This is one of a series of articles from our new feature ‘Background briefing: The Divided Island‘. It is a comprehensive interactive information guide on the Cyprus problem which we are publishing at this critical moment in the settlement negotiations. There is a menu bar to the full package to the right of this article. Just click on any of the items.
The narrowest part of the UN-controlled buffer zone that splits Cyprus runs through the historic, Venetian era-walled heart of old Nicosia, Europe’s last divided capital.
Flanked by barbed wired and cement-filled oil drums, it is a mile-long stretch of no-man’s land where the ceasefire lines are sometimes just metres apart. Cypriots call it the “dead zone”.
It is patrolled by blue berets from the British contingent of the UN’s peacekeeping force, Unficyp.
Civilians are forbidden entry but I was given rare access by the UN in 2015. This is a previously unpublished extract from my report describing what I saw.
It is both captivating and profoundly depressing. Trees and shrubs jut through cracked streets, stray cats dart into shuttered workshops and there are no people: they fled in such haste in 1974 that you can still see washing-up in sinks.
We pick our way through muddy streets past abandoned concrete fox holes, ghostly cafes, clothes and food stores, their windows festooned with faded ads extolling brands extant and extinct. It is eerily silent apart from the periodic calls to prayer from nearby mosques in the city’s northern half.
There are once grand colonial-style buildings, many bullet-pocked, most crumbling. Winter rains sluicing down their sandstone facades weaken the masonry: tumbling blocks are “one of the biggest threats to British soldiers”, a UN officer says.
Stark reminders of the past conflict abound. In a warehouse basement are some 30 Japanese cars, brand new in 1974. They had just been imported when they got trapped, as if in amber, by the fighting. A red Toyota Corolla, swaddled in dust, has 32.9 miles on the clock.
You rarely spot a Greek Cypriot or Turkish sentry, although their rival flags dominate the skyline, along with towering palm and eucalyptus trees. The UN managed in 1989 to persuade the two sides to abandon flashpoint outposts that were sometimes perilously close and manned by bored conscripts. Nightly exchanges of lurid imprecations had occasionally flared into gunfire, with sometimes fatal consequences.
Tensions have eased significantly since the 1989 pullback but there are still frequent attempts by the rival armies to effect low-level changes to the military status quo by, for instance, inching forward a sandbag. If not promptly dealt with, such seemingly minor incidents can escalate swiftly.
The unarmed British blue berets dealing with them in the first instance are mostly junior, young officers. Troops trained to be “keyed-up fighting men” for duty in countries such as Afghanistan have to adjust their mindset swiftly and develop new skills — to become, in effect, the equivalent of the respectable bobby on his beat in an English village.
Required to observe closely and make accurate and timely reports of every incident, they are also trained to be diplomats so that they can mediate between the opposing forces with patience and impartiality.
Rudimentary Greek and Turkish picked up from phrase books are handy for interacting with the opposing forces and communicating with civilian trespassers into the zone. Among the latter are hunters, smugglers and, in winter, pickers of wild asparagus, a local delicacy. When told parts of the zone are still peppered with old land mines, few complain as they are escorted back to safety.
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