The Cyprus Problem--Rachael Pettus

By on


I wrote this eighteen years ago, after a chance meeting with a Turkish Cypriot policeman on the ferry from Tascucu in Turkey, to the port of Kyrenia in the Occupied North of Cyprus.  Since then, the borders have opened somewhat, allowing Turkish-Cypriots in the north to visit their homes in the Government Controlled Areas, and Greek Cypriots to visit their property in the north.  But no significan progress has been made in the political arena on the two main areas of contention:  the presence of 120,000 Turkish settlers from the mainland, and the settlement of the lands’ disputes.  Until those problems are clarified, discussed, and dealth with, the Cyprus Problem will continue intractable, and the populations will remain discrete.

Today's blog is written by Voices' member, Rachael Pettus, who lives on Cyprus.


Starting Over: Refugee’s Story

After breakfast of halloumi – hellim on this side -- and watermelon, Ayesha, Mehmet’s mother told us her story of life in Paphos in the 1960’s, the Invasion of 1974, and her thoughts on the Cyprus Problem today.

“Starting again was hard,” she said, the lines around her calm brown eyes deepening as she looked back on the events eighteen years before that changed her world.  “But we gave thanks to God that we lost no one from the family.”  In August 1974, Ayesha was thirty-six.  With her husband Emir and her four children, she became a refugee – a single figure in a flood of humanity displaced by the inter-communal strife in Cyprus, and the Turkish invasion that followed. 

Born on September 14 at Sinat, a small village close to the port of Famagusta, Ayesha had a quiet childhood.  Her family were farmers, renting their land from the government, and selling their excess produce in the local market.  Ayesha grew up knowing that the Turkish Cypriots shared the island with Greek speakers – her father worked with Greek Cypriots – but not until her teen years did she learn about and begin to fear the ‘Megali Idea’ – the Great Plan cherished by some extremist elements within the Greek Cypriot community to gain independence from Britain and unite Cyprus with Greece. 

In 1956 Ayesha married Emir Mehmet, a handsome twenty-year old police constable from Nicosia and the couple moved to Larnaca.  In the New Year, their first child, a boy whom they called Mehmet was born.  Next year, a daughter, Serap, followed.  Family life was peaceful.  Emir transferred several times, and each time the young mother settled herself without fuss into the Turkish or mixed neighbourhoods of her husband’s new beat. The births of two other boys soon followed.

In 1960 Britain granted Cyprus independence.  A short period of euphoria followed the August charter.  Freedom!  Self-determination!  The catchwords and phrases intoxicated both sides of the community.  No longer an Auxilliary Constable for the colonial British administration, Emir proudly became a constable in the police force of the independent Republic of Cyprus.  The governments of Great Britain, Greece, and Turkey guaranteed Cypriot independence and a complex constitution balanced and protected the rights of both communities. 

Three years later the situation was in tatters.  The constitution proved unworkable.  Extremists on both sides fanned tensions that led to killings of Turkish Cypriots by Greeks and Greek Cypriots, and of Greek Cypriots by Turkish Cypriots in December 1963. The Turkish Cypriots moved from over 100 mixed towns and villages into eight cantons scattered around the island, rejecting government authority within their enclaves, and forming their own administrations.  The following year soldiers from the United Nations arrived on the island to keep the communities apart. 

In December Ayesha and her young family had just completed their fourth move – to the west-coast town of Paphos.  As in the other towns where she had lived, many of Ayesha’s neighbours were Greek-Cypriots.  Although she did not speak their language, Ayesha was on friendly terms with her neighbours, sharing coffee during mid-morning breaks from housework, and exchanging smiles on the street. 

Killings of Turkish Cypriots changed that.  Ayesha’s family moved to another part of town with the rest of Paphos’ Turkish Cypriots.  Emir left the Cyprus Police Force and became an Acting Sergeant in the newly formed Turkish Cypriot Police. 

Although protected in their enclaves by UN soldiers, Turkish Cypriots, Ayesha related, felt far from secure.  Travel around the island was difficult with roadblocks and checkpoints, and Ayesha remembered searches, delays, and humiliation.  “We felt that the Greek Cypriots hoped that if they could persuade enough of us to leave,” remembered Mehmet. “There would be no barriers left to prevent union with Greece.”  Many Turkish Cypriots, including members of both her and her husband’s families took passage to England, Australia, or Canada.  “They wanted their children to grow up free, without fear,” said Ayesha. 

