Cypriot refugees lose hopes of return

NICOSIA – For more than 25 years Andreas Grigoriou has walked up to the edge of the refugee settlement near the Cypriot capital and gazed longingly across the fields at his village in the Turkish-held north of the divided island. «I look at it every day,» said Grigoriou, 77. «My children come here and use telescopes and binoculars trying to see our olive trees.» Grigoriou is one of about 162,000 Greek Cypriots who fled their homes when Turkey invaded the island in 1974. Hopes that some of them may be returning soon were dashed again when the latest round of Cyprus peace talks collapsed earlier this month. And like many of the aging refugees at the Strovolos 2 settlement, hastily built at the edge of Nicosia after the invasion, he fears this means he will never see his home again. «When we moved here, we thought it would be for two or three years,» said 80-year-old Pierris Kyriakou, sipping a small cup of thick coffee at an all-male coffeehouse. «The years go by but people never forget their homes.» His friend, Andreas Aristidou, 74, agrees: «If nothing else, they should bury us there.» International pressure to bring a united Cyprus into the European Union in 2004 had given new impetus to the latest United Nations plan for ending the 28-year division between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The plan foresaw a federated state with power sharing, exchanges of land and population movements. It envisioned 20-30 percent of Greek Cypriots returning to their homes. The lure of sharing EU wealth brought tens of thousands of Turkish Cypriots to the streets, pressing their leader Rauf Denktash to accept the peace plan. But the veteran leader held his ground. On March 11, Denktash told UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan he was rejecting the proposal, once again disappointing refugees who have watched many such UN efforts fail. Denied the world recognition enjoyed by the Greek-led Cyprus government, the breakaway Turkish-Cypriot statelet is recognized only by Turkey, which supports it financially and keeps 30,000 troops there. Living for decades under international sanctions, Turkish Cypriots’ per capita GDP is not even a third of the Greek Cypriots’ $16,000 and inflation in the north is between 50 and 60 percent compared to 3 percent in the south. Denktash, who often invokes violence against his kin by Greek Cypriots in the 1960s as a reason for his caution, rejected the plan, saying it favored the Greeks, who make up more than two-thirds of the 750,000 population. While Turkish Cypriots were shattered to see the chance of international legitimacy and affluence missed, aging Greek-Cypriot refugees were equally disappointed. At Strovolos 2, the old men said they were willing to share wealth with their Turkish kin if they were given back their homes and property in the north. Yiannis Savva, 70, stood by the flowering fields near the refugee settlement, pointing at villages at the foot of the Pentadaktylos mountain range, dominated by a giant Turkish-Cypriot flag painted on its southern slope. He is among those who saw a chance of returning home to his village of Gerolakos if the plan had been accepted. After so many failed efforts, he is not surprised the talks again collapsed but he refuses to give up hope. «If I am alive, I will go back. If I am not, my children will go,» he said. «I would go even under Turkish command. There are no bad people, it’s circumstances that change them.» Mostly older people now live in the rows of cheap, cement brick houses built in 1977 to house the thousands who had spent two years in tents. The younger generation has moved out and built villas or luxury apartments around the settlement. In the bright spring sunshine, women hang laundry in their yards and old men sit at the coffeehouses playing cards and discussing politics after church on a Sunday morning. Most paint Denktash negatively, saying no plan would ever satisfy him, but they remember their Turkish-Cypriot neighbors with fondness. «It’s the great powers that won’t let us live together. I would go back to my village even under Turkish administration,» Savva said. Those Greek Cypriots most scarred by the events of 1974 say they don’t feel secure enough to return. Turkey invaded the island in response to a coup in Nicosia engineered by the military junta then ruling Greece. Both sides lashed out at civilians during the fighting, repeating some of the atrocities committed during intercommunal fighting in the early 1960s, shortly after Cyprus became independent from Britain. Maria Vassiliou was trapped in the north for four months after the invasion, an experience that still wakes her up with nightmares, she said. Sitting on a ledge among blooming potted geraniums, she cries when she remembers the death and suffering she witnessed. «I don’t know if we will ever go back. I would never live under Turkish administration. I’d rather live in this one room,» she said, pointing at her tiny apartment in the settlement. A 2002 municipal survey among the settlement’s refugees showed defeatism, said Lambros Stavrou, one of the psychologists who worked on the study. «They want to have hope but, deep down, most of them know chances of returning home are slim,» he said.

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