For despairing Varosha refugees, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to the fenced-off town on Sunday for a picnic is cruelly provocative, and yet might well be the final spur Greek Cypriot property owners need to defy the government’s long-standing strategy on Famagusta.
The visit has also angered sections of the Turkish Cypriot community as an arrogant dismissal of their protests over Ankara’s interference in Turkish Cypriot affairs.
Preparations for Erdogan’s visit to the beach section of the fenced area of Varosha, which the north opened to the public last month, included the creation of a park for the picnic the Turkish president had asked for, and a bicycle lane. The visit is deliberately timed to coincide with the anniversary of northern Cyprus’ unilateral declaration of independence on November 15, 1983.
“It will be a difficult day for us and our town,” said Pavlos Iacovou, member of the Famagusta Our Town Initiative, a Facebook group set up by Famagusta refugees, which now numbers almost 20,000 followers. The group has been working to raise awareness on the Varosha issue in Cyprus and abroad.
“How should a Varosha refugee feel when their rights are trumped by investments, creation of parks that forbid them from living in the place of their childhood memories?” Iacovou told the Sunday Mail, referring to Turkey’s and the new Turkish Cypriot leader’s stated aim of developing Varosha.
Along with hundreds of other refugees, Iacovou visited his home in Varosha and the hotel his family owns there last month for the first time after 46 years.
“We are the last generation that has memories of Varosha,” he said.
In an attempt to highlight the injustice of Turkey’s threats, a group of refugees, that call themselves Varoshiotes (hailing from Varosha), released a video this week telling Erdogan he had no right to be in Famagusta.
According to Varosha refugee Anna Marangou, the video was produced by the group, who thought they needed to do something to keep recent developments in Varosha in the public eye and not let them be sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic and revelations about the country’s citizenship by investment scheme.
The video, currently in English, will also be translated into French, German and Greek. Famagusta municipality also launched a video on Friday as part of a campaign to raise awareness.
Last month’s election of Ersin Tatar as the new Turkish Cypriot leader and his position that a two-state solution should be put on the table instead of a federal one, in tandem with Turkey’s expressed determination to restore Varosha to its old glory, has forced many refugees to consider their options.
Iacovou said he was pessimistic over what happens next given that “Turkey is materialising its threats.”
The only solution, he said, was to resort to the immovable property commission (IPC) in the north and claim their properties.
“Each family will decide from then on what to do, move back under Turkish Cypriot administration or otherwise.”
The IPC was set up by Turkey as the domestic remedy for claims relating to abandoned Greek Cypriot properties in the north based on the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. Over the years it has got bogged down in claims in which the remedy is restitution, compensation, or property exchange. Because of their town’s special nature most Varosha refugees long held off making any claims.
Turkey and Tatar’s latest moves have changed all that, said Iacovou.
“Those who will not claim their properties could lose them, or see them demolished,” he said.
He added that many people have launched procedures, especially after the call by lawyer Achilleas Demetriades to do so.
Demetriades had earlier in the year called on owners of properties in Varosha to immediately file their claims with the IPC for their right to return or restitution, arguing that such a move would offer them a line of defence “against Turkey’s greed”.
Turkey had already announced last summer it was considering opening Varosha, and in the end did so before the second round of the elections last month in a bid to boost Tatar’s candidacy.
Demetriades’ call is opposed by the government which argues that mass applications to the IPC for Varosha properties would only help speed up Turkish plans for the fenced-off part of Famagusta, and would be the last nail in the coffin of the Cyprus problem.
But Demetriades countered that inactivity will eventually leave Varosha to the Turkish Cypriot religious endowment foundation Evkaf, which claims it owns most of that area, even though their claims were supposedly settled by the British as part of the independence negotiations in 1960.
“It is up to each and every one to protect their properties,” Marangou told the Sunday Mail, stressing the need to legally protect ownership through the IPC.
“From the moment we have our application filed, our property is legally protected,” Marangou said. Turkey, she added, wants Varosha’s coastal strip.
“Let’s not offer it on a plate.”
Because it’s a costly procedure, she said, they had suggested authorities support the setting up of a legal team to help people file these applications, but they were not heard.
“We were accused of promoting something that would be risky for our country,” she said. Marangou emphasised that the calls on Varosha refugees to file to the IPC concerned the demand for return of property and not for its sale or compensation.
For Marangou, the ‘Famagustisation’ of the Cyprus problem, that the issue of Famagusta should be part of a comprehensive solution of the Cyprus problem and not dealt with separately, has led to the current crisis.
“We see our town being lost and no one is doing anything about it,” she said.
The Famagusta municipality’s position, mayor Simos Ioannou said last month, is the same as that of the government: it is wrong to return without a proper solution to the Cyprus problem.
After a meeting at the Presidential Palace this week, the mayor said that the state ought to explain to those who wish to return under Turkish Cypriot administration the ramifications of their decision and the fact that they will first need to file to the IPC, a move that comes with political and legal issues.
He said he called on the president to arrange a meeting with the attorney-general to discuss the Varosha properties issue because there is division among the refugees, those who are for filing to the IPC and those who are against.
In the north, Erdogan’s visit this weekend is nearly as provocative for some sections of the Turkish Cypriot community, as it cements Ankara’s grip and intervention in their affairs.
Last Tuesday thousands of people rallied in northern Nicosia in protest over Turkey’s intervention in the ‘presidential’ elections, but also a series of actions by Ankara that undermine the will of the Turkish Cypriots.
For Famagusta municipal councillor of main opposition Republican Turkish Party (CTP), Erhun Sahali, Varosha is not just any part of Cyprus, as it is supposed to be under special status and should not be used by politicians to serve their own interests.
He said that there were many people, not just Turkish nationals, but Turkish Cypriots too, who were happy that Erdogan was visiting and were planning to join his picnic.
But Sahali, a Famagustan himself, just can’t understand it.
“What kind of picnic would you imagine in an area where there is so much destruction?” he said. “We have been living with the ghost town, it really hurt us.”
Works in Varosha prior to Erdogan’s visit were carried out by a Turkish company, infuriating contractors in the north who see it as a sign that they would be excluded from the coastal area’s announced redevelopment.
The tender for the project took place in Turkey and was won by a Turkish company. The Turkish Cypriot companies were not even invited to participate.
Head of the Turkish Cypriot building contractors’ association, Cafer Gurcafer, said last week that though the visit to Varosha last month by Turkey’s minister of urban planning was the right move as regards Ankara’s determination to revive the fenced area, the involvement of the Housing Development Administration of Turkey (TOKİ) was a mistake.
Gurcafer said this had sent out the wrong message, arguing that there are many workers in the north earning their living from the construction sector and that these companies ought to be included in plans for the town’s redevelopment.
Such moves only reinforce the fears of those Turkish Cypriots who fear the growing hand of Turkey. Meanwhile, the presence of Turkish housing and urban planning officials may well force those Greek Cypriot property owners who have not yet done so, to apply to the IPC as quickly as possible.
Those unhappy over Erdogan’s picnic may take a little solace in the fact that the weather forecast for Sunday is heavy rains and storms.