Revival of a Cyprus 'ghost town' or trigger for tensions on divided island?

Varosha, under Turkish occupation since the Mediterranean island split in two in 1974, partially reopens after nearly half a century

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In its heyday, the glamorous seaside town of Varosha in the city of Famagusta was considered the crown jewel of Cyprus.

Once a peak tourist hub, international stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot and Paul Newman were regular visitors, catered to by dozens of hotels and restaurants that lined the powdery sand beaches overlooking alluring crystalline waters.

But in 1974 – when the island was divided into a Greek-Cypriot controlled southern part and a Turkish-Cypriot administered northern part, where Varosha is – the once bustling and colourful hub became a “ghost town” after Turkish troops sealed off the area to its 17,000 Greek-speaking former residents.

After nearly half a century of occupation, the Turkish-Cypriot administration reopened a sliver of Varosha earlier this year, with plans for a wider demilitarisation of the area.

The move, backed by Ankara, has reopened old wounds for Varosha’s refugees while also raising fresh hopes for their long-awaited return. It has also triggered widespread international concern over the fate of the stalled peace talks.

For Lenia Nikolou, who fled her home town as a 20-year-old newly-wed in 1974, visiting the places of her youth today invokes a mixture of happiness, anger and pain. After fleeing Varosha she settled in the city of Limassol where she still lives. As we walk through the empty streets, she looks longingly from behind ropes at her home and former school. Former residents are still unable to enter their properties with authorities there citing safety reasons.

Lenia Nikolou was a 20-year-old newlywed when Turkish forces occupied her hometown of Varosha. She later settled in the city of Limassol and hadn't been back to her birthplace in 47 years until earlier this year when a part of the seaside town was reopened. Silvio Rusmigo / The National

“It’s so unfair. Nobody had the right to do what they did to us. For 47 years they kept this town and now they’re opening we are not even allowed into our house and you cannot go inside. It’s cruel, honestly. It’s very cruel,” she tells The National.

Tears stream down her face as she looks up at the Tulip hotel that once belonged to her father and where she had her wedding reception only weeks before Turkish forces overran the area along with a third of the island. As with all the properties in the seaside town, it sits empty and derelict, save for a small UN-manned outpost at its entrance.

Bar a handful of visitors, the district looks like a film set waiting for the director to call ‘action’. Gutted hotels and dilapidated houses, left to crumble for half a century, flank newly tarred streets with freshly painted bicycle lanes. Broken windows and faded shopfront signs remain partially hidden by decades of unattended and overgrown foliage. It is a town frozen in time, much like the island’s decades-long peace talks, of which Famagusta has always been a key component.

Mrs Nikolou recalls how it was only days after moving into her new marital home that she was back at the Tulip hotel, this time sheltering from the aerial bombardment with her family and hotel guests in the basement.

As ground troops began to approach, she along with the town’s entire inhabitants fled the district altogether for what they thought would be “just a few days”.

After nearly half a century of abandonment, a small part of Varosha is now open for people to visit but there is very little activity and the town remains largely empty with no one allowed into any of the properties for safety reasons. Photo: Silvio Rusmigo / The National

“I never got the chance to go back to my house. My wedding dress was left hanging in my bedroom. Our wedding presents, still unopened, stayed there,” she tells me.

“We said we were going to leave until the planes went away and we would come back, but we never did.”

Just three kilometres away, in the walled-off old city of Famagusta, Serdar Atai tells me that his Turkish-Cypriot father volunteered to tell the inhabitants, many of whom he knew personally, to leave Varosha. He says that years later, when his father recounted the pleading anguish of those desperate not to leave, it was the only time he had seen him cry.

Serdar Atai has always lived in the city of Famagusta and was a young boy when conflict erupted and the island was divided. Silvio Rusmigo / The National

A merchant, Mr Atai’s father lived in the ancient enclave - the designated living area for Turkish-Cypriots at the time - but would often go to Varosha to sell his wares and had relatively good relations with Greek-Cypriots despite the uneasy – and intermittently inflamed – coexistence between the two communities.

Like Mrs Nikolou, Mr Atai also sheltered from aerial bombardment during the 1974 conflict, hiding from the shells dropped by Athens-backed forces that preceded those from Turkey. When the Turkish forces took control of Famagusta, Turkish-Cypriots like Mr Atai may have been safe, but he says they felt “the absence of Varosha” all the time.

“Varosha was such a colourful and vibrant place with so many hotels and people and fancy cars. It was shocking to live side by side with this ghost town all these years,” says Mr Atai who runs Masder, the Famagusta Walled City Association.

Deprived of the friendships and lucrative business with their former Greek-Cypriot neighbours, he says the city of Famagusta, once home to a very lucrative port, became a “bird with broken wings.”

“Varosha was not only a kind of commercial artery, it was also a cultural centre, with libraries, theatre clubs, and cinemas. Intellectuals, painters and philosophers would visit all the time. Varosha had an impact on the city, and we ended up losing all this strength.”

Power politics entrenching divisions

The long-standing ethnic divisions within the island often overlook that, for centuries, Greek and Turkish Cypriots lived side-by-side if not together. Politics and not ethnicity, say many Cypriots, is the real divisive factor.

“A lot of us are sure that Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots can live together in peace. If only they had given us the chance, but they are afraid to give us the chance. Both sides,” says Mrs Nikolou.

