By Evie Andreou
When former Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash allowed the opening of the first crossing point 13 years ago, it was partly to prove that Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots could not get along. Aside from a small number of incidents on both sides after the checkpoints opened, he was wrong.
In the past year, however, there have been several abusive and in some cases violent incidents directed at Turkish Cypriots who cross to the government’s controlled areas.
But what is more worrying, as the leaders of both sides work to draw closer to a solution, is that such incidents appear to be covered up and no one is ever punished. There is no doubt that when such incidents happen police and the government do tend to want to keep them under wraps, more than likely so as not to damage relations between the two sides.
There is a legal axiom dating back to 1924 that says: not only must justice be done; it must also be seen to be done. It is in this respect, experts and non-governmental organisations say that these attacks against Turkish Cypriots will stop only if the perpetrators receive exemplary punishments, if a light is shone on the issue to ensure transparency and a sense of justice and confidence that this will not be tolerated.
In his latest report on Cyprus last month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said as much. Referring to an incident last November when Greek Cypriot youths attacked Turkish Cypriot cars stopped at a traffic lights in Nicosia, Ban said a swift conclusion to the case “will send the right signal that such acts will not be tolerated now or in a future united Cyprus”.
But to-date no-one has been punished for acts of ethnic violence, experts and non-governmental organisations say. For the November incident, it could be argued that nine months down the line, justice has not exactly been swift.
As only one case concerning attacks against Turkish Cypriots is pending, and two remain unresolved out of at least half a dozen incidents, it is not surprising that the ‘authorities’ in the north, and people in civil society are calling for action and a zero tolerance approach.
Baris Burcu, spokesman for Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, said such unacceptable attacks affected levels of trust in negotiations to resolve the Cyprus problem.
Undersecretary to the President Constantinos Petrides told the Sunday Mail that given the far greater movement of Turkish Cypriots within the government-controlled areas compared to Greek Cypriots going north, such incidents were isolated and showed that attacks were not systemic.
Government figures up to June last year show there were 589,906 crossings by Greek Cypriots, and 200,562 crossings by Greek Cypriot vehicles, compared to 927,141 crossings by Turkish Cypriots and 346,495 crossings by Turkish Cypriot vehicles.
Turkish Cypriot media reported earlier this year that for the first three months of 2016 the movement of Turkish Cypriots to the south was nearly double that of Greek Cypriots to the north. More than 419,000 Turkish Cypriots had crossed to the south, reports said, compared to some 232,000 Greek Cypriots crossing to the north.
“That being said, security forces must take all those measures so that such incidents are avoided,” Petrides said.
Political scientist Vasilis Protopapas agrees that the attacks have been isolated but argues that “destruction begins by the few”.
He added that there is tolerance of such behaviour with ‘victim-abuser logic’ being used as an alibi.
Protopapas was present when in March 2014 around 100 members of far right party ELAM disrupted an event on the Cyprus problem in Limassol, where former Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat was the main speaker.
The demonstrators, who shouted slogans and held Greek flags, managed to enter the lobby of the venue and hurled a flare inside the hall, slightly injuring a Turkish Cypriot journalist. An ELAM spokesman had said it was a protest against the presence of Talat. The government condemned the attack in the “strongest way” and an investigation was launched.
“It is not random that such attacks are one-sided, happen only in the south. We have a logic that cultivates indignation, according to which we are the victims who are being wronged by the abusers,” said Protopapas. “There is full moral legalisation of such incidents in the south.”
What concerns Protopapas is that such incidents go unpunished.
“If there is no exemplary punishment of perpetrators, these incidents will continue to exist,” he said.
Petrides accepts that such incidents can “be used by extreme nationalist groups to sabotage negotiations and any efforts to reach a settlement (of the Cyprus problem)”.
But he warns the overall circumstances are delicate.
“We must be careful not to provide extreme groups with the excuse of utilising such incidents, otherwise, the island faces the danger of remaining divided,” he said.
But for the bi-communal non-governmental organisation the Cypriot Puzzle, a lot of noise must be created around any attacks so that the message is sent out that they are not tolerated by society. The key, according to the group, is zero tolerance, both by the state and society, and strict law enforcement against perpetrators.
