Cyprus Mail

Estranged from paradise since 1974

I view the Karpasia as paradise, but I avoid visiting

By Ugur Karagozlu

THE Karpasia is beautiful. It is more than beautiful. With its pristine beaches, gorgeous villages, windswept, rolling hills, it is heaven on earth. It is very different to the rest of the island. It always has been. Even in pre-1974 days.

My father comes from the Karpas village of Ayios Symeon/Avtepe and we always used to visit my elderly grandmother there at Bayram. Going to the Karpasia was like travelling to a faraway, exotic land. It was predominantly Greek Cypriot and my father’s village, along with the two neighbouring settlements, were the only Turkish Cypriot villages at the end of the peninsula. And you could tell that being surrounded by Greek Cypriot villages for God knows how long did have its effects: their first language was Greek.

My paternal grandmother, Meryem, was an angel of a woman who was widowed at a very early age with four young children. She had single-handedly raised the children with no help from anyone and, according to my father, aunts and uncle, she had never so much as raised her voice to them, let alone raised a finger. They all turned out to be exact replicas of her as parents: soft and loving. She was a devout Muslim who prayed five times a day – without fail – and her Greek was much better than her Turkish. In that, she was the norm and not an exception in her village that stands atop a hill, commanding breath-taking views of the shimmering Mediterranean and the cliffs that plunge into the sea in the distance.

The weather during summer evenings is delicious there. There is always a fresh breeze that makes you feel alive. My grandmother was always clad in clothes that you only see at folk dance shows these days: a headscarf on her hennaed hair (that hair was hennaed right till the end), knee-length breeches, and gold coins arranged as a necklace. This was done by fastening the coins on to a cloth neckband, which tended to be black or red. Rustic chic at its best. Again she was the norm, not the exception, in that small village.

The Karpasia was a poor place and so was our village. Dirt poor. Ayios Symeon/Avtepe and the two nearby villages had no electricity supply until 1974 and refused to let the Greek Cypriots enter their villages. My grandmother feared and loathed the Greek Cypriots. And yet again she was the norm, not the exception. They earned their livelihoods by tilling their fields and the biggest money-earner there in those days was tobacco.

Tobacco-growing was tough. My fast-fading memory believes that tobacco was harvested during the summer months. It was like something out of a 19th century novel. The whole village used to get up very early in the morning – before the sun started scorching anything beneath it – to go out harvesting. The mature tobacco leaves were pulled off by hand and brought back to the village. Donkeys were the preferred mode of transport. I do not recall anyone owning a car in that village before 1974 (it may be there were one or two, but certainly no more than that) but everyone owned a donkey or two.

Once the tobacco harvest was brought back to the village before sun-up, everyone (mother, father, son, daughter) started assembling in shaded spots to get on with stringing the leaves so that they could be hung on to canes and left to dry in the sun.

Immediately after the second stage of the 1974 war we went to Ayios Symeon/Avtepe to see my grandmother, to make sure she was all right and to reassure her that we were just fine.

All kinds of horror stories were circulating in those days. If only a small fraction of them were true we would long ago have been declared an “extinct community” – but they were believed. The Karpasia, immediately after 1974, was an eerily quiet place. Most of the Greek Cypriots who had lived there for millennia had fled to the south. They would probably all have done so had the Turkish Cypriot fighters from the village of Galateia/Mehmetçik, which sits atop a plateau overlooking the Karpasia road, not climbed down from their vantage-point and blocked the highway, thinking that they were doing a great service to our national cause and emboldened by the fact that the Turkish army was fast approaching – and effectively creating more than 10,000 enclaved Greek Cypriots.

It was during those days that my estrangement from the Karpasia kicked in. I still love it. I still think it is paradise. But ever since the day I came across a small Greek Cypriot boy of more or less my own age in the village of Tavros/Pamuklu I find it depressing, and unlike most of my fellow Turkish Cypriots I do not flock to the Karpasia every weekend. In 1974, when the Turkish Cypriots from the south were being resettled, no-one wanted to live in the Karpasia. Hence the Anatolian origins of most of its present-day inhabitants. That is no longer the case: Karpasia is very much in vogue among the Nicosia set.

My uncle, who was a police sergeant, had been appointed to Koma tou Gialou/Kumyalı village in those post-1974 days. It was winter and it was a Bayram day. Naturally I was dressed in my Bayram best clothes. I remember it being a cold and sunny day, and I had walked to Vokolida/Bafra which was completely deserted and thoroughly pillaged. I went into a couple of houses and experienced that thrill of doing something daring; something that would have been unthinkable only a month before. I was 12.

Then I walked back to Tavros/Pamuklu and there I bumped into that boy. He was very eager to talk and so was I, but I could not speak Greek and he could not speak Turkish. So despite our earnest efforts we were unable to communicate. But I did see the fear in that boy’s eyes, and I still remember them.

Since then we have made sure that most of the enclaved went to the south for good. Maybe that was inevitable; there was no future for them here. But some chose to stay on, and they number about 400.

It always used to bewilder me, why on earth they insisted on hanging on. I always wanted to knock on their doors and talk to them in the hope that they would explain. I never did because I did not have the guts, and also I knew that they would not open their hearts to a stranger, especially if he was a Turk, while they were still living in a Turkish-controlled place.

I've often wanted to ask those who stayed why they did
I’ve often wanted to ask those who stayed why they did

The last time I was in Rizokarpaso/Dipkarpaz was about two years ago. Fortunately there have been no deaths in the paternal side of my family, and the only time I ever visit the Karpasia these days is if there is a funeral. It was a Sunday and during my customary walk about the village that day I stumbled upon a church. The place was crumbling, it was Mass time and the congregation totalled no more than six.

The church at Rizokarpaso
The church at Rizokarpaso

I have been thinking a lot about the Karpasia these past few days. As a solution of the Cyprus problem seems to be looming closer – and for real this time – my mind has been wandering off there.

I salute those people for their unflinching devotion to their lands. I bow with respect in the face of the sacrifices they had to make to hang on to them. I, for one, would not have done so.

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