The Turkish Cypriot leadership’s response to Cyprus’s formal accession to the European Union (EU) on 16 April has surprised the Cypriot government, stunned both Greek and Turkish Cypriots and transformed politics on the island.
On 21 April, Sardar Denktash, son of the veteran Turkish Cypriot leader and deputy premier, declared the opening of three crossing points on the Green Line — dividing north from south — within 36 hours. For the first time in 30 years Turkish Cypriots would have the right to enter the south and Greek Cypriots would have the chance to visit the north. Green Line posts would open from nine in the morning till midnight on a daily basis.
While the Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash had put forward a six-point proposal — including just such a measure, at the beginning of April — unilateral implementation had been anticipated by no one. The day after the announcement, confusion abounded. Nobody knew whether the order would be published in time and there was speculation that it would be postponed. UN peace-keepers, who control the 220-kilometre cease-fire line, and the buffer zone separating the two sides, had no contingency plans to handle such an event.
The Greek Cypriot government, which has always maintained that all Cypriots should have unfettered freedom of movement, did not know what to think, say, or do. Everyone watched, waited and hoped for the best. No one foresaw how Cypriots would react.
Shortly after seven on the morning of 23 April, Fikryit Ahmet Mavroupi, an elderly Turkish Cypriot grandmother from Potamia, the republic’s sole remaining Turkish Cypriot village, showed her identity card to the police at the Greek Cypriot post and walked slowly through the buffer zone to the Turkish Cypriot checkpoint. “I just want to go and see my sick grandchild,” she told police on duty. They ignored her. Eventually, she sat down on a bench surrounded by journalists and television crews and waited. Later, a Greek Cypriot couple turned up. They, however, were informed that they wouldn’t be able to cross. It was a holiday on the Turkish side and immigration staff had not come to work. Other hopefuls were also at the checkpoint and, eventually, a high ranking official gave the order to let them through. The first Turkish Cypriot to cross, Hasan Pala, an artist, strode by the barrier at half past nine.
News of the opening spread rapidly, both by word of mouth and live television coverage. By noon there were hundreds of people clamouring to cross in both directions. Greek Cypriots were allowed to take their cars as long as they bought insurance. Turkish Cypriots, on the other hand, came on foot as no arrangements had been made for the entry of their cars.
With every passing day the crowds grow larger. Thousands of Greek Cypriots took advantage of the four-day Orthodox Easter holiday to visit former homes, the lovely port of Kyrenia, the derelict walled city of Famagusta, and the Monastery of the Apostle Andrew at the tip of the Karpass Peninsula. Eventually, the UN and authorities on both sides improved their organisation of the whole process. The Cypriot government laid on free buses to take Turkish Cypriots to their destinations until arrangements could be made for them to bring their cars to the south.
For Cypriots, 23 April was the day the Green Line was breached, an event comparable to the day the Berlin Wall fell. For now, the line remains, with its coils of razor wire, ramshackle stretches of brick wall and minefields. But the moment Hasan Pala crossed from north to south, the raison d’étre for the line vanished: he showed that Turkish Cypriots do not believe the two communities must be separated to be secure. Those who followed him reject Rauf Denktash’s view that the “two communities cannot live together.” Separation and de facto partition have made Cypriots realise they can get along if allowed to meet and mingle. Indeed, before it enters the EU on 1 May, 2004, the island’s politicians (and the generals in Ankara) must find a way to put Cyprus back together again.
Sardar Denktash is not rooted in the past. He says that the new policy is not a substitute for a political settlement but hopes that this will make it easier to come to an agreement.
The single event which has brought about this change of policy in Ankara, which calls the shots in northern Cyprus, was the accession of Cyprus to the EU. Once Cyprus becomes a full EU member it will have the power to veto the opening of EU accession negotiations with Ankara. Furthermore, the US and EU have been exerting considerable pressure on Turkey to show the international community that it is ready to resolve the Cyprus problem.
The government of Cyprus is also set to announce a package of confidence-building measures, including the reopening of trade between the two communities and granting permission to Turkish Cypriots to work in the south.
Both communities have found the crossings highly emotional. Greek Cypriots returned to homes left in 1974 and met their present occupants. Most were welcomed, and offered coffee and flowers from gardens they once tended. Some were given family photos that they had left behind. Greek Cypriots also visited churches and cemeteries that were vandalised by the Turkish army and Turkish Cypriot militias.
Turkish Cypriots also went to see their homes, now inhabited by Greek Cypriot refugees. Under Cypriot law, Turkish Cypriots can reclaim their property if they so wish.
In the south, mosques have been maintained and Muslim cemeteries have not been desecrated. The Cypriot government remains, as far as international law is concerned, the government of all Cypriots, and has taken these responsibilities seriously.
A Greek Cypriot friend, who visited his village last weekend, was greeted warmly by the Turkish Cypriots living in his ancestral home. “This is your home,” he was told, aware that, under Turkish Cypriot law, he could never take possession. He returned from the north with a Turkish-Greek pocket dictionary. As we walked from north to south he finally said, “I must be able to speak to them. I must be able to understand Turkish. We are one people.”