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‘Dark tourism’ in a Paphos village

feature paul main polemi concentration camp
Polemi concentration camp
A concentration camp in Polemi once housed 400 Eoka suspects in the final days of their campaign

 

As one of Europe’s foremost tourist destinations, Cyprus prefers to focus on its beaches, archaeological sites and traditional villages, but it is also home to several non-clichéd places that are of special interest to dark tourists.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “dark tourism” refers to visiting places associated with death and suffering. The increasing popularity of visiting morbid landmarks around the world associated with assassination, incarcerations, genocide, ethnic cleansing, war, disaster, ghost stories and scares, has a long tradition that goes back to the battle that marked the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. According to J. John Lennon, a professor of tourism at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, who coined the term with a colleague in 1996, “People would watch from their carriages as the Battle of Waterloo took place.”

Nowadays, dark tourism sites act as vehicles of historical exposition, educating subsequent generations about the ‘lessons’ of the past. With an appetite for such destinations growing, Cyprus could easily call that growth in dark tourism.

feature paul the watchtower which overlooked the camp
The watchtower which overlooked the camp

Apart from the obvious sites, such as the ghost town of Varosha, abandoned Nicosia airport (for those who can enter), eerie scenes of empty buildings and streets – criss-crossed with barbed wire – along Nicosia’s green line, ghostly rumours that swirl around the once-famous Berengaria hotel, a deserted village in Paphos that once belonged to the Knights Templar, Jewish Holocaust Museum of Cyprus, and the imprisoned graves and gallows in the Central Jail of Nicosia, dark tourists can venture out to another morbid site located just outside Paphos.

Polemi becomes a carpet of wild tulips every year as locals and holidaymakers visit the ever-popular flower festival to experience the springtime phenomenon. But, if on the surface, Polemi’s countryside appears to be peaceful and idyllic, the village was also once home to a gruesome concentration camp, notorious for the horrific and inhumane conditions suffered by some 400 Cypriot detainees. A reminder of the brutal effects of colonialism, the Polemi Concentration Camp was one of eight operated by the British to house and interrogate Eoka prisoners during the Greek-Cypriot fight to end British rule in Cyprus, from 1955-1959.

The concentration camp, or detention centre, opened towards the end of the conflict in August 1958, and operated for just over 100 days. Surrounded by barbed wire, Polemi’s prison camp was known for its violence, cruelty and torture to which the prisoners were subjected.

Today, little remains of the original camp, apart from the imposing guard tower, two old army vehicles, and a small tin Nissen hut housing important artefacts, including a miniature model of the camp in its original state.

Inside, an uncanny silence migrates between the rural present and Cyprus’ turbulent past. A memorial wall features a display of registration photographs, as prisoners were marched in front of a camera, and forced to stand as they were processed into the camp and given a number. Often held without trial, prisoners were compelled to live in tents, and permitted to move around the small yard for limited hours during the day. According to written testimonies and eyewitness accounts, available at the museum, members of the British army would often enter the tents at night and mercilessly beat up prisoners, keeping them awake by firing shots and throwing stones.

feature paul photographs of some of the inmates at the camp which operated for 100 days
Photographs of some of the inmates at the camp which operated for 100 days

A military handbook given to sentries upon their arrival to the camp, on display at the museum, made it permissible to open fire if a detainee had crossed the six-yard wire, caused destruction to government property, or attempted an escape.

The camp at Polemi was mainly populated by Greek-Cypriot males, although occasionally women were also interned, including youths and minors under the age of 16.

In 2004, the site was converted into a war museum, serving as a reminder of the horrors perpetrated under British rule.

In the last few years, tourists and their demands have frequently been changing, however there are those who are fascinated with places that are synonymous with the darkest periods of human history.

Dark tourism has become an important branch of Cyprus’ tourism industry, having a positive impact on both tourists and locals. From a social perspective, it provides psychological and emotional benefits to local communities and can be used for learning and reflection on issues that contributed to tragedy, especially for future generations.

Polemi Concentration Camp is open to the public all year round, Monday – Sunday (8am – 5pm), and entrance is free.

 

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