by Sanjena Sathian:
Hey cousin! Which way do you want to go?”
Mustafa Tunçbilek calls his best friend, Marios Epaminondes, “cousin.” The two could be related—their voices betray a similar calm demeanor, and both have the tall build and tan skin common to residents of the sunny island of Cyprus. As they walk, they fall into step with one another, Mustafa’s graying hair and beard next to Marios’s still-boyish smile and dimpled face, two sets of broad shoulders bobbing through the city next to one another. They meet several times a week to walk together, exploring side streets and old buildings in their native city of Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus.
This is a divided city, and they are walking through a war zone. But to Marios and Mustafa, it is just an evening stroll.
Though Marios, a southern Cypriot, and Mustafa, a northern Cypriot, have both lived a few miles apart from each other in Nicosia for most of their lives, they met by chance only seven years ago, a week after the border splitting the divided city in half was opened in 2003.
“My friend called me at 11:00 one night and said, ‘tomorrow they will let us cross,’” Mustafa recalled of the border opening. “I went the first day on my cycle. I lost ten kilos in one month cycling back and forth so much.”
Today, they are inseparable, and their friends say their familial titles for one another are fitting. They are members of the 20 percent of Cypriots who reportedly have a close relationship with someone from the other side of the island. The two men have become amateur tour guides of Nicosia, letting visitors from abroad, friends, and friends of friends join on their walks around the city.
“We are just friends, nothing formal,” Mustafa explained with a shrug. He stood in front of an old inn from Ottoman times just over the border into the north.
“Some people hear, other people hear—word of mouth. And we just walk.” His demeanor matched his insistence that his walks are casual, as he leaned on his elbow and scratched his graying stubble, one knee slung up on a bench.
“I one day realized, I don’t know so much about the north,” Marios added. “People started to go for a walk with me—they wanted me to escort them to the north, some of them going to the north for the first time. Then other people wanted to come.”
As casual as their walks are, not everything is normal, and Marios is not the only southern Cypriot who had little to no knowledge of the mysterious other side of the island.
At just under 9,250 square kilometers, smaller even than the state of Connecticut, the island of Cyprus is burdened by a single line drawn down its middle: the Green Line, or the United Nations buffer zone, which divides the island in two.
On an evening in early May, Marios and Mustafa arrived at one of the pedestrian crossings that allows Cypriots to cross between the north and south. The two men showed identification twice: once to leave the southern Republic of Cyprus, and once more, mere feet later, to enter the northern “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC).
The TRNC in the north is an illegal entity, recognized only by Turkey. The border crossing is technically meaningless by all standards of international law. To the outside world, the entire island is de facto the Republic of Cyprus: a wealthy, E.U. member state. On the island, however, the divide between north and south is pronounced. Crossing the border, no matter how casually Marios and Mustafa do it, means entering another world.
One evening, Marios and Mustafa walked aimlessly through the southern part of the city together until Marios had to depart, leaving Mustafa in foreign territory. Mustafa continued the walk on his own, stopping outside museums to examine maps of the old city and pausing by historical monuments that document the Cypriots’ independence from the British in 1960.
Mustafa stopped at a sign demarcating “The District of Kythrea.”
“That district is in the north,” Mustafa said. “They put this sign up here to remember it. But in the north now it has a new Turkish name, Degirmenlik.”
These strange, haunting districts are all over the southern part of Nicosia. When the bloody partition forced Greek Cypriots to the south and Turkish Cypriots to the north, families abandoned their old villages. Even today, some southerners whose old villages are in the north call themselves “refugees.” History operates on this island with layers of writing and re-writing and coat after coat of anger.
There are plenty of reasons for anger stemming from this conflict. The legacy of war has left no shortage of loose ends to be tied up. The approximately 180,000 southerners who were forcibly evacuated during the partition want their property back; they refer to the northerners as illegal occupiers of their land and to themselves as refugees. Mustafa and Marios find themselves today working on opposing sides of this very dispute. In their day jobs, they are both civil servants. Marios works to help restore Greek Cypriot land lost in partition; Mustafa’s job is to allot unoccupied northern land, considered stolen in the south, to farmers and immigrants. Their daily lives are a constant reminder of what they have been told to hate. And yet they shrug off the burden of their respective histories each day to walk side by side through the city.
Negotiations between both sides continue, and the international community keeps trying to lend a hand. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) runs a project in wealthy Cyprus; resources are devoted to funding NGOs with a wide variety of missions—some bring together young filmmakers in bi-communal activities, while others target history teachers or architects—in the absence of any real development work to do. The United Nations also maintains a peacekeeping mission in Cyprus, and has since 1964: Its official mission is to maintain the status quo. The job for peacekeepers is quiet, and islanders joke that they should be called “beachkeepers.” Yet the operation, one of only 15 drawing from the UN’s limited pool of 100,000 peacekeepers, costs 56 million dollars a year. Cyprus and Greece shoulder a little less than half of the financial burden together, while the rest comes from the pockets of U.N. member states.
The international attention focused on this island is heavy. But for the islanders, there is little sense of urgency. Many southerners live as though the north doesn’t exist; they travel to Greece and the United Kingdom for expensive educations abroad, but they won’t cross a few miles to the north. And many northerners enjoy the advantages of having E.U. passports, not to mention health and social security benefits, without paying taxes to the south. The “conflict” is on everyone’s tongue, but in the languid summer heat, time moves like molasses, and a solution seems always to hang just out of reach.
“Forty years of a U.N. mission, and for what?” Mustafa asked Marios as they stopped to gaze at a large gold-bronze statue of a wolf in the north commemorating the Turkish Resistance Movement (TMT), a group of freedom fighters who are idolized by the north but known as terrorists in the rest of the world. He listed the members of the international community whose peripheral vision always includes sunny Cyprus: The United States uses British bases on the island as a strategic way to have access to Syria. The E.U. cares more and more, now that Cyprus is a member and Turkey wants to join as well. The U.N. Turkey. Greece. “This is the most militarized piece of land on earth when you think about how small it is,” Mustafa said.
The conflict continues inertially. Violence seems unlikely, but resentments remain intact, and they continue as younger generations are taught to hate the other side by angry parents, grandparents, even history teachers. On this strange island, full of stubborn, impossible hatreds, Mustafa and Marios share some kind of tranquility that seems to make them impervious to the passive hatred surrounding them.
One evening, Marios and Mustafa settled along a stone ledge in the north and looked down into the buffer zone. The hot summer day was beginning to cool a bit, and they turned to look at the line dividing their lives: They could see, in the distance, the abandoned Ledra Palace Hotel, at the central crossing point of the buffer zone, and closer, a wide soccer field with a thick running track around it. Blue berets, the uniform of the U.N. peacekeepers, dotted the field, pacing in smart, crisp step. But their pomp and ceremony seemed strange against the quiet of the evening. A child of six or seven, playing soccer in the street, lost his ball as it catapulted over the wall into the U.N. territory. With a laugh, he scampered down the steep wall, retrieved the ball and hurried back to his side. The blue berets turned to watch and then continued their march.
All was calm in the war zone.