Reconciliation may appear simple on a civilian level, but the same cannot be said militarily.

At the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force in Nicosia, chief communications officer, Aleem Siddique tells me: “Do not be mistaken by the peace and quiet. There are thousands of armed military forces on either side. This is a frozen conflict that has not been resolved.”

The peacekeeping force, UNFICYP, has been manning the 183km long buffer zone between the two parts of the island since the 1974 ceasefire. The main broker for peace talks between the two political sides – who refuse to talk directly to one another – the international body has always maintained the objective of reconciliation and a comprehensive peace plan.

Consequently, the unilateral decision to reopen Varosha and to invite former residents to return by the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, which remains unrecognised by all but Turkey, was condemned by the EU, US, Russia and the UN for whom “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

“There are a number of issues and concerns that both communities have and if we are to secure a solution here, it's important that both sides consider all of their concerns together,” Mr Siddique tells The National.

“Picking one concern of one community and another concern of another community and trying to resolve these issues separately is not how a solution is going to be found. It needs to be a comprehensive approach.”

Earlier this year the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for an “immediate reversal” of the decision on Varosha, fearing a provocation of tensions that “may compromise the ongoing efforts to seek….a lasting settlement of the Cyprus issue.”

Yet more than 60 years of UN presence on the island has failed to solve one of Europe's longest, most intractable conflicts. Known as the "graveyard of diplomats," the Cyprus solution has never materialised despite numerous rounds of UN-mediated talks.

Mr Guterres met leaders from both sides on September 27 to press for a path forward.

“The time for finding a solution is becoming tighter,” says Mr Siddique. “The situation on the ground is changing and there is a slow shift taking place within the status quo.”

Greek — and many Turkish — Cypriots see the reopening of Varosha and the invitation of former residents to return to their homes as a Turkish Cypriot ploy to cement control of the area and secure implicit acknowledgement of their authority there.

A cultural cleansing is already under way in Varosha – known as Maras in Turkish – with many Greek-Cypriots dismayed to see Greek letters on public buildings plastered over or covered by Turkish flags.

Varosha's main square was home to many public events and the former Greek high school, which is now covered with Turkish flags.  Silvio Rusmigo / The National

“This is very humiliating and disrespectful. I feel this on behalf of my friends as well, the Greek-Cypriot refugees, because we never wanted it to be like this,” says Mr Atai who is a vocal advocate for the return of Varosha’s Greek-speaking refugees to their homes.

Those longing to go home must reconcile themselves with living under Turkish administration and the possible erasure of their past.

“Many people don't want to come, because we can, but we're not free. But I want to come because it's where I was born,” Mrs Nikolou tells me.

Property rights remain contentious

Property rights are another contentious and unclear area, with thousands of Greek-Cypriots having claims to land, homes and hotels in an area they haven’t been able to access for decades.

Andreas Lordos was only 6 when his family fled Varosha. The son of well-known Cypriot property and hotel owner, Constantinos Lordos, the family owned over 60 properties in the seaside district and have filed legal claims for compensation at the European Court Human Rights.

Almost all the properties in Varosha are empty and dilapidated. Visitors today can only look at the properties from behind a barrier rope. Silvio Rusmigo / The National

Mr Lordos says he would happily return home “at the first opportunity.”

“A lot hinges on Famagusta, which can be a trigger. It can either bring the island together, or it can take it apart,” he tells me, at his home in Nicosia.

The derelict state of the town raises more questions about who will pay for the infrastructure and reconstruction needed to make it habitable.

“What is at stake is the life of the 80-year-old grandma, who will need 40,000 euro [$46,000] to fix her house. And Turkey has a moral dilemma. Do I really want to, let's say take 40,000 euro from Grandma, who was a young girl when she left his place?”

Public action versus political will

For pragmatists like Mr Lordos, the answers are a matter of political will, or lack thereof.

“Now that the city is opening, the political leadership finally has to place itself clearly. What have you been doing for all of these years? Have you been helping or not?”

“There is no magic day in anybody's life, where you wake up one day and all of your dreams have come true. Famagusta is a step in the right direction. It's a beautiful thing waiting to happen. And there is no reason why you couldn't say it's a win win for everybody,” Mr Lordos tells The National.

Many members of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities feel that it is their respective leadership entrenching the historical animosity between them while they themselves seek ways of integration and unity.

Mr Lordos, Mrs Nikolou and Mr Atai are all connected with former residents of Famagusta on a Facebook group aimed at coming up with a “compromise solution” to make the abandoned area peacefully inhabited once again.

Their connections have resulted in many bicommunal meetups, some which have recently taken place in Varosha itself.

Mr Atai has been engaged in civil society and bicommunal work in Famagusta since the early 1990s. He set up the Famagusta Initiative, an NGO focused on bicommunal activities with a focus, among other things, of returning Varosha to its legal owners under UN control. The Initiative’s work led to the reopening of the medieval Ayios Georgios Eksorinos church in 2013 for its first Greek Orthodox service in 56 years.

That a Turkish-Cypriot was behind the push to reopen the church is testament to the possibility of moving beyond historical acrimony and present-day politics towards an equitable solution. It will require the solidarity of both sides says Mr Atai. And that may be precisely how the complicated reopening of Varosha can still turn the town from being a trigger for tensions into an example of reconciliation.

Updated: September 30, 2021, 1:04 PM