By Evie Andreou
REMEMBERING the dead to mend relations among the living is the novel idea of two young men who were among the recipients of the Stelios Award for Business Co-operation this week.
Greek Cypriot Constantinos Constantinou and Turkish Cypriot Hakki Emir were one of ten enterprises to receive €10,000 from businessman Sir Stelios Hadji-Ioannou in his annual bi-communal business award scheme for their project to clean up cemeteries and restore gravestones on both sides of the divide.
Desolate, weed-choked Turkish Cypriot cemeteries in the south and Greek Cypriot cemeteries in the north are one of the most poignant symbols of Cyprus’ divide. All too often the headstones have fallen over or the graves have collapsed. In some villages the neglect has been so complete, it is almost impossible to work out where the cemeteries are.
With the help of the original villagers, Constantinou and Emir hope to change all that. The two business partners manufacture and restore grave stones and want to use money received from the award to fund an initial project that will bring them more business, but also bring the two communities closer.
The aim is that Emir will restore the Greek Cypriot gravestones in the north while Constantinou will do the same for the Turkish Cypriot gravestones in the south.
“We are both in this field. My family, my grandfather and uncles are in this business and Hakki had set up the same business by himself in the north and due to this common interest, we met through a common friend,” Constantinou said.
He explained how cooperation is necessary as transferring large objects such as marble headstones is not possible.
“For example, if a Turkish Cypriot wants to restore a gravestone in the Limassol Turkish Cypriot graveyard, it will be easier for me to go do the job instead of Hakki, and the same applies if a Greek Cypriot wants to have a relative’s grave fixed in the north; Hakki will do the job on my behalf,” Constantinou said.
“There won’t be a transfer of goods through the green line, each will do their job but for the other’s customers.”
But beyond the practicalities, there is also the need for real bi-communal co-operation as local communities will have to be involved.
“You can’t just go there, do a job without talking to anyone. If the local community is charged with the task of cleaning the cemetery, or if a local person is hired to clean the cemetery before any work is done there, or if someone is hired to look after the graves, relations change that way,” Constantinou said.
Both aged 32, Constantinou is also a supply teacher while Emir studied aquaculture but started his own grave stone business five years ago, because he couldn’t find employment.
“It was either this or work for the government, and I didn’t want to do that,” said Emir.
Visiting cemeteries is a shared interest.
“When we go on a trip to a village, we also visit the cemeteries to see their condition,” Constantinou said.
He said that the cemeteries of each community on both sides are often in very bad condition. Most require rigorous cleaning as they are full of weeds, bushes and broken tombstones. Some have got that way through simple neglect, others through deliberate vandalism.
The neglect of Turkish Cypriot cemeteries in the south is particularly marked in those villages abandoned after the intercommunal troubles of 1963-64, a full ten years before the Greek Cypriots were forced to flee their villages in the north.
The project, however, will work as a rapprochement tool for the two communities.
“Some Greek Cypriots are hesitant when it comes to visiting the north, except for religious reasons when their reservations are somewhat curbed,” Constantinou said.
The two men want to give an extra motive for Cypriots to visit their ancestral homes and meet the people that live there now, to interact and change their way of thought.
As a first step, the two business partners want to use money they have received from the award to fund the clean up of the Greek Cypriot cemetery in Agridaki (Alemdar), a village near Kyrenia and make a road leading to it, because the old road is now barely a path.
“We have both visited the place, we have friends from there and there are people interested in fixing up the graves of their ancestors buried in the village’s cemetery and even contribute to cleaning up the place,” Constantinou said.
He said graves are broken and no longer visible and are covered with wild plants and bushes.
“We have already contacted the Greek Cypriot community that lived there before the war, and they agreed to participate. There is also interest on behalf of the Turkish Cypriot community,” Constantinou said.
He added that they have as an example Kontea village, where the original Greek Cypriot inhabitants have co-operated with the present Turkish Cypriot inhabitants to restore a large number of the village impressive historical buildings, including the church.
“If you go to the village you will also see that the village’s Greek Cypriot cemetery has also been cleaned by the local community there and some work has already been done in it,” Constantinou said.
“We want to spread this throughout the island; we want to get the local authorities from the two sides to cooperate on an unofficial level. Graveyards can help bring back people to their villages, actually spending more time there by caring for the graves of their ancestors and then taking a stroll in the village,” he said.
Constantinou conceded that their proposals have met with scepticism from some people who have reservations about spending money on fixing up gravestones which they fear they will just be destroyed again.
He also accepted that when people visit their villages and see churches, mosques and graveyards derelict and destroyed, they instantly have negative feelings, believing there is no respect toward each other’s sacred places.
“Each village is different; we have to assess each case differently. The people of Agridaki agree on this project, but there are other communities that are very hesitant,” said Constantinou.
Yet he and Emir are convinced by the project’s ability to change opinions.
“If people experience efforts and initiatives to work together to rebuild or renovate these places, then dynamics change and friendships are developed through cooperation. We want to help forge these friendships,” Constantinou said.
Time is of the essence in the two men’s project. Constantinou believes that they are already late, because buried in the cemeteries are the grandparents or even great grandparents of the new generation which makes the likelihood of a descendent wanting to restore a gravestone more distant.
“There are people whose parents are buried in these cemeteries but the majority is grandparents. And if we add ten more years for Turkish Cypriots, then the relationships are even more distant,” he said.
“The stones will tie together the bonds of people; we have already seen that happening in the past, Kontea for example. They built their relations with the restoration of their church.”