Feature Travel Archives

Cyprus - A Break in the Clouds?

By Patricia Keegan

The pain caused by the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 is still palpable 26 years later. But on my second visit since 1991, I felt that this cloud, woven like a shroud so long ago, was developing some holes with flickers of light edging through. Divided Cyprus has come close to a solution before, but now something real and concrete lies ahead. Membership in the European Union gives incentive to all sides to work out a mutually agreeable solution. The devastating earthquake in Turkey that brought an immediate, humanitarian response from Greece - and the swift, Turkish reciprocation when the Greek earthquake struck - opened the way for a more trusting relationship between the two countries. But there is much ground work to be done. Building trust takes a long time; it must be established on an individual-to-individual basis and passed along to children.

Cyprus shares the fate of its geographic and historical ties to both Greece and Turkey with other well-known, culturally rich and beautiful islands, all at some stage of threat or domination by a larger, more powerful mainland: Northern Ireland by Britain, Taiwan by China and Cuba, passive-aggressively, by the United States. To gain independence, sovereignty, and individual destiny, a high price must be paid and the innocent always seem to pay. The constant fear of invasion is not conducive to a secure environment for children-the fear and the stories of war and oppression simply pass to the next generation. The cycle of enmity is never-ending unless people at the grassroots on both sides of every dividing line are totally committed to change and the experience of sharing their loss. 

For Kate Clerides, elected member of parliament since 1991, law graduate of London's Gray's Inn with a degree in sociology from the University of London and a political science degree from New York University, and daughter of Cyprus President Glafcos Clerides, the concept and model for bi-communal meetings are very important. She was instrumental in starting the meetings in 1992. The idea sprang from a meeting with Louise Diamond, an American expert in conflict resolution, who was brought to Cyprus to begin mono-communal, then bi-communal meetings. The training brought 10 Greek Cypriots and 10 Turkish Cypriots together. Both groups attended a conflict resolution workshop at Oxford University, thus establishing a core group of leaders.

"It's quite amazing to see how significant results come from a very small beginning," said Clerides when I met her at the Presidential Palace in Nicosia.

"In a small country like Cyprus you get a spillover effect as people talk to families and friends and more and more  become interested." Stressing the importance of training prior to these sessions, she elaborated, "So many times when we think we are talking to each other, all we are actually doing is debating, putting forward our own view and not really listening to what the other person is trying to say. The goal of the group is never confrontational, but something much deeper. The process of reconciliation cannot really start until you understand that not only have your side and your community suffered, but the other side has suffered also. You need to experience their suffering, they need to experience yours, and you need to understand how they have experienced the whole situation."

An acknowledged success story, the meetings, monitored by the U.N., took place at Nicosia's Ledra Palace which stands on the dividing Green Line. Sometimes there were four or five thousand people, families from both sides, in attendance. Villagers came to see if they could find their counterparts from the opposite community. Some days were called free access, "open days," mixing food, drink, folk dancing and music with the meetings. Healing, at some level, had begun until December, 1997, when Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Dentkash shut them down. Apparently, this was in response to the EU Council at Luxembourg's statement that Cyprus would become a member of the EU as a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation. Turkish Cypriots, however, want a confederation of equals on each side.

Kate Clerides knows instinctively that her efforts at reconciliation and rapprochement are on the right track, but she has yet to harness the full support of her own Greek Cypriot side. Some prefer a passive role, allowing the two governments to work it out. But I sense Kate Clerides' unwavering commitment.       

But what about the other side? On March 27, shortly before I arrived in Cyprus, 300 Turkish Cypriots crossed the Green Line to have their blood typed in the search for a bone marrow donor to save the life of a six year-old Greek Cypriot boy, Andreas Vassiliou, suffering from leukemia. Business men and women, housewives, academics and students filed into the ballroom of the Ledra Palace responding to the boy's plight .

Among the volunteers providing blood samples to Greek Cypriot nurses was Serdar Denktash, son of Rauf Denktash, leader of the Turkish Cypriots. After being tested, he was introduced to the boy's father, Vassos Vassiliou, a 38-year-old businessman. The two came together in a bear hug. "This goes beyond politics, religion, nationalities and hatred, said Vassiliou. "When Turkish Cypriots see my son, they just see an innocent child who desperately needs help. He could be one of theirs."

 In a telephone interview with 41-year-old Serdar Denktash, one of the founders of the Democratic party in 1993, and a current member of Parliament who served as State Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, he conveyed a similar point of view. "This was not about politics at all. I heard about Andreas from a bi-communal NGO representative who approached me and asked for my support. A Greek Cypriot would have done the same thing. You saw what happened during the earthquake, how the Greeks helped the Turks. I wish the best for them. I hope the same goodwill climbs into the political realm."

I asked if there was a time frame to restart the bi-communal meetings halted by his father. "I believe they will start again this year and continue as long as both sides use it as a way of learning the fears and concerns of the other side, not for propaganda."

Regarding EU membership he said, "It is an aim for both Greeks and Turks, but before becoming members we must first find a solution to our own problem. My brothers and sisters and I have, for the past 35 years, been living isolated from the world. We want to become part of it."