28th Jan 2021


Ghost town haunts future of Cyprus

  • Varosha, here pictured in 2013. It has been cordoned off by the Turkish military since 1974 - until two weeks ago. (Photo: michael kirian)

I saw my mother's childhood home for the first time last week - in a photo posted online by a Turkish Cypriot newspaper. Decades of searching for an image of her house have come to an abrupt, and dispiriting, end.

We're from Cyprus, the EU member state in the eastern Mediterranean, which has been divided in two for over four decades.

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  • The house of Argyro Nicolaou's mother in Varosha, in taken in October 2020 (Photo: Marcos Papaleontiou)

In 1974, Greek nationalists launched a coup in an attempt to annex the majority Greek Cypriot island to Greece.

In response to the power-grab, and claiming the protection of the minority Turkish Cypriot population of the island, Turkey invaded and occupied the northern third of Cyprus. This triggered a traumatic mass migration of Greek Cypriots to the island's south and Turkish Cypriots to the north.

A United Nations Buffer Zone keeps a precarious peace along the so-called Green Line since.

Repeated attempts by the UN and European Union - including a 2004 peace plan sponsored by Kofi Annan and a 2017 round of peace talks held in Switzerland - have failed to find a more sustainable solution to the 'Cyprus Problem.'

Conflicting demands about security guarantees by Greece and Turkey on the island, as well as issues of power-sharing and political representation among the island's ethnic communities, have led to the stalling of negotiations.

One ghost town symbolises Cyprus' plight.

Varosha, a Greek Cypriot city in the occupied district of Famagusta on the island's east coast, has been cordoned off by the Turkish military since 1974.

This is why I never saw my mother's home before: she was born and raised there. Having fled Varosha when she was only 14-years old, she hasn't been able to return to her home since. Until this week.

On 8 October, Turkey opened a part of Varosha to pedestrians and beach-goers, in violation of two UN Security Council resolutions, causing outrage among both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities and their respective political leaderships.

Greek Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades condemned the opening as an "illegal act" while Turkish Cypriot president Mustafa Akinci described the move as "a shame for our democracy" and as "election interference" by Ankara.

The decision to open Varosha is a brazen and calculated move by Turkey intended to bolster the political fortunes of Ersin Tatar, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC)—a breakaway state recognised only by Turkey - and Ankara's favourite for the second-round of presidential elections in the island's north against incumbent Akinci on Sunday (18 October).

Turkey and its supporters in the north of Cyprus justified the partial opening of the city by claiming that there is no private property in the Varosha area and that, in Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's words, "Varosha belongs to the Turkish Cypriots".

But the very facts of my own family history, and hundreds of others like it, expose those statements as blatantly false.

Google Maps only

My mother's family home is located on 2 Kastoros Street, on the corner of Ayia Triada Road at the end of Demokratias Street, one of two Varosha thoroughfares that have been opened to the public since 8 October.

The three-story house wasn't visible from any of the fences that kept Varosha cordoned off for almost half a century, so we spent hours going through Google satellite imagery to locate it.

My mother would describe its architecture, the shops on its ground floor, and its proximity to the sea, hoping that, if we ever had the chance to return following a solution of the 'Cyprus Problem', we, her children, could recognise it.

Now, the house is there: we can walk past it. But it's not the joyful return we had hoped for.

For the displaced of 1974 and their families, and for all Cypriots who suffered in the decades of violence leading up to the Turkish invasion, Turkey's decision to open a part of Varosha is especially cruel.

Unlike other locations in the occupied north of Cyprus, Varosha has been untouched by illegal resettlement and development.

The city is an uncanny time capsule: buildings, looted on the inside, stand as they used to on the outside.

Shop signs, street signs, parking meters, graffiti, all remain as they were that summer, 46 years ago.

In preparation for the opening, two of the town's main avenues have been cleared and newly paved with asphalt, and potted plants with colourful flowers were placed on street corners.

Access has been granted to pedestrians only, between 9 am and 5 pm. Footage of people wrapped in Turkish and TRNC flags taking selfies in front of abandoned properties and homes, whose rightful owners are still alive and well, have been making the rounds on social media, serving the nationalist narratives on both sides of the island.

Varosha has been turned into a freakish theme park, the backdrop for a Turkish propaganda extravaganza.

For the optimists among us Cypriots, the opening of Varosha is an opportunity to get the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders back to the negotiating table.

The shock of seeing bulldozers and construction crews enter the town, long considered a beacon of hope and good faith between the two communities, may jolt even the most reluctant Cypriots to push for renewed negotiations.

Those whose outlook is not as bright worry that the opening of Varosha is the dying breath of the dream of a unified Cyprus. They fear that this is the dreaded moment when five decades of political failures and ineffective leadership on both sides are coming home to roost.

Violent protests by extreme-right Greek nationalist party ELAM at the Deryneia Buffer Zone checkpoint in the south of the island reveal the volatility of the present situation. It is clear that we are living through a heavy and historic moment.

For this reason, Anastasiades, the Greek Cypriot leader and president of the Republic of Cyprus, should do all it takes to restart negotiations on the 'Cyprus Problem', as soon as possible.

Turkish Cypriots committed to reunification should continue to fight against the nationalist elements in their government, and must resist Ankara's tightening grip by re-electing in the second-round Mustafa Akinci, Ersin Tatar's opponent and one of the few Cypriot politicians to unambiguously resist Turkey's imperialist policies on Cyprus, as their president.

At the same time, Cyprus' fellow EU member states should immediately reprimand Turkey in the strongest terms and curb the country's expansionist foreign policy—on display also in the Nagorno-Karabakh region—through strict sanctions, pressuring Erdogan to retreat from Varosha.

The US and Turkey's other Nato allies should similarly push Turkey to hand over Varosha to the UN, an act of good faith which would also help dissipate mounting tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean over natural gas explorations and energy deals.

Cypriot Tragedy?

As I wait for the results of a Covid-19 test -a requirement to cross the UN Buffer Zone during the pandemic - that will allow me to finally see my mother's childhood home, I cannot help but think that the story of my family is a cautionary tale for all Cypriots.

If Erdoğan and Tatar have their way, and Varosha is fully re-opened and re-settled outside of a comprehensive solution to the 'Cyprus Problem', it would obliterate the last frontier of good faith between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

It would give full rein to nationalists and secessionists on both sides. It would leave us, the younger generations of the island, with the festering wounds of our grandparents' war: a permanently divided homeland, and an unbridled Turkish outpost on the edge of Europe.

The fate of Varosha could be a crystal ball into one possible fate of Cyprus.

If the two sides cannot come to an agreement for a viable and equitable solution of the 'Cyprus Problem' through diplomacy and compromise, then the partial opening of Varosha will mark the beginning of a new Cypriot tragedy.

Author bio

Dr Argyro Nicolaou is a a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University's Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, and a writer and filmmaker from Cyprus.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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