By Jean Christou
The British contingent of the United Nations peacekeepers in Cyprus (Unficyp) has almost finished setting up its new camp on the grounds of the Ledra Palace hotel inside the Green Line in Nicosia as the hotel itself has become unhabitable after 45 years, the Sunday Mail has learned.
A year ago it emerged the 200 or so UN soldiers would be leaving the once-grand landmark hotel after taking up residence there in the aftermath of the Turkish invasion in 1974. For decades, the 70-year-old hotel, visibly riddled with bullet holes, has fallen into disrepair and has over the years become a safety concern, so plans were made for the British contingent to leave.
Now, according to Sunday Mail sources, the move is 85 per cent complete.
“They are in the process at the moment and expect to be finished in the next month or so,” the sources said.
The Unficyp personnel are moving into prefabricated buildings that are “functional and comfortable” in a field behind the hotel and are “more or less settled in”. Other than that, there will be no change to the status of the hotel as far as it remaining under UN control.
The hotel was designed by the German-Jewish architect Benjamin Günsberg and was built between 1947 to 1949 on what was then called King Edward VII Street, since 1960 known as Markos Drakos Avenue. It originally had 94 bedrooms and 150 beds, officially rated as deluxe. Up until 1974, it was one of the largest and most glamorous hotels of the capital but fell within the boundaries of the UN buffer zone after the invasion.
The Sunday Mail sources dismissed speculation that the hotel, which is majority owned by the church, would be turned into a museum once the British contingent moved out. The UN will still be using the entire ground floor for bicommunal events, meetings and gatherings, they said, and would retain control.
There is no question of the church getting the hotel back, the sources said, adding that the current political climate would not be conducive to such a move. In any case the Turkish Cypriot side has already jumped in with objections to pre-empt any return of the hotel to the Greek Cypriot side. “The church would love to have it back but no one is getting anything back right now. It is not the right environment,” said the sources. Indeed the church did have meetings in 2014 with US investors interested in investing in the Ledra Palace but that has since come to nothing.
It is not known what will become of the higher floors other than minimal works for structural safety. The sources said the cost of repairs that would have allowed the UN personnel to remain inside – running into the millions – would have been prohibitive, and more costly than the new accommodation that has been provided.
The move is part of a strategic review of Unficyp that was carried out last year when a senior official who was in Cyprus at the time spoke of “changes” at the Ledra Palace.
The issue over the bad state of the hotel goes back, on the record, to at least 2005, when then UN secretary-general, the late Kofi Annan, said in a report that Unficyp had commissioned an independent engineering survey which found the living facilities to be structurally unsafe and constituted an “unacceptable safety risk”. This problem had been going on for at least five years prior to that. In 2005 it would have cost over $20m to fix the problems.
In 2007 some effort was made to fix part of the upper floors where at least 40 rooms had been marked as condemned and shuttered up. British troops were then living in 91 of the rooms. So bad was the situation that the Cyprus government was being strongly pressured by Britain and the UN to act.
By then British soldiers for years had put up with blocked toilets overflowing with sewage, broken pipes and falling plaster, piles of pigeon droppings on the balconies, dangerously exposed wires and electrical fittings, and broken lifts and air-conditioning systems.
The situation came to a head in February 2007 when a British parliamentary group visited the hotel. One member of the group who called the conditions “shameful”, warned the Cyprus government to act swiftly unless it wanted the UK to withdraw from Unficyp.
Though there were some repairs carried out later in 2007, paid for by the government, more than a decade later, the UN is finally calling a halt.