NEWS

Turkish settlers in Cyprus are still seeking acceptance

RIZOKARPAZO – «Turkish Cypriots always discriminate against us. We are only remembered at election time,» says a bitter Hatice Yeser, one of the thousands of Turkish mainlanders who settled in northern Cyprus after Turkey invaded the island in 1974. Having lived on the island for three decades, mostly in secluded rural communities, the Turkish settlers are still struggling to find an identity. Are they Cypriots or still just Turks? Looked down upon by Turkish Cypriots as peasants, the settlers attract even less sympathy from Greek Cypriots, especially from refugees who fled to the south after Turkey’s intervention and saw their homes occupied by the newcomers. If Greek Cypriots reject a UN peace plan to reunify Cyprus in a referendum tomorrow, a major reason will be the issue of Turkish immigrants, whose return to Turkey was a priority demand that Greek Cypriots failed to secure. But the settlers, who live mostly in Karpazo – the northeastern tip of the island whose original population was almost entirely Greek Cypriot – say they have labored long enough on the island to claim it as a home. Many are hostile to the UN reunification scheme, which envisages the return of Greek-Cypriot property to former owners. «How can you go away after living 30 years in one place? If they attempt to force us out, we will also respond by force. Greek Cypriots should not expect us to quietly board ships for Turkey,» says farmer Kemal Yilmaz in the village of Aytrias, whose current inhabitants hail from Turkey’s Black Sea region. Membership of the European Union – the prize that breakaway Turkish Cypriots will receive if both they and their internationally recognized Greek-Cypriot neighbors endorse the UN peace plan – is not enough of a sweetener for the settlers. «We do not trust the EU. But if Turkey also joins then it is OK,» Yilmaz says. The immigrant community has long been the stronghold of anti-settlement nationalist parties backed by Turkey. Things seem to be changing, however, now that Ankara has thrown its support behind a settlement in Cyprus in the hope of boosting its own EU membership bid, much to the anger of hardline Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash. A recent opinion poll has suggested that some 50 percent of Turkish settlers – whose number has been the subject of heated debates between the two sides – will back the UN peace plan. More and more settlers are bitterly realizing that they have been merely the guardians of properties they have called «home» for years. The UN plan grants thousands of Greek Cypriots the right to reclaim their properties. Current occupants will be rehoused. Yeser says her family converted the derelict Greek-Cypriot house they acquired into one that «I would not trade for the Buckingham Palace.» She adds, however, «But I know it is not mine and it is not going to be mine.» The 32-year-old will vote «yes» in the referendum because «I want this conflict to end, one way or another.» Greek Cypriots claim that up to 115,000 Turkish mainlanders have been resettled in the north since 1974, while local Turkish Cypriots number only about 90,000. Turkish Cypriots, however, say the figure is overblown. A list of settler voters recently given to the UN listed around 41,000 names. Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos has described the settlers staying as one of the reasons his people should cast a «resounding no» at the referendum. «There is no mechanism in the UN plan for the settlers to go back. There is a 10,000-euro bribe for anyone deciding to leave but who pays this amount is not defined and creates another problem,» a Greek-Cypriot official said.