Confronting the past, grasping the future

The election of hardliner Dervis Eroglu as the new Turkish-Cypriot leader on April 18 has put the spotlight on Cyprus amid concern that tentative reunification could be scuppered. His election almost coincided with the one-year anniversary of the establishment on the island of the International Center for Transitional Justice, a nongovernmental organization that attempts to heal the wounds of conflict and human rights abuses. The ICTJ’s country co-directors Christalla Yakinthou and Umut Bozkurt look back on what they have achieved so far and what still needs to be done in the future. It’s been just over a year since the ICTJ launched its Cyprus program. What kind of projects have you been involved in over the last 12 months? U.B.: So far, we have organized workshops where we brought international experts to speak about different aspects of transitional justice. We are also holding regular meetings with a core group of people to discuss the possible strategies that can be carried out for coming to terms with the past in Cyprus. We are also making use of films to bring these issues closer to the public through film screenings and subsequent discussions. Through these activities, we are gradually bringing together and providing transitional justice training to the actors that have a potential to address and deal with the past atrocities. How have local people reacted to your presence? C.Y.: People generally have been interested in our work, they’ve reacted quite positively on the whole. There is very little knowledge in Cyprus of comparative experiences of conflict and overcoming the traumas of war and violence to build a peaceful future. ICTJ has a lot of experience working in countries like Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, Nepal, South Africa, Lebanon and the former Yugoslavia. This means that we can bring different perspectives on how to overcome the scars of war to build a safer future. People are surprised to learn that we can learn a lot from places like Northern Ireland, Lebanon and the former Yugoslavia. Have you sensed a difference in the way the two communities approach your work? C.Y.: If you consider that from 1974 until 2003 the two communities lived completely separated from each other and had no exposure to the other community’s way of seeing the conflict and the past, then you realize that we’re still at a very early stage of understanding the past. This necessarily means that the two communities approach our work with different baggage or expectations. We’re still trying to find a common language to speak to each other with, and there are serious internal conflicts within – as well as between – both sides about how the past is perceived. But a key part of the ICTJ’s work in Cyprus is to help create room for acknowledgement of the past, and specifically of the traumas created that go all the way through both societies – socially and institutionally – because of the war and the way we have dealt with it. A lot of what we’re trying to do is to make space for alternative views about the past to be heard, and for the people who have those alternative views to be as effective as they can be. You run workshops on «truth-telling.» Truth is elusive at the best of times but isn’t it a very subjective concept in a place like Cyprus? C.Y.: Yes, truth is subjective, and contested. And it’s also seen as something that belongs exclusively to one or another group. It’s seen as very zero-sum. One of the primary problems with confronting the past in Cyprus is that for many years, each community’s suffering was highlighted at the expense of the other: So the dominant narrative in the Greek-Cypriot community was one of Greek-Cypriot loss and victimhood at the hands of the Turkish army in 1974. And because for a long time the dominant Greek-Cypriot narrative emphasized that the conflict was a simple matter of invasion and occupation, there were certain other truths that dropped off the radar of community consciousness. To acknowledge that there was a civil war in 1964, that there was violence toward and intimidation of the Turkish-Cypriot community in the years leading to 1974 is deeply problematic. So Greek Cypriots don’t really talk about intercommunal violence before 1974. This also means that a lot of young Greek Cypriots don’t know that there are alternative versions of the «truth» about why we still have the Cyprus conflict, and about what happened in the past. And so the most obvious thing to do is to support people who are already trying to bring out alternative «truths.» And to create a crack in people’s consciousness by showing them truths that they hadn’t acknowledged, or by unpacking the silent spaces in their own truths. The deep fear is that acknowledging a different truth takes away some of the legitimacy of your own interpretation of the past, and of the whole conflict. This is actually really healthy, and what should happen. But the problem is that because people’s identities are deeply entwined with their «truths» about the conflict, and about the past, there is a loss, or a shift in the way people perceive themselves that corresponds to contesting a truth you hold dear. And that’s frightening. When we have to acknowledge that what we know about the past, our community, our world, and therefore also ourselves and the way we have shaped our worlds, is built on half-truths that make «us» into heroes and victims and «them» into monsters, then it forces us to question everything that we hold to be very dear: what we’ve learned and spent our lives believing, our concepts of good and bad, wrong and right, and our understanding of the righteousness of our society (and ourselves) all come crashing down. Overcoming the problem is one of the biggest challenges facing any conflict or post-conflict society. Is time working as a healer on Cyprus or is it just helping division to grow deeper roots? U.B.: I think passing time is just concealing the wound, not healing it. When you talk to people who lost their loved ones, you can sense that their pain is still very raw. As long as divisive practices that go on every day in our lives in schools, public offices, military and courts continue, it is highly unlikely that time will be a healer. You cannot achieve trust and a durable settlement without acknowledging the traumatic experience of both communities. Reunification talks between Dimitris Christofias and Mehmet Ali Talat were steady but slow. Is it difficult to convince people to take a leap of faith and begin trusting each other again when they see their politicians act so cautiously? U.B.: These two societies have not been interacting since 1974 and they have harbored so much resentment against each other. So lack of trust is the main problem that will not be regained even after a political settlement. It will take time and a lot of determination to transform the entire mind-set that divides the two communities. In such an atmosphere, political leaders questioning each other’s sincerity and sometimes acting in a confrontational manner is not helping. Furthermore, the perception that the peace process is not going anywhere and no meaningful progress has been made in the negotiations seems to have created a backlash in the Turkish-Cypriot community. The swing toward the right might hint at a possible rejection of a peace plan by the Turkish Cypriots, which tells us something about the declining trust and faith in a settlement especially if you compare it with the 2004 referendum on the Annan plan. How about the Turkish-Cypriot election result? How do you think it will affect the future of Cyprus and the future of your work on the island? U.B.: Well, it is not a secret that the new [leader of Turkish Cypriots, Dervis Eroglu] is not reconciliatory. Yet now he is operating in a difficult context as the Turkish prime minister openly declared his determination that the negotiations should go on. There are powerful groups in Turkey (like TUSIAD which represent the big conglomerates) that are strongly influencing the policy of the ruling Justice and Development Party toward a settlement in Cyprus, as they are aware that Turkey cannot proceed in negotiations if this problem is not solved due to the Republic of Cyprus’s veto of some chapters that Turkey is negotiating with the EU. Yet there are also groups in Turkey, including some political parties, some institutions and civil society organizations, that are against such a «concession.» So it all depends on whether the Turkish-Cypriot leadership will ally itself with the hawkish groups in Turkey and undermine the peace process or whether it will realize that the conjuncture has changed and there is a need for a settlement in Cyprus not only because it will enable Turkey to join the EU but also because it will stabilize the region. Of course our work will be directly influenced by the course of the events. It will probably be rather difficult to go ahead with it if a nationalist, secessionist atmosphere prevails. C.Y.: Regarding our work, and the work of everyone in our field, I think the need for it will continue regardless of the leadership on either side. The problem is that if nationalism increases on one side, it also increases on the other; it’s a mirror, in some ways. And a lot of this kind of work depends on political good will because people need to feel at least a small degree of safety in the political context in which they are exposing their vulnerabilities. So for us the possibility is that our goals become more modest. Regarding the future of Cyprus, the election represents a genuine reaction in the Turkish-Cypriot community. To me, what it shows is that people on both sides are still very very far from each other, conceptually. Even if we move forward in the negotiating process, and even if we find ourselves with a solution on the table, we need to focus our attention on the fears and expectations that Cypriots have about the future.

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