A delicate Cypriot equilibrium

RIZOKARPASO – Greek and Turkish Cypriots, divided by language, religion, a history of violence and now a UN ceasefire line, have in common at least the Mediterranean cafe tradition. The habit of whiling away the hours over conversation and thick, sweet coffee, though, is shared across a tense distance. In Rizokarpaso, one of the last villages on the island where the two communities still live side by side, cafe owner Nikos Shandi spoke proudly of how he and other Greek Cypriots still use the 600-year-old Orthodox church just down the street. However, gesturing with his chin across the street to where six young men sat watching from the veranda of a cafe with a sign in Turkish, Shandi said he couldn’t take a visiting reporter to the stone-domed church for fear his neighbors would see it as «provocation.» The watchers, immigrants from Turkey who now consider themselves Cypriot, even if some Greek Cypriots don’t, were just as eager as Shandi to offer a guest refreshment and their own stories. Rizokarpaso, in the self-proclaimed but internationally shunned Turkish-Cypriot breakaway state in the northern third of the island, has a mirror image in the village of Pyla in the UN buffer zone dividing the north from the Greek Cypriot-dominated south. Pyla prides itself as a model of cooperation between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, but the two sides mostly keep to their own cafes. In the main village square, one cafe decorated in the blue and white of the Greek flag and another in the red and white of the Turkish flag are close enough for shouted greetings – should the Greek Cypriots care to look up from their card games or the Turkish Cypriots from their pool table. Pyla, long home to both Greek and Turkish Cypriots, somehow escaped the worst of the communal fighting that reached its height in the 1960s and erupted again to propel the mass displacements of 1974. «The logical people on both sides managed to prevail» in Pyla, said 81-year-old Costas Mitides, a former Greek-Cypriot headman in the village who sipped a cup of mint tea in the Greek-Cypriot cafe. «There was tension, because there were some people who wanted to create trouble – young people who became influenced by the leaders. It’s not their fault, they got carried away by the politicians.» Mitides says it’s easier to relax in a place where everyone speaks your language, so separate cafes are natural. But it’s just as natural, he added, for he and his lifelong Turkish-Cypriot friend, Mustafa Ahmed, to sit together at the Greek-Cypriot cafe. Ahmed, 79, says with a laugh that they mostly chat about farming and old age – in Greek. «Most of the Turks speak Greek but, unfortunately, not many Greeks speak Turkish,» Mitides said. Across the square, Ahmed Sakalli, Pyla’s Turkish-Cypriot headman, was drinking a coffee. Pyla, home to about 750 Greek Cypriots and 550 Turkish Cypriots, holds separate elections of Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot voters for its two headmen. Turkish Cypriots in Pyla don’t pay taxes to demonstrate their opposition to the Greek Cypriot that has administrative responsibility for their village; they get government services but Sakalli complains the distribution of resources is unfair. The two-village-in-one system keeps the peace, he said, noting that since late April, when Turkish-Cypriot authorities for the first time since 1974 began allowing free travel across the divide, Turkish Cypriots have been coming to Pyla to marvel at its calm. The easing of travel, which saw tens of thousands cross from both sides, will help build trust between the two communities, Sakalli said – «but it takes time.» In the north, on the unspoiled Karpas Peninsula that juts east toward Syria, the new travel rules have meant an influx of southerners headed through Rizokarpaso to visit the Monastery of Apostolos Andreas, or St Andrew. Turkish-Cypriot authorities in the past often barred Greek Cypriots from the popular pilgrimage destination. Shandi, the 69-year-old owner of Rizokarpaso’s last Greek-Cypriot cafe, says he feels more comfortable seeing his tables filled with visitors from the south. His children, who in the past could come only after a lengthy process of applying to Turkish-Cypriot authorities for permission, also have visited since the travel rules changed. «They came to visit, but we want them to stay,» Shandi said. Rizokarpaso was once a Greek-Cypriot village of about 6,500, Shandi said. That has dwindled to about 225 Greek Cypriots, most of them elderly and male, staying to try to hold onto property. The Greek Cypriots now have no say in running the village. Immigrants from Turkey are the majority of Rizokarpaso’s 4,000-5,000 people, tending olive trees planted by Greek Cypriots and grazing goats and sheep on land which Greek Cypriots say was stolen from them after the Turkish invasion. Turkish-Cypriot authorities have allowed Greek Cypriots with documented rights to homes and farms to stay in Rizokarpaso, but have made it difficult. Children of those who remain must leave when they reach 16, dividing families. The officially sponsored influx from Turkey has heightened tension because the immigrants know that Greek-Cypriot property claims undermine deeds issued by Turkish-Cypriot authorities. Shandi said fights between the two sides aren’t uncommon. The presence of the immigrants is one of the major difficulties to a settlement of the Cyprus problem. UN resolutions say they must go, but the Turkish side says they have the right to stay. Shandi, the Greek-Cypriot cafe owner in Rizokarpaso, said he has resisted efforts by the Turkish immigrants to drive him out – including physical violence. «I don’t want to leave. This is my place. I was beaten up 37 times and still I stay. This is my home,» he said. Across the street in their cafe, immigrants like Mehmet Demirjili, who was 12 when his family came here in 1975, vehemently deny they attack or try to intimidate the town’s Greek Cypriots. Demirjili noted it was the Greek Cypriots’ 1974 coup intended to unite the island with Greece that spurred Turkey’s intervention. «It was the Greek Cypriots who caused the problem, and after the war, we came here,» Demirjili said. «It’s become our home here. We have children born here.» His neighbors, listening grave-faced on the cafe patio, nodded in agreement.

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