“Just because you don’t pick a stone up and throw it at a Turkish Cypriot, but you don’t react when someone else does, this is just as problematic,” Cypriot Puzzle team member Andromachi Sophocleous told the Sunday Mail.
Following the latest attack in June in the Famagusta district, Sophocleous wrote an article condemning such incidents. The article was immediately picked up by media outlets in the north. It was translated into Turkish and published in papers and online fora.
“The majority of Cypriots are peaceful people, but peaceful people express their opposition with more difficulty,” Sophocleous said. “Following the attacks there was no extensive public outcry. We must not keep silent.”
The position of the Cypriot Puzzle team, she said, is that the present educational system does not allow understanding of the other side.
Acknowledging the need for closer cooperation between the two sides, a bicommunal technical committee on education was established in February. Its aim is to establish contacts between teachers and students and look into the educational policies that could be promoted in a bicommunal federation, with a view to consolidate peaceful co-existence.
The committee’s first meeting was attended by none other than the UN secretary-general’s special adviser, Espen Barth Eide, while the two leaders attended its first event that took place in June in Nicosia where around 100 Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot children attended workshops on theatre, music, art and traditional games.
University of Cyprus Professor Niyazi Kizilyurek also believes that the divisive educational system of both communities has created extreme prejudices.
But lack of punishment when it comes to acts of ethnic violence, is also a very serious factor.
“Since 1960, there have been no convictions of either Greek Cypriots or Turkish Cypriots for acts of violence against the other community,” Kizilyurek said.
“There will always be people with this tendency, they exist in all countries, but that is why the rule of law must be applied,” Kizilyurek said.
“Such acts cannot go unpunished.”
Attacks on Turkish Cypriots
On November 16 last year, two Turkish Cypriots were injured after they were attacked in their cars by pupils out on the streets to protest the previous day’s anniversary of the north’s unilateral declaration of independence.
One incident one took place on the junction known as the Milano traffic lights in Engomi. Pupils attacked a car with Turkish Cypriot plates but the driver escaped uninjured.
Another incident took place on nearby Hytron Street where a father and a son were attacked inside their car by a group of pupils throwing stones. The father was injured and the car was damaged.
A third attack took place on Grivas Dighenis Avenue where a Turkish Cypriot suffered an eye injury.
Altogether, 15 teenagers, aged between 16 and 18, were arrested for the attacks, charged and released to be brought before court at a later date. All the suspects go to the same school, Kykkos A lyceum.
The attacks were swiftly condemned by President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci.
Deputy police spokeswoman Nikoleta Tyrimou told the Sunday Mail that the case has been investigated and it is now being handled by court.
Two more recent cases however concerning attacks against Turkish Cypriots, one in May in Nicosia, and the other in June in the Famagusta district are still unresolved, she said.
“Investigations continue,” Tyrimou said.
In May, three Turkish Cypriots had reported that they were attacked by a group of Greek Cypriots in Nicosia, believed to be APOEL fans. According to the report of one of the three, the car he and his friends were in, registered in the north, was attacked and damaged by a number of people on mopeds when it stopped at traffic lights on Makarios Avenue.
According to the man’s account, a group of people wearing orange T-shirts approached the car on around 15 scooters, and started kicking it.
In June, two Turkish Cypriots from a group of five, were slightly injured after they were beaten with batons by three men in the Famagusta district.
The men had reported to police that on their way home after a night out in Ayia Napa, they realised they were being followed, and had tried to speed off but had been chased along the Frenaros to Augorou road, near the village of Sotira’s farming area. Their car was repeatedly hit from behind before eventually being brought to a standstill.
The three assailants then reportedly got out of their vehicle and proceeded to beat up the men using batons and further damaging their car. The men, two of whom were slightly injured managed to get away and call the police.
After an arson attack on the recently renovated Denia mosque in February this year, Greek Cypriot joint head of the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage, Takis Hadjidemetriou, said it was important that the culprits be caught as it was the third time the same mosque had been targeted. The only thing he wanted to hear from the police, he said, was that the culprits had been caught and would be punished. Doing this would consolidate a sense of cooperation and mutual respect between the two sides.
“If there is no punishment for this crime, this will be tantamount to a cover-up,” he said. “For so many years we have been making huge efforts to create a climate of cooperation and destroying this effort is criminal.”
No arrests have yet been made.