Peacemakers gloomy on Cyprus

NICOSIA – After decades of braving insults, harassment and even violence in their efforts to bring rival communities in Cyprus together, peace activists on the divided Mediterranean island finally admit they are demoralized. The failure of a peace plan in a 2004 referendum has left relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots at an all-time low, and international efforts to revive reunification talks seem futile, they say. «We have been through some really hard times but this is the worst it has ever been,» said Greek-Cypriot peace activist Nikos Anastassiou. «The majority of the people involved in these efforts are demoralized.» Divided along ethnic lines since Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 in response to a Greek-Cypriot coup engineered by the military junta then ruling Greece, the island has stymied repeated United Nations reunification efforts. Last week, the UN mission to Cyprus said it was ready to facilitate technical talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, which would be the first official contacts since the referendum. But diplomats and analysts said the talks would most likely avoid the core problems, focusing instead on procedural issues. They rued as a missed chance the reunification plan laid out by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which Greek Cypriots rejected in the referendum two years ago. «The momentum was there for the Annan plan. I don’t think we will have the same momentum again,» said Mete Hatay, a researcher for the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo. The peace brokers remember the days when getting a few Greek and Turkish Cypriots to meet across the barbed-wire Green Line splitting the island was a miracle. They had believed things would get easier after checkpoints were opened for day trips in 2003. But although thousands cross each day to visit or shop, the referendum outcome has pushed the communities further apart. Eager to get international recognition, Turkish Cypriots voted for the UN plan but Greek Cypriots rejected it, dashing hopes of a quick resolution, throwing another hurdle in Turkey’s European Union accession path and cooling its relations with Greece. The Greek-Cypriot-controlled south of the island is the internationally recognized government, representing the whole island in forums such as the EU. The «no» vote was a major blow for the peace activists. It meant that years of work that often drew accusations of treason, ridicule or even violence, had failed to convince the two sides it was possible to live together in a united federation. «We believed we could act as a catalyst,» Anastassiou said. «It’s not that our work failed. It’s just that the dragons we were fighting were too strong.» He sighs as he sits in his living room watching video images of a rare meeting in 2000 of displaced Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot friends and neighbors, getting together after 25 years to embrace and cry, eat and dance. Disappointment «If the UN plan is put back on the table, the timing is no longer there. Even the Turkish Cypriots wouldn’t vote for it now,» he said, echoing opinion polls. Greek-Cypriot fears over financial and military security were fanned by a strong «no» campaign, backed by the government in the south, confident its new EU membership would boost its negotiating position. Despite their disappointment, Turkish-Cypriot activists, who often faced even harsher criticism than their friends in the south, said they felt their work must continue. Even Ilkai Adali, whose husband Kutlu – a Turkish-Cypriot journalist – was gunned down in front of his Nicosia house for what she believes was his peace activism, said she had no regrets over the high price she paid for the peace effort. «My husband was a fighter who wrote about peace and wanted a united Cyprus,» she said. «I don’t feel his sacrifice was in vain. It was worth it.» The primarily Greek island had a Turkish minority of around 18 percent when it won independence from Britain in 1960. Fighting broke out a few years later between the two communities, with Turkish Cypriots retreating into enclaves and UN peacekeepers arriving in 1964. The 1974 Turkish invasion occupied 36 percent of the island with 165,000 Greek Cypriots and 60,000 Turkish Cypriots becoming refugees. About 35,000 Turkish troops are now in the north. Wounds still run deep. Only half of the Greek Cypriots who visited the north since checkpoints opened in April 2003 have made the trip more than once, many finding the sense of loss and memories of war too hard to bear. For years, activists battled widespread fears and the reluctance of authorities, especially in the north, to allow meetings of the two sides. They say getting the two communities together is an essential prelude to any future reunification talks. «We need to reunite as a people, otherwise any plan that is put on the table will fail,» said Turkish-Cypriot Sevgul Uludag, a journalist and activist for 25 years.