In the mayor of the mixed village of Pyla, THEO PANAYIDES finds a man who acts as a buffer to many sides, having seen his village move from petrol lamps to the Internet of Things, bringing with it the comforts of development

There’s a spot in the village of Pyla, just on the crest of a hill, that seems to juxtapose all the various aspects of the place. Your car, as you drive down the hill, is in the buffer zone. Before you, the view stretches all the way down to the beach (we say ‘all the way’, but it’s just a couple of kilometres). Behind you, the empty fields – unlike the rest of the increasingly built-up village – reflect the dominion of the British Bases, where building remains prohibited. To your right is a Turkish guard post, part of the occupied north; the Pergamos checkpoint is just down the road. Ranged in front of you is Pyla itself, home to about 2,000 inhabitants – around a third of them Turkish Cypriots, this being, uniquely, a mixed village.

There’s a further wrinkle: that 2,000 refers only to inhabitants living in the buffer zone. The total population may be five times that, once you include the many newcomers living near the beach road and in the clusters of peach-coloured villas at the entrance to the village. The recent arrivals include Brits and other Europeans (though ‘other’ is a bit of a misnomer, post-Brexit), Russians, Israelis, lots of Lebanese. Pyla has the fourth-largest area in the Larnaca district, just behind Larnaca itself – yet a third of that land is in the buffer zone, a third in the Bases, and only a third in the Republic. And there, caught in the midst of all these intricacies, is community leader Simos Mytides.

He’s stocky, bespectacled, with thin white hair and a slow, deliberate way of speaking. He’ll be 57 in July, and most of those 56 and a half years have been in Pyla – though he did spend a decade commuting from Nicosia, where he lived with his second wife. He finally persuaded her to relocate in 2010, partly because he wanted to run for chairman of Pyla Community Council (he’d been a member since 1990, having already served two terms as deputy chairman); he was getting on, he tells me, and felt he wanted “to fulfil the vision I had for Pyla”. He was elected in 2011 and handily re-elected, unopposed, in 2016.

profile2 the church in pyla

the church in Pyla

What exactly was (and is) his vision for Pyla? Hard to say, though much of it boils down to development and beautification. He points out improvements made during his tenure as he drives me around: a parking lot opposite the church, a history museum, a futsal pitch (shared with the students of UCLan, the University of Central Lancaster, whose Cyprus branch arrived in the village in 2012). Right now, he tells me, he has people working on the beach road, adding sewage drains, pavements, flower pots, cycle lanes; it should really be the government’s responsibility, but nothing’s been done since the 90s. It’s important to spruce up the area, he notes, it’ll make a good impression and help development. Most of those villas at the entrance to the village have also been built during his tenure.

Simos is a developer – by inclination, and indeed by profession. “I built those in 1995, these flats here,” he says as we drive around; he bought the land for his first concrete block (Simon Court No. 1, down by the beach) at the tender age of 25. His office, decorated with artist’s impressions of past developments, sits opposite a complex of 12 homes known as ‘Simon’s Luxury Villas’. This is not his office as community leader, we should note, indeed he hasn’t built “so much as a brick” since being elected 10 years ago, to avoid conflicts of interest (his main sources of income are a petrol station, its licence acquired before his election, and a woodworking factory). We should also note that he’s not indifferent to the environment: Pyla has an unofficial green point for recyclables, and 2,000 trees have apparently been planted in the past decade. Still, he’s not likely to be adopted as a poster child for the Green Party anytime soon.

So what about the argument that development harms the environment?

“Well…” he begins in his deliberate way, mulling over the question. “It depends on the area. Pyla, for instance, was nothing but farmland”. I mention the example of Peyia, just outside Paphos, now irreversibly uglified by a profusion of badly-planned villas, and he half-agrees that Peyia, being “a very good location”, should perhaps have been more controlled in its development; Pyla, however, was “flat land, open land. There was no forest – it’s not like you were cutting down forest to build houses”. Sure, some of the villas may be lying empty even now, victims of the usual over-building – but don’t forget the benefits that come with development, the road network, culverts for rainwater. “In the old days,” notes Simos, “your car might get muddy every time you went somewhere, or else you’d get stuck.” There were also problems with mosquitos and stagnant ponds, now drained for development. “I think,” he concludes, “there’s a big improvement now in the quality of life of our inhabitants.”

profile3 the turkish cypriot coffeeshop

The Turkish Cypriot coffeeshop

There it is, the eternal problem. Outsiders to a place – especially a small place, like an out-of-the-way village – want it to remain pristine, those who live there just want life to get better. Not that life was terrible in the old days. “I remember, where we are now, it used to be vineyards,” he recalls with a glimmer of nostalgia; he and his school friends would spend long summer days here, having fun while ostensibly guarding the grapes. “Carefree times, for sure!” But he also grew up, the second of six sons, in a house without a TV set or washing machine; street lights arrived in 1967 – but he vividly recalls doing his homework by the light of petrol lamps, and clubbing together with his older brother to buy their mum a washing machine (this was when they were teens, working summer jobs on construction sites) so she wouldn’t wear herself out doing eight people’s laundry by hand every day.

And of course it was also a mixed village, then as now, the Turkish Cypriots of Pyla having resisted the order to withdraw into enclaves in the 1960s. As with the environment, however, anyone hoping for cuddly tales of bicommunal harmony from Simos Mytides may be disappointed – for the simple reason that he lives in the real world, not the idyllic ideological one. Talking to him is a reminder of an oft-forgotten fact: ‘brothers’ is routinely used to describe the relationship (or hoped-for relationship) between the two sides – but actual, real-life brothers often squabble, and complain about unfairness, and resent each other’s presence.

