Youths occupy buffer zone in bid to reunify Cyprus

Inspired by the global ?Occupy? movement, youths from across the divide in Cyprus have joined forces to set up camp inside the buffer zone that has split the island since 1974, demanding reunification.

After over a week, half a dozen tents are pitched in a few square metres (yards) of the occupied ?public land? along the Green Line crossing point at Ledra Street in Nicosia, Europe?s last divided capital.

Open 24/7, the crossing in the heart of the old town connects the Republic of Cyprus in the south to the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which is recognised internationally only by Turkey.

During the day, a handful of activists man the ?No Borders Camp,? reading or playing music.

In the evening, their number swells to around 50 as students or workers turn up at the end of the day for activities including debates on the future of the island.

Cyprus has been split since 1974 when Turkey occupied its northern third in response to an Athens-engineered coup in Nicosia aimed at union with Greece.

?We took on the world call of the ?Occupy? movement of the 15th of October. We held meetings every Saturday. Then we said: ?Why not occupy the buffer zone?,? said Michalis Eleftheriou, a 26-year-old Greek Cypriot activist.

The aim of the campaign, the group says on its Facebook page, is the island?s reunification, and ?to raise awareness of how the Cyprus problem is but one of the many symptoms of an unhealthy global system.? Since they began the occupation on November 19, the young activists have taken over part of the narrow strip linking the two sides where there was a UN exhibition of photographs marking the passageway?s opening in 2008.

And they have used the flip-side of display panels at the exhibition to spell out their message.

?The dead zone is now alive,? ?All armies OUT of the island,? ?Our interests do not conflict, it?s only one: peace,? and ?Let?s do it Berlin Style,? read the scrawled or spray-painted messages.

Flying up above hangs a banner declaring ?Welcome? in both Greek and Turkish, testament to support for the campaign by youths from both communities despite decades of deep-rooted animosity.

?We think that the solution has to come from the people themselves. We want to raise conscience of the people,? said Rahme Veziroglu, a 26-year-old Turkish activist and veteran of UN-backed bi-communal projects aimed at bridging the divide.

In 2004, Greek Cypriot voters rejected a UN blueprint to reunify the Mediterranean island at a referendum despite overwhelming acceptance by their Turkish counterparts.

This month, UN chief Ban Ki-moon reported ?encouraging progress? at the last round of reunifiation talks in New York between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders, but warned ?there is still work to be done.? In contrast with protesters of the US or Spanish Occupy movements, the Cypriot youths hold no fears of being forcibly evicted from the site, which police forces are not allowed to enter.

The UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus says it tolerates the occupation, the first of its kind since the island?s partition, even though it is the target of some hostile graffiti daubed around the site.

?At the moment, we tolerate their presence, even if it forces us to adjust our patrols,? said UNFICYP spokesman Michel Bonnardeaux.

?We have some sympathy; they are demanding reunification. We have been asking for nothing more, having been deployed here for 37 years,? the spokesman told AFP.

The activists, whether they are from the north or south, rail against the indoctrination of students at schools and military service, which they said widens the gap between the two communities.

They also express regret at the indifference of the broader public over the issue.

?It?s hard to mobilise when young people aspire to have a Mercedes,? laments the Greek Cypriot activist Eleftheriou. [AFP]