Nicosia: The capital of two nations

October 27, 2009 12:00 am

, NICOSIA, Oct 27 – Shoppers in the capital of the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus sometimes have to take along an extra item with their credit cards and mobile phones — their passports.

Many of those unable to find what they want in the designer shops of the southern part of the city often proceed on foot through the Ledra Street crossing to browse the shopping lanes of the northern side of old Nicosia.

Twenty years after the Berlin Wall fell, symbolising the reunification of Germany, Nicosia is also peaceful and prosperous.

But it remains the world’s only divided capital, partitioned horizontally across its middle after the failure of numerous attempts to agree political reconciliation.

People can and do move freely between north and south on presentation of their passport, whether on business, to go shopping or just to have lunch.

But after 35 years of division that followed the 1974 invasion just 14 years after independence, the island’s ethnic Greek and Turkish communities remain wary of a unification deal which might be worse than the status quo.

In the heart of old Nicosia, the Checkpoint Charlie snack bar is far from a token gesture to the famous crossing point in Berlin. It adjoins the buffer zone separating Greek speakers in the south from Turkish speakers in the north.

A few dozen metres (yards) away stand guard posts where police from both sides monitor people crossing to "the other side."
The Ledra checkpoint is one of six pedestrian and vehicle crossings along the approximately 180-kilometre (112 miles) Green Line that has divided the island from east to west since 1974.

People have only been able to move freely between the two sides since 2003, and some 850 soldiers from the United Nations still patrol the buffer zone dividing the two sectors.

Their mission is to prevent flare-ups between forces of the largely Greek Cypriot Republic of Cyprus, a fully fledged EU and euro currency zone member, and soldiers of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is recognised internationally only by Turkey.

In recent years the peace has been kept so completely that the greatest risk facing the UN soldiers is boredom.

"After a couple of months you can lose motivation because you get frustrated," said Warrant Officer David Provan, a Scottish soldier in charge of training the UN troops.

"If you served in Iraq or Afghanistan and you had a lot of tension, a lot of rockets, explosions, and you come here and it’s quiet you can become frustrated and lose motivation."

Turkey, whose closest coastline is around 60 kilometres (37 miles) from the northern Cyprus shore, invaded in 1974 in response to a coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece.

In the buffer zone of "no man’s land" in Nicosia, all that remains are the shells of once-sumptuous houses, long ago invaded by nature in the form of cacti or fig and olive trees.

Dozens of shops, their metal barriers having last clattered down long ago, stand in rows. In an importer’s garage Japanese cars that were new 35 years before now sleep under a thick layer of dust.

Time also stands still at Nicosia’s former international airport, where fighting raged in 1974.

The stripped shell of a Cyprus Airways Trident airliner, pockmarked with bullets, has languished in the heat on the parking apron off the runway for more than three decades.

On a mountainside north of the capital, the outline of a giant Turkish Cypriot flag 400 metres (yards) across flaunts itself, a daily irritation to Greek Cypriots.

Students and soldiers reportedly painted the flag at night on stones which were then turned back over in the daytime. When their work was complete, the painted stones were all unveiled at the same time — on the day of the Greek national holiday.

At night, an illuminated version of the huge flag twinkles brightly, a constant reminder of the island’s continuing division.

Direct negotiations between Cyprus President Demetris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat began in September 2008 under UN supervision, a renewed bid to secure a deal after previous efforts failed.

But so far the talks have not led to a timetable for a possible deal,let alone any firm unification proposals.

According to Jose Diaz, spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus, "We have a very good chance in this process that we are facilitating now, because both leaders… are very committed to making this process successful."


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