Cyprus Mail

The ‘Monuments Woman’

Some of the artefacts seized in the apartments of Aydin Dikmen

By Thanasis Gavos

TASOULA Hadjitofi, the refugee from Famagusta turned art trafficking adversary, is determined to continue her quest for locating and repatriating stolen treasures from plundered religious and cultural monuments around the world.

Speaking to the Cyprus News Agency almost a year after the first 173 artefacts found in Munich in the possession of Turkish art trafficker Aydin Dikmen were officially handed back to Cyprus, Hadjitofi said that her involvement in searching for treasures from the Turkish occupied northern part of the island had been a process of learning.

Tasoula Hadjitofi
Tasoula Hadjitofi

The court of appeals in Munich ruled last March that part of the artefacts found in Dikmen’s possession in 1997 in Munich, should be returned to Cyprus. German police moved in on Dikmen after they received help from the late  Archbishop Chrysostomos I, Hadjitofi, Cypriot police and an art-dealer Michel Van Rijn.

Most of the items had been taken from churches in the occupied areas after the 1974 invasion.

“Culture is the most political action. That’s why at wars the first thing done is to erase the weakest side’s traces,” said Haditofi. “I began my involvement from Cyprus, but since 2004 I have been using Cyprus as a learning process. I use my experience to assist other countries too.”

Having built a life and a successful career in The Hague, she is now leading the non for profit organisation she founded in the Dutch city, called Walk of Truth.

“My network consists of specialist professionals. I cooperate with Interpol, the Europol, the Dutch, the Greek and the Cypriot police forces. The lawyers I have worked with are also experts on stolen cultural artefacts,” she said.

Asked about how the Walk of Truth organisation came about, Hadjitofi recounted her crucial part in the Munich operation.

In the beginning, she said, it was only her and the late archbishop. “But you know, success has a lot of suitors… Then I said ‘it’s all right, I will hand back the treasures and go home.’ But I could see the Cypriot authorities were making mistakes one after the other. We clashed. It was a very difficult period for me and in addition the archbishop got ill.”

She said she felt disappointed with how officials in Cyprus treated her.

“I don’t care that my name is nowhere to be seen around the artefacts that have been repatriated. The basic thing is that they have been returned to Cyprus,” she said.

She decided to take up Turkish and after a while she visited Turkey, where she made friends who expressed their support for what she had been doing.

“I felt that since I could not go back home, I wanted to give people a reason to smile about through claiming back our cultural heritage. That was my walk of truth, to learn who I was. And I said to myself maybe that was what I needed to do, a platform on which to apply all the lessons I had learned and use them in other countries’ cases; because I could offer something this way.”

Among her future plans is to assist in finding and repatriating the stolen mosaic medallion depicting Apostle Andreas from the looted Church of Panagia Kanakaria.

But her plans are definitely not restricted to Cyprus. Last September she organised a conference within the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which analysed the illegal art trafficking chain. There were 35 experts and 70 personalities in total, ambassadors and EU officials.

“We focused on two cases from Cyprus, the Munich case and the four icons from the Antiphonitis church, as well as a case from Afghanistan. In the end we produced a comprehensive model for looted antiquities, which could be used by each country facing such a problem,” she explained.

For her the creation of a common international set of laws is crucial in dealing with art trafficking.

“Illegal art dealers would not have a choice of countries where they would be able to act,” she said. But she also considers of paramount importance a different political approach.

“It is very important the politicians stop considering culture as a matter of secondary value, as a luxury. Culture is not about entertainment; it is the real voice of the world and its history.”

The ‘Walk of Truth’ motto derives from the Russian writer and artist Nicholas Roerich: ‘Where there is peace there is culture. And where there is culture there is peace’. And in the mission statement the phrase “empowering people to embrace and protect endangered cultural treasures” features prominently.

Asked to describe the personal drive behind all her work, Tasoula Hadjitofi had no hesitation.

“I cannot accept that I cannot go home,” she said, referring to Varosha, the fenced off part of Famagusta. “That I must stand and see it closed and not be allowed to cross in; to have five Turkish soldiers forbidding me to go forward. Not to have the choice to go home, to show my children around, to bury my parents there, to visit my grandparents’ graves. It is something I cannot accept.”

Her first visit back to Famagusta last year, after 39 years, was both a shocking and a liberating experience. “I went for the first time on 10th July last year, because my father asked me to. Without thinking anything I walked into the sea enchanted; I wanted to go as close as I could to my house, where I grew up and played as a child. When the soldiers saw me they tried to stop me, I cried …. And when I came back I promised myself that the next time I go back, there will be no force able to stop me crossing that line.”

Referring to the ‘Walk of Truth’ next initiatives, Tasoula Hadjitofi said that she would very much like to organise “walk of truths”, so that ordinary people, regardless of race or religion, can visit places where their people are buried.

She is also planning to organise a conference on the issue of ownership. Among the cases she would like to discuss is the Parthenon [Elgin] Marbles held in the British Museum.

“Morally, emotionally and historically they belong to Greece. The marbles should be returned to the Parthenon because they are an integral part of it. The question is how to claim their return. I am sure they will go back, it’s just a matter of time.”

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