Turkish-Cypriot villagers mull life in the Greek zone

YESILIRMAK/LIMNITIS – If a UN peace blueprint for divided Cyprus has its way, the villagers of Yesilirmak will switch states without budging an inch. The Turkish-Cypriot village, nestled in the hills near the UN buffer zone that slices across the island, is slated for transfer to Greek-Cypriot administration if the UN plan is approved in fresh negotiations. Residents who remember bitter communal violence in the 1960s and 1970s are apprehensive but resigned about a plan that would create two loosely federated Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot states. «This village fought for freedom, and won. For us to be put back on the Greek side is wrong,» said farmer Ersoy Koycu. «But as a community of 200 people, there isn’t much we can do. We’ll have to go along with it and we’ll give it a whirl.» Yesilirmak, near the island’s west coast and known as Limnitis to Greek speakers, has been a Turkish-Cypriot village for centuries, though its residents’ lives were intertwined with those of their Greek-Cypriot neighbors. But violence that erupted before independence from Britain in 1960 has left a legacy of deep mistrust. Villagers say they twice fought off attacks by Greek-Cypriot guerrillas. When Turkish troops invaded in 1974, Yesilirmak people battled to hook up with them and join the new Turkish-Cypriot enclave. Now Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot leaders are locked in negotiations to reunite their island before it joins the European Union on May 1. Failure would mean only the Greek Cypriots joining the EU, leaving the poorer, less numerous Turkish Cypriots – whose statelet is recognized only by Turkey – out in the cold. The villagers of Yesilirmak are a bargaining chip in intricate plans that envisage the Turkish Cypriots yielding some 7 to 9 percent of their land to the Greek-Cypriot south. Negotiations are still going on but if the UN blueprint is approved in twin referendums set for April 21, the two sides will become the constituent states of a loose federal republic. «It’s a small sacrifice to make for a solution,» said London-based Sahin Osman, whose parents live in Yesilirmak. Yesilirmak is an anomaly. Most towns and villages set for transfer to the Greek-Cypriot state were originally mainly Greek-speaking, and are now inhabited either by Turkish Cypriots who fled the south, or settlers from the Turkish mainland. Nearby Yesilyurt is a case in point. Also proposed for transfer to the south, its refugee residents do not have pre-1974 title deeds to their land and will have to be relocated elsewhere in Turkish Cyprus under the UN deal. «For 30 years, we’ve been trying to make our way in this village and now we’re going to be uprooted again,» said Naziyet Bonen, a shopkeeper who fled her home in Limassol, on the south coast, in 1974. Ali Ozadali, who has plowed good money into farming fruit and vegetables at Yesilyurt, said he was willing to move as long as his family’s welfare was provided for. «We’re worried we won’t get the value of our land,» he said. «And they might give me a wonderful house, but if I can’t work what’s the point?» Back in Yesilirmak, most people are planning to stay. But though most older residents speak fluent Greek as well as Turkish, the younger generation has grown up monolingual and fears being disadvantaged in the Greek-speaking south. And although some people are nervous there could be fresh violence down the line, their more immediate fear is that they could suffer prejudice from Greek Cypriots. «Economically, we could be squeezed out,» Koycu said. «They might pay us less for our produce, or refuse us credit, or build a dam and cut off our water. I see people as people but I’m worried they won’t see me as a person.»