NEWS

Cyprus land ownership remains a divisive issue

NICOSIA – One man returned to his home to find a football pitch in its place, another found his in a military zone and can view it only from the distance, and a third found his had been turned into an apartment block. Cyprus’s land ownership has been a tangle of controversy since the island split into two in 1974 and population shifts left huge tracts of property abandoned. The thousands of Greek and Turkish Cypriots who have breached Cyprus’s divide in recent weeks to see places off limits to them for years have similar tales to tell. The first thing many did was rush to their ancestral homes, found them occupied by strangers and returned depressed. «I haven’t thought about anything else for three weeks,» confessed Miranda Pavlou, a Greek-Cypriot refugee from northern Nicosia. Miranda, newly married when she fled 30 years ago, took a trip down memory lane when she found her bed – with the bedspread bought the day before she got married – and her dowry tea cups and silver spoons in her cabinet. «I don’t consider this my home anymore. I should be somewhere else,» she said of her small house in southern Nicosia where she brought up three children on a refugee estate. Divided since a Turkish invasion in 1974 following a brief Greek-inspired coup, land ownership is the most complex element of a convoluted problem which no amount of mediation has resolved. Peace talks on a UN peace plan calling for power-sharing between Greeks and Turks and a redistribution of land collapsed in March. Since partition, Greek-Cypriot property in northern Cyprus has been distributed among settlers from Turkey and Turkish Cypriots who moved from the south. Turkish-Cypriot estates in the south fall under a government-appointed trustee, which leases to Greek-Cypriot refugees. They will have to give them back if there is a settlement. «Nobody can usurp another person’s property,» Andreas Christou, Cyprus’s Interior Minister, said. «Everything is documented, down to the last square foot.» Most of the Turkish Cypriots who run an unrecognized state in 37 percent of Cyprus favor a property swap or compensation. The system would maintain ethnic majorities on each side of the island with little intermingling. However, lawmakers are mindful of a complex legal precedent putting Turkey in the dock for violating Greek Cypriots’ ownership rights with its continued occupation of northern Cyprus. The European Court of Human Rights ruling upheld the residency rights of the applicant and has told Turkey to pay damages. The verdict paved the way for many similar complaints. Displaced persons can also use the case to mount a legal challenge to any settlement imposing restrictions on property access, or, in the case of the latest UN plan, limits on the number of people allowed back to their homes. «This case is the symptom of the malaise, the Cyprus problem,» said Achilleas Demetriades, a human rights lawyer who won the case against Turkey. «The most important thing for the Cypriot people is the question of their property. It is not the constitution, how the state will be run, but the property.» Turkish Cypriots say that in future, they want to adjudicate legal disputes at the domestic first court of recourse for complaints. «The Court of Human Rights should be a last resort, Greek Cypriots should apply only after they have applied to domestic courts,» said Zaim Necatigil, an adviser at the Turkish-Cypriot foreign affairs ministry. Necatigil said that with the present easing of crossings, it would be easier for Greek Cypriots to have access to the Turkish-Cypriot legal system. Titina Loizidou, the Greek Cypriot who won the case against Turkey, will be paid compensation but it will be a one-off from Ankara, he said. «Turkey will make a declaration that it does not accept the precedent when the compensation is paid, and it will announce the formation of a system of domestic legal remedies,» Necatigil said. Legislation being prepared in northern Cyprus calls for the establishment of an independent property commission to deal with Greek-Cypriot claims. Even so, people are unlikely to give up their property easily and the Cypriots’ love for their land is well documented. People shun rents, work a lifetime to pay for a home, and throw in a house when the daughter of the family gets married. «Have you met a Cypriot who does not want their property? I haven’t,» Demetriades said.