well, as days tend to in northern Cyprus. The sun had come up, the morning mist had dissipated. Across the straits in Turkey the Taurus Mountains had begun to shimmer and we’d pushed the one-year-old’s buggy around the quayside beneath Kyrenia Castle’s ancient battlement. After breakfast we’d hired a car and driven up on to the flank of the mountain to the village of Bellapais where, like many British men on a family holiday, I was obliging my family to seek out the location of a book that would, certainly for the one-year-old girl, be of no immediate interest to them.  In this case Lawrence Durrell’s travelogue ‘Bitter Lemons’.

Durrell lived in Bellapais from 1952 to ’56, working as a teacher in Nicosia, restoring a house in the village and writing his series of novels, ‘The Alexandra Quartet.’ In ‘Bitter Lemons’, Durrell’s enchanting story of his stay on the island, he makes much of his time with the Greek villagers in Bellapais, taking coffee and ouzo beneath the Tree of Idleness, an ancient arbor with the legendary ability to fatally enervate the unwary. But as the political situation darkens – the island’s Greeks are being urged to support Enosis, union with Greece, and the Turkish Cypriots are understandably wary of such an outcome – Durrell sees Cyprus head inexorably toward violence. During the wars and the four decades of separation that followed, there have been many attempts to find a solution. Conferences, treaty negotiations, neutral third parties, staggered agreements: all have failed to find the compromise the Cypriots came closest to in 2004, when there was an island-wide referendum on Kofi Annan’s peace plan. The response was a resounding yes from the Turks but a no from the Greeks.

We found the Tree of Idleness. Both of them: appropriately on Cyprus, there are two competing claims to the title. But the trees are now overshadowed by tat shops and tourist bars which await the arrival of coaches bringing snap-hunters up from the coast to trip around the village’s staggering and still largely intact abbey, built by the French-speaking Roman Catholic order of the White Canons in the twelfth century. Nonetheless, in the shadow of the abbey, in the dozy back streets and in the views of goats and sheep on the hillside, there was still a glimpse of the village as Durrell and his villager friends must have known it.

A section of Ledra Street which was divided by the UN buffer zone for 44 years

Durrell’s friendship was a dubious blessing, however, as despite his professed affection for his welcoming peasant neighbours, the upper-middle-class Englishman was actually working for the British colonial authorities and although in his reports he advocated a softly-softly approach, the regime’s response to the Enosis campaign was martial law and hangings pour encourager les autres. Within 20 years the island was divided, and as we walked past tiled, whitewashed Greek shops and bars with no Greeks in them it was clear that Bellapais had been on the wrong side of the line in 1974.

Today that line is at its most taut where the two sides face each other directly, in Nicosia. The divided city was a dirty smudge in the centre of the plain below, which I looked at now through the windscreen as I pondered my partner’s question: exactly what I was going to do? Then the door of the pickup truck opened and a heavy-set man in his seventies with a lit cigarette wedged under an immense moustache stepped out and stood in front of our car. His natural authority persuaded me to follow the hand instructions he now gave me and I edged the car away from the drop.

Minutes later we were no longer hanging over the precipice but pulled up safely alongside his pickup in the lee of the cliff. I got out to thank him and sucked my breath in sharply as I looked down the drop and realised how close I’d come to killing us all. I asked if he saw any chance of a settlement. No, he said. When the Greeks thought they were rich they were too arrogant to compromise and now they are poor they don’t have time to think about it.

He left, leaving only a tobacco whiff – and our rescued lives – behind. We turned round, and, attracted to the reassuring flatness of the plain, drove down to Nicosia to find a meal in one of the fly-blown cafes of the old city that all seem to serve the same grilled lamb and chicken. Half a century after the British left Cyprus Nicosia still bears their imprint, the lion and the unicorn on walls, the neat little roundabout outside what had been Government House. Wandering away from my partner I came to the end of an alley and a stretch of cleared scrubland which led to one of the crossing points that allows occasional traffic through the burned out and bullet-pocked buffer zone between the two sides.

The Ledra Street crossing which opened in 2008

I looked up from the child to see a car full of young men coming quickly through the crossing – whether they had come across from the Greek side or had been lurking in no-man’s land I couldn’t say. I caught the eye of a man in the back of the car as it sped past and in the same moment realised that I had let go of the one-year-old’s hand, and she had set off towards a boy in green fatigues at the gateway. Instinctively I leaped after her. To the soldier it looked like a man running towards him and he lifted his assault rifle. Just for a second I was looking down the barrel of a gun. “Stop!”

I did. And the child stopped as well. The frozen moment of danger dissipated in the warm air, and for the second time that day she laughed.


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