Cyprus is challenged

NICOSIA – From the time she was 4 years old, Neshe Yashin was taught that Greek Cypriots were her enemies. But Yashin, who is now the first Turkish Cypriot to run for the Cyprus Parliament in more than four decades, says that growing up as a child of war also taught her to rebel against the long-held feelings of nationalism that have contributed to the Mediterranean island’s 32-year divide. «I saw my candidacy as a kind of challenge against rising nationalism because I am inviting Greek Cypriots to vote for a Turkish Cypriot,» she told AFP. «What I want is for Cyprus to be reunited.» The 47-year-old poet knows that her own political attempts may prove futile given the island’s polarized climate. She has been unable to engage in campaign debates for the May 21 election because, although she is fluent in Turkish and English, she speaks very little Greek. And she is running on an island where the majority Greek-Cypriot population voted an overwhelming «no» two years ago to a controversial UN reunification plan. Yashin’s candidacy aims «to send a strong message,» said Mikis Shanis, secretary-general of the small pro-reunification United Democrats party on whose list she is running. «Neshe Yashin is a symbol of weary people who dream and who try and who have a vision for reunification,» Shanis said, admitting that her election would «be a revolution for today’s status quo.» Yashin, who once wrote in a popular poem: «One should love one’s homeland/ So says my father/ But my homeland is divided into two/ Which part should I love?» admits she hasn’t really «thought of being elected.» Still, she believes her own personal journey could help stir what she believes has become a stagnant political pot. Her childhood was shaped by a violent tale, told to her by her elders, of how her pregnant mother was snatched by armed Greek Cypriots during 1963 clashes in Nicosia and forced to give birth at gunpoint to a baby boy she later named Savash, or «War» in Turkish. «Afterward we became unhappy because my mother could not recover from this trauma… I had this feeling that we were the victims and they were the perpetrators,» recalled Yashin. But her ideas began to change after Turkish troops invaded in 1974, seizing the northern swath of the island in response to an Athens-inspired coup attempt to join Cyprus with Greece, causing several hundred thousand refugees from both sides to flee their homes. Yashin’s family was moved into what had been the house of a Greek-Cypriot family. Neshe could tell by the clothes and the toys left behind that her new room had been lived in by a younger boy. «I was thinking of these people,» she said. «Where are they are living and why are we are in their house? I felt a little bit like we were thieves taking their belongings, so I started questioning the official narration of history in Cyprus and this helped me to transform.» Yashin obtained her university education in Turkey and returned to live in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus in the mid-1980s. She moved to the government-controlled south in 1997 after being harassed by secret police and briefly imprisoned in the north for her views. «They wanted me to have fear and give up my ideas but it worked the other way,» she said. Her candidacy was made possible after the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2004 that EU-member Cyprus had violated the right to free elections by preventing a Turkish-Cypriot resident of the government-controlled areas from casting a ballot for Greek-Cypriot candidates. Under the quota system established by Cyprus’s 1960 post-independence constitution, Turkish Cypriots could vote only for Turkish-Cypriot candidates, who were allocated around 30 percent of Parliament seats. Their seats, and the post of vice president, have remained vacant since 1963. The 56-member Cypriot Parliament passed a law earlier this year that allowed Turkish Cypriots residing in the south to vote and run in elections for the first time, which government spokesman George Lillikas described as «a very positive sign.» «The constitution was enforcing differences. This is why I give a lot of support to Turkish-Cypriot candidates who will be voted on by Greek-Cypriot voters,» Lillikas said. Dozens of Turkish Cypriots in the north also petitioned for their right to run and to vote, but have been denied because they do not live in the south. Yashin may be able to count on the support of 270 newly registered Turkish-Cypriot voters in the south, but her bid to reunite the island hardly resonates with most of the younger Greek-Cypriot population. According to a poll published last month, 63 percent of Cypriots aged 18-24 said they were against living together with Turkish Cypriots. In contrast, two-thirds of those over 55 said they hoped to end the division. «These young people don’t even know the other side,» said Nicos Peristianis, a sociologist and dean of Cyprus’s Intercollege. «They hear their parents talk about it but it was never their own life so how can you feel strongly about a part of Cyprus that you don’t know?» Yashin’s candidacy makes «a symbolic point, but nobody is going to change their vote for a symbolic reason,» Peristianis said. Aware of her «symbolic» status, Yashin has avoided specifics in her campaign, other than to advocate the «demilitarization» of the island and fresh talks toward a federal solution of the Cyprus problem. «What I see now is that nobody is talking about the future. We are stuck in a stalemate, so anything I say now is not really very realistic,» she said. «If people really elect me it will be a new thing in Cyprus.»