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Varosha, ghost city of Cyprus (Photo: iStock)
Varosha, ghost city of Cyprus (Photo: iStock)

Opinion | A ghost town’s testimony to the trauma of partition

Little stirs in the Varosha quarter of Famagusta, sealed off since Turkish and Greek forces split Cyprus in 1974, except rabbits, cats, bats and tortoises that crawl up its beach to lay eggs

Running like an ugly scar across 180km of this 240km-long island, the yellow line that divides Cyprus between Greeks and Turks is not just a reminder of the dark memories of a bloody episode in this country’s life, but also a reminder of how partition increases distance. In many ways, it is a mirror image of an India-Pakistan kind of conflict playing out in this tiny Mediterranean island.

Turkish troops attacked Cyprus on 20 July 1974, ostensibly to save Turkish Cypriots from ethnic cleansing. Parts of northern Cyprus were bombed out and occupied by the Turkish army. The island was partitioned between Orthodox Christian Greeks and Muslim Turkish Cypriots. In 1983, the Turkish Cypriots declared themselves a separate country. Since then, peace has returned, allowing tourists and people from