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.
Varosha, the once vibrant modern sector of the mediaeval era-walled port city of Famagusta, has been one of the world’s biggest ghost towns since August 1974.
Its 40,000 Greek Cypriot inhabitants fled the advancing Turkish invasion army, taking few possessions in the belief they would be able to return within days.
The Turkish military soon surrounded the empty, and by now looted town with a barbed wire fence that extends into the sea to keep people out. Varosha has since been entered only by Turkish military patrols and the occasional UN visitor.
Houses in numerous other Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot villages abandoned in 1974 were resettled by displaced people or used to house incoming Turkish settlers. Varosha was the anomaly — a Forbidden City.
Varosha in its heyday. (Special thanks to Jimmy Freeman and Dinos Lordos for helping in the collection and captioning of these photographs)
It was a tourist boom town until it became suspended in a time warp. Its golden beaches and bustling hotels attracted the international jet-set and were graced by Hollywood stars, among them Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Raquel Welch, Paul Newman and Brigitte Bardot.
Proposals to re-open Varosha to allow the return of its former inhabitants have featured prominently in all peace plans and confidence-building recommendations over the decades dating back to the 1970s. A 1984 UN Security Council resolution calls for its handover to UN control and prohibits any attempt to resettle it by anyone other than those who were forced out.
Greek Cypriot hopes rose in 1993-94 with a UN-backed initiative to re-open Varosha in return for the re-opening of Nicosia’s mothballed airport — which is in the UN buffer zone – for use by both communities.
But Varosha continued to remain a symbol of the seeming intractability of the island’s frozen conflict, with many convinced Turkey has held it as a valuable bargaining chip to play only in the final stages of an overall settlement.
The seaside town has long resembled a stage set for a post-apocalyptic movie in which a plague has killed all the people, leaving only increasingly dilapidated and crumbling buildings standing with windows blown. Trees and shrubs have grown in cracked and buckled roads roamed by stray cats and rats.
On paper, Greek Cypriot town planners have been preparing for Varosha’s return for years. The first step would include a clean-up operation, inspection of buildings to determine if they could be made safe or need demolishing, and the reconnection of water and electricity.
Returning Varosha to normal could take at least six or seven years. The cost of rebuilding the town is difficult to estimate until experts are granted access to the six square kilometres it covers, but some economists suspect it would be at least €5 bn.
In recent years various groups have devised plans to rebuild and re-inhabit Varosha, including the Famagusta Ecocity Project, which is aimed at transforming it into a ‘smart’, ecologically friendly town. The project was formed by architects, engineers and ecologists, architects, engineers from both the island’s communities.
Varosha as it is today. (Special thanks to Jimmy Freeman and Dinos Lordos for helping in the collection and captioning of these photographs)
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