By Achilleas Antoniades
I woke up at 5.30. It’s been a bad night. My sleep was interrupted several times. Anxiety set in my soul since the late afternoon. I got out of bed unable to sleep or think. I am sitting on the balcony overlooking some watermelon fields and bunches of acacia trees in Kapparis Bay. Some houses are further away and even further away is the sea. I can hardly see it.
Forty-three years after the catastrophe of the Turkish invasion and four years after an own-made financial catastrophe my tiny country is still desperately gasping for air.
It is still searching for survival. You probably wouldn’t know it if you strolled along the golden sandy beaches and the promenades and board walks along the seafront. The thousands of tourists busily and noisily filling up all spaces would tell you this is a thriving place: Thriving on the outside. These are the people who would disappear in no time with the first shot being fired. The buffer zone, where the Turkish troops stopped their advance in August 1974 is literally just around the corner.
We saw it yesterday afternoon. It disturbed me. I had seen it before but this time it is different. In the distance, sprawling along the seafront is the ghost city of Famagusta. Its name in Greek, Ammohostos, means buried in sand. It is indeed buried in the golden sand but for the moment it is also buried under the boot of the occupying military power.
Since 1974 it is under the control of the Turkish army. It was not in their military objectives, but they captured it when its inhabitants fled to save their lives. The UN Security Council, recognising that this was a major mistake, made decisions with the force of international law holding the Turkish government directly responsible for the future of the city and calling for them to return it to its citizens. Bang on a deaf person’s door as much as you want. You won’t get an answer. So goes a Cypriot saying. The Turkish deaf ears have been holding Famagusta hostage for 43 years now. It has dishonestly been holding it and dangling it in front of Greek Cypriot faces as an incentive for them to sign the agreement that Turkey demands.
It is now a city of ghosts. Uninhabited, derelict, engulfed in a gray mood of abandonment, of death. I saw the ghosts yesterday afternoon. They were hovering over the city, together with news that the Turks are about to re-conquer it by allowing their own people to move in and inhabit the properties of the Greek Cypriots.
We drove to Dherynia, the closest town to the buffer zone. We went straight to the house we knew there was an observation post on the roof. We wanted to see the corpse lying there for 43 years. Probably for the last time. After ringing and ringing an old man from next door peered his head out of the front door and told us the observation post was closed down. “No more visitors,” he said. “It was not worth keeping it open.” The owner was a Greek Cypriot woman named Annita, who had returned from the UK.
I remember her as a vivacious polyglot who wanted the whole world to see the shame of the ghost town. Now she was put to shame by having to close down her protest move.
The old man explained to us where another observation post had been established, further into town. It was a restaurant with an attractive garden. The owner was about to leave for the day, it was 7 o’clock. Not much business at this part of town. But he encouraged us to open the gate, go up the staircase and look as much as we wanted. And he drove off. That’s what you call trust. We did, picking a fig or two on the way up, from the tree at the corner of the garden.
A mantle with a half a dozen sets of binoculars was standing on the northern side of the terrace. A horizontal bar was meant to steady the hands holding the binoculars. Obviously, the expectation was that people would stare for a long time. We certainly did. We tried to spot the buildings, name the empty hotels, wonder why the cranes on unfinished building sites had not been taken down, probably a public threat by now. But the absurdity of the thought immediately becomes evident. What public? The rats and snakes roaming freely in the broken streets?
A building that stands out is the St. Nicholas Cathedral, a remnant from the Venetian and Lusignian times. The kings of Jerusalem used to be crowned here. A magnificent gothic structure, massive but elegant. Now it is a mosque, a minaret piercing the sky.
Sad, sad, as US President Trump likes to say. I wonder if he would appreciate what his country could do to change the sadness of Mrs Maria we meet on the way out. She is sweeping the ground. She stops to ask where we are from and encourages us to pick more figs, befriend the two grandchildren. She is the aunt of the young man who had just left.
Her husband and in-laws were from Famagusta. They are all dead now, gone with the nostalgia of returning to their home in their hearts. They owned a small hotel in Famagusta and her husband was saving to have it repaired when- he never lost hope- they would return. She is bitter. But she is realistic.
“The Turks,” she blurts out, “are not the kind of people to give anything back. Grab them and throw them all in the sea. That’s when they will leave.”
Our sadness is compounded by a story she tells of a man who for 43 years comes to this place every day. He looks at the white house a short distance away, his own house and asks everybody “When am I going to go back?” Poor man. He probably does not know, or does not want to know that the Turks will never give his house back. Greed is not an uncommon phenomenon in times of war. Who is going to make them see justice?
At the same time, she is cynical about the fate of her land.
“You lost and we gained” the villagers down the coast keep telling her. They are now millionaires having harvested the windfall from the rapid tourist development.
“What can you do?” she bemoans. “At least some tourists come this way and our restaurant has some business. If our children work hard they will make it.”
It is Mrs Maria’s determination that saves the day. She is not giving up, she says. Maybe her sons and nephews will compromise with reality in order to survive but she won’t. She has nothing else to live for. The ghosts of Famagusta are hovering around her and me. A sleepless night is a small price to pay for remembering the suffering of others. It is a small tribute to those who this weekend are marking the 43rd anniversary of the accidental and tragic conquering of their city.
Achilleas Antoniades is a retired Cypriot ambassador