By Agnieszka Rakoczy
What do you do (what can you do) when a family outing turns sinister and you, your children, your friends and their children are the victims of an ugly and anonymous act of vandalism likely triggered by your otherness, your ethnicity, your very identity?
There is a growing feeling in the Turkish Cypriot community that crossing to the south of the island, to the government-controlled area, can be a risky business.
“It does not stop me from crossing but I go knowing that one day something can happen to me so I go mentally prepared,” says well-known Turkish Cypriot poet Gurgenc Korkmazel.
His wife, actress, teacher and peace activist Oya Akin, confirms his words.
“I cross, but if I can I do it on foot. I usually ask my friends to pick me up rather than drive in the south in my car,” she says.
Both Oya and Gurgenc admit they have never been in a threatening situation in the south themselves but they have heard enough disturbing stories from their friends to be aware of some unpleasant possibilities. Just last Tuesday they were witnesses to the incident in Troodos where some of their friends had their cars’ tyres slashed.
“We were not staying at the same hotel but we knew they were in Troodos as well because we met them there the day before. We were all there because it is a winter break for schools in the north and we wanted our kids to have some fun in the snow. So on Tuesday we met up with them again and we saw what had happened. And I had this immediate, knee-jerk reaction – I just wanted to leave the place immediately,” says Oya, mother to two children.
As concerned parents bent on familiarising their children with the variegated landscape of their unique island home, both she and Gurgenct are especially saddened that the Troodos incident was witnessed by children.
“It was really upsetting to see how confused the kids were by the whole thing,” says Gurgenc. “Because they could not really understand what happened. So they kept on asking these questions: why Greeks don’t want us, what their problem is. And it is very difficult to explain such a situation to them.”
All told, five cars with Turkish Cypriot number plates and one Greek Cypriot car were damaged in a parking lot of the Troodos Hotel in the heart of the village square at some point in the course of Monday night/Tuesday morning. The Greek Cypriot car was parked between two Turkish Cypriot vehicles raising the possibility that it suffered collateral damage as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Hasan Dincer, one of the owners of the damaged cars, described to the Sunday Mail what happened.
“We came on Monday, a group of friends on a family outing. We were three couples with six children. At the hotel we met by chance some other friends of ours, Altogether we were five couples with ten kids. Monday was really great and we all had a lot of fun and the children really enjoyed it. On Tuesday, everything changed. The kids had to stay locked in the hotel the whole day when we were dealing with police and repairing the cars.”
Hasan had nothing but praise for the professional and sensitive manner in which the Greek Cypriot police handled the situation. They were very helpful. He also noted that the government covered the cost of repairs to the damaged cars, even offering to pay for an additional night at the hotel for all involved.
“But honestly, the only thing I wanted to do was to get out of there as soon as possible. This was supposed to be a relaxing family time together and instead, sadly, turned into some kind of nightmare. My ten-year-old son told me he never wants to go back to Troodos. I don’t want to myself. Why should I?”
He is not alone in his feelings of disquiet. The Sunday Mail was told that some Turkish Cypriots who had planned to go to the mountains in the coming weeks have cancelled their hotel bookings.
News of the Troodos incident has sparked concerns anew among Turkish Cypriots who question why it seems that authorities in the Republic do so little to prevent recurrence of such hate crimes.
According to one high-level source in the Turkish Cypriot administration, at least 22 serious attacks directed at Turkish Cypriots or their property in the government-controlled areas have been reported to Greek Cypriot police since the opening of the first crossing in 2003. Up to now, none has resulted in a full legal action culminating in a court sentence.
“Most of the time we hear from our Greek Cypriot counterparts that these people are idiots and we should not be unduly bothered because they are only a few. But this is a completely wrong approach. People want to see that the Greek Cypriot authorities are prepared to actively guarantee the safety of the Turkish Cypriots,” says this senior official. He also believes that the actual number of such incidents is likely much higher than reported.
Gurgenc and Oya agree, citing stories they have heard from their own circle of friends, many of whom are pro-unification activists fully committed to promoting reconciliation. A common occurrence is the verbal abuse or middle finger salutes directed by predominantly younger members of the Greek Cypriot community at vehicles bearing Turkish Cypriot licence plates.
“Many unpleasant situations happen to progressive people who want unification but often they don’t report these instances of intimidation to the police authorities because they feel it could impede the peace process, that in wrong hands it will be used as propaganda,” adds Oya.
More disturbing of late is a sense that whereas in the past most attacks were directed against men, women are not off limits as targets any more.
Zehra Cengiz was in a car driven by her daughter in August last year when they were attacked by a group of teenagers at the traffic lights next to the Apoel football club in the centre of Nicosia. Also in the car were Zehra’s sister, her husband and another man.
Zehra believes someone with a mobile alerted the group that a Turkish Cypriot car was approaching the area which explains why she and her companions observed the crowd of young men run into the street towards their car.
“One boy, with long hair, started hitting a window on my side with something very hard. I thought ‘if he manages to break it he can cause me a serious injury’. Even now I have no doubts about it. Thank god, my daughter somehow managed to accelerate and drive away. We literally ran for our lives straight to the Metehan [Ayios Dometios crossing],” she remembers.
Next day, Zehra’s daughter, accompanied by some Greek Cypriot friends, went to a police station in the south to report what happened. While again the policemen were courteous and very professional, they have never heard from them again. Zehra, herself a well-known peace activist, wrote to the Greek Cypriot authorities inquiring about the delay and requesting that the investigation into the attack be speeded up. So far, no answer.
“I am planning to write to them again and remind them that by law, whether they treat me as Cypriot or a foreigner, they have a duty to answer,” she says.
Zehra, a strong woman in her late 50s, is not one to give in to bullying or intimidation. She insists she will be still crossing to the south. However, she allows, with a degree of sadness, that she no longer takes her seven-year-old granddaughter with her any more.
Gurgenc also says he will keep on crossing.
“I will cross because my country is not the north only, it is also the south, the west and the east,” he says but adds that like Oya, he is more relaxed when he crosses on foot.
“When you walk there you are just another person, they don’t know you are a Turkish Cypriot so it is much easier,” he says.
“The biggest problem though is that the authorities are not doing anything to stop this situation and I really worry one day something much more serious will happen and it will have consequences in the north because they are circles here that are just waiting for an opportunity to use it as well.”
Summing up, Oya, mother and educator, points out sagely: “The way the Greek Cypriot government acts is as if these perpetrators are naughty kids, but this approach is not going to work. Hiding something naughty that your child did, even if you pay for damages, without punishing the child, will never solve the problem.
“If there are no consequences for its actions, a child will repeat the same thing again and again.”