Cypriots cross the Green Line for the first time in 29 years

NICOSIA – Hundreds of Cypriots took the first chance in decades yesterday to cross a ceasefire line on their divided island under a Turkish-Cypriot scheme denounced by Greek-Cypriot officials as a ploy to avoid a real peace deal. «I feel like I am living a dream,» said 50-year old Turkish Cypriot Emete Altuner, walking with her husband and two daughters on a day trip to the Greek-Cypriot south. Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash on Tuesday authorized opening checkpoints on the so-called truce «Green Line» for day trips, hoping to bolster confidence between the two sides after the collapse of UN-brokered peace talks last month. Greek Cypriots on the Mediterranean island – divided since 1974 – rejected his move as purely symbolic. An anticipated flood of people was initially just a trickle crossing a checkpoint in the divided capital of Nicosia. But Greek and Turkish police on either side of a UN-policed corridor at a Nicosia checkpoint later had to call in reinforcements when long queues built up. [Greek-Cypriot authorities said that by 6 p.m., 1,600 Turkish Cypriots had crossed into the south and 700 Greek Cypriots had entered the north.] «I have been waiting for 29 years, I can wait a bit more,» said Greek-Cypriot driving instructor Iakovos Nikitaras, 48, sitting patiently in his white van at the northern Turkish-Cypriot checkpoint with his wife Maria. The sight of Turkish and Greek Cypriots walking back and forth across the line is unprecedented for many. Grassroots contact has been kept to a minimum. The Green Line, manned by troops on either side, has separated the Turkish-Cypriot north and Greek-Cypriot south since a Turkish invasion in 1974 countered a brief Greek-Cypriot coup backed by Athens. A self-declared Turkish-Cypriot state in the north is recognized only by Turkey. Turkey seized more than a third of the island and repeated diplomatic efforts to reunite it have failed. About two-thirds of the island’s total 750,000 population are Greek Cypriots. The proposed UN peace deal collapsed last month in arguments about land and population exchanges, ending hopes that a united Cyprus, rather than just the Greek-Cypriot part, could join the European Union in May 2004. Adrian van der Meer, EU ambassador on the island, said of Denktash’s latest move, «Things like this should be part of a comprehensive settlement.» Greek-Cypriot officials, while not directly discouraging visits to the north, issued a pointed reminder that it would be «unthinkable» for Cypriots to hand over passports to Turkish Cypriots to visit their own country. Many shrugged off the warning and presented their passports, which were not stamped. «What I am doing has nothing to do with politics. I just want to visit my occupied home,» one Greek Cypriot said. Kemal Yorgancioglu, 78, said he was crossing into the south with his two sons for the first time since the island was partitioned to visit some old Greek-Cypriot friends. «This is a beautiful day. We grew up on that side. It will be the first time I cross in 29 years,» he said. Some had no patience for long lines. Two Turkish Cypriots were spotted clambering down a medieval wall encircling the capital into the Greek-Cypriot south. The first Greek Cypriot was allowed through three hours after the checkpoint opened. A group of Turkish Cypriots on the other side applauded as he entered. «I want to go to Ledra Street… to the Haleppi cake shop,» said Altuner, giggling as she named a once well-known tearoom in southern Nicosia. But things change – Ledra Street is now a chic thoroughfare boasting Western chains such as Woolworths, Next and the Body Shop. The cake shop is long shut and is now a Chinese takeaway.