She and her husband stayed.  Mehmet and Serape started school, and in time were joined by their two younger brothers.  The children grew up apart from their Greek-speaking counterparts; not learning their language or their customs; not understanding the forces that motivated them; aware of, yet not comprehending the pressures that tore the two communities of one small island so relentlessly apart. 

In July 1974 the end began.  An extremist coup toppled the government of Archbishop Makarios, and the government of Turkey, citing its role as guarantor of Cypriot independence and Turkish-Cypriot rights, sent troops and warplanes on a ‘peacekeeping’ mission. 

Within days, Turkish forces had established a hold on the northern sector of the island and Turkish Cypriots, fearing all out war and intercommunal killing, streamed north on the narrow roads meeting, as they did so, thousands of Greek Cypriots hastening southward – refugees from the advancing Turkish forces. 

“We were in Famagusta when the war began,” related Mehmet.  “My sister and I were taking the weekly boat to Turkey – leaving Cyprus to study in Istanbul, and the whole family had come to see us off and take a short holiday.  We were staying at my aunt’s house on the outskirts of the city.  The coup happened, and the boat never came.” 

“We barricaded ourselves in when the fighting started,” he continued.  “The houses around were Greek and we were afraid to come out.  Several times Greeks came and pounded on the door, trying to break it down.  The last time, they would have succeeded but for one man in the crowd – God must have sent him – who persuaded the mob that there were only old people inside.”  That night Ayesha’s niece slipped out of the house and down the road to a UN encampment.  The soldiers took the family in an armoured carrier to the fortified walls of Famagusta’s old city where the Turkish Cypriot community was sheltering.   

Ayesha and her family were living in a store in the walls when Turkish tanks rolled into the city the following month.  They never returned to Paphos.  They lost everything that had made their house a home.  With only what they had taken for a short holiday, and what Mehmet and Serape had packed for Turkey, they had to begin again.  Mehmet pointed to the photographs that hung on the walls of his mother’s neat, quiet Famagusta home.  “All these are after 1974,” he said.  “My parents’ wedding pictures are from copies that my parents had given to relatives.  I used to have pictures of my childhood.  Now I have only five – and they, too, are copies that other family members had.” 

“We had no money,” said Ayesha.  “But we were lucky.  We had our lives.  We worked, we earned the money to begin again.”  Once again she created a home.  Emir began work in the police force of the fledgling Turkish-Cypriot state, and his wife and children fixed the house that the government allocated them. 

“This was a Greek-Cypriot house,” she said.  “When we moved here there were two chairs and a broken table.  We dug a water tank.  We fixed everything and painted.”  One day at a time, she remembers, Ayesha’s life regained its rhythm.  Her younger boys returned to school and made new friends.  With other refugee women Ayesha made strong bonds, united by their common experience.  Slowly, once again, they began to thrive. 

Ayesha was not bitter.  He life was too full.  She has not taught her children or grandchildren to hate the people who brought misery to her life, but she is wary.  “I would like to go back to Paphos,” she said.  “Just for a visit.  Just to see my house and to talk to the people who live there today.  But not to live.  Never to live.  I cannot trust the Greeks.  Give them time and power over us again, and I believe that they would treat us the same way.”   

And if one day a Greek Cypriot woman were to knock on her door, and say, as Ayesha would like to say to a Greek Cypriot woman in Paphos:  “Good morning!  This was my home once.  Do you mind if I come in for a moment, just to look…”? “I would welcome her,” Ayesha says.  “Without hesitation.  I would ask her in for a coffee or something fresh to drink.  She would be a visitor from God!” 

Ayesha and Mehmet described where their house had been in Paphos and drew us a map.  When we arrived back on the Greek side, nine months later, we looked for it and were pretty sure that we found it, but not sure enough to knock on the door and ask.  Twenty years later, I am certain that the house they described is one of the two that still stand beside the new bridge on the left hand side of the road to Chlorakas.  The government does not knock down Turkish Cypriot houses unless absolutely necessary, and the two houses still stand side by side, unchanged, though massive road works have gone on around them.  They are occupied by families, and perhaps one day I will knock on the doors and ask if they are Turkish Cypriot houses, and if the family that once lived there has come back to see them.

c. Rachael Pettus  1992