“Yeah okay, we had lots of contact with the Turkish Cypriots,” he replies when I ask about his childhood – “but we fought, most of the time. Now, as to who provoked it?… Maybe the older ones would egg us on,” he muses (it’s unclear if he means older kids or adults). “Though we did play together, football and so on.”

Things haven’t changed all that much. There were never any ghettos in Pyla, no segregation; yes, the two sides had (and continue to have) separate schools, churches, cemeteries – but, for instance, Simos’ childhood home was right next door to the Turkish Cypriot coffee shop. Even now, it’s just a few seconds’ drive from shop signs in Greek to the likes of ‘Pyla Butik’. But life in the buffer zone has its own unorthodox arrangements. Everything has to go through the UN – so, if the police have a warrant against someone, the UN will escort them in order to enforce it. The deal, however, to avoid putting the peacekeepers in an awkward position, is that (even though Turkish Cypriots are supposedly citizens of the Republic) each side is only allowed to police its own people while in the buffer zone. The result, inevitably, is perceived inequality leading to a simmering resentment – especially as regards Turkish Cypriot properties, which are almost beyond the law.

Simos points out something else as we drive around the village: a small, nondescript-looking kiosk with dozens of cars parked around it. It’s one of several casinos operating out of buildings nominally owned by Turkish Cypriots, illegal but widely tolerated. What can he, as community leader, do about that? “Nothing,” he replies glumly. Turkish Cypriots are also exempt from paying utility bills in Pyla, making for a steady stream of business at the Community Council which has to issue almost daily certificates to that effect (everyone from banks to government departments wants utility bills as proof of address nowadays). “So many obligations,” sighs Simos when I ask about his routine. “You have to deal on a daily basis with the Turkish Cypriots, the British Bases, the Greek Cypriots, the UN, the police, the foreign ministry for matters related to the Cyprus problem…”

It’s quite a dysfunctional situation – yet Pyla survives, as if strengthened by its many oddities. Even during the invasion, there was no trouble to speak of; the fragile balance held. Simos, too, seems both slightly overwhelmed by his job and entirely comfortable with it. This, after all, has been his life since he first got elected to the council 30 years ago. He comes across as a straightforward, hard-working man, happier with numbers than ideas; his careful manner turns businesslike when discussing euros (or pounds) and cents. When he started building Simon’s Luxury Villas in 2000, he tells me, “land in Pyla was going at around £15-17,000. By the time the houses were complete, in 2005, it was £100,000!”.

There’s a lot of stress, to be sure. His phone keeps ringing; he’s a pack-a-day smoker, despite having suffered a heart attack in 2010. I ask about hobbies, but his only relaxation is going to the coffee shop after work every evening, “to watch the news or a game of football” – and, more importantly, to decompress, to slough off the day’s tension and avoid taking it home with him. His first marriage, to a UK Cypriot in the 90s, may act as a cautionary tale here; he doesn’t really say what went wrong – but there’s no doubt he was ambitious as a younger man, channelling his disappointment over not having gone to university (he’d dreamed of becoming an architect or civil engineer) into building Simon Courts 1-4. Maybe he just didn’t have the patience for marriage and fatherhood.

It’s amazing really, all the changes he’s witnessed – and helped create – in his lifetime. There was a kerfuffle over 5G recently (Pyla rebuffed an attempt to install it, though he doesn’t know how long they can hold out; maybe it’s a “necessary evil”) – and it’s pretty incredible, having gone from petrol lamps to the Internet of Things in 50 years. Simos Mytides must see Pyla as a palimpsest, the present layered over the past, seeing open fields and vineyards in his mind’s eye when he looks at the apartments and villas he himself constructed. Five decades of history flash through his head when he stands on the crest of that hill, surrounded by the various stakeholders of his unusual village.

These include the newcomers, the approximately 2,000 foreigners who’ve arrived during his time as community leader. Some of them aren’t even newcomers; he cites the example of an Englishman who’s been trying to obtain title deeds for his property for the past 25 years (almost as long as Simos himself has been a developer). “He’s around 75 now. He was 50 – younger than I am! – when he bought the house,” marvels Simos, shaking his head. It seems the passage road built by the developer is narrower than the designated six metres – but the developer has long since gone bankrupt, Town Planning refuses to budge and the Ministry is being sluggish about making an exception. Another aspect of the general dysfunction.

Whom does Simos represent in Pyla? Everyone, of course, yet not really everyone. That Englishman came to him for help – yet most of the foreigners aren’t even registered to vote, or else don’t bother. More worryingly, the Turkish Cypriot community largely ignore elections too. “Some of them registered. Especially after Kizilyurek, many did, about 100 I think,” he says, referring to Niyazi Kizilyurek, our first Turkish Cypriot MEP – but many, or most, presumably feel unrepresented.

It’s a problem, but what can you do? No one man (or woman) could encompass all the aspects of this varied place, or claim to speak for everyone. One might say it’s the Cyprus problem in microcosm – and, as with Cyprus, the only answer seems to be more prosperity, more tourism, more development. “It’s a developing area with a lot of potential,” he affirms of Pyla. The beach road could stand more hotels, and “there’s still quite a bit of virgin land” for construction; even the Bases are due to announce the creation of limited building zones soon. I leave him to it, driving past the peach-coloured villas and back on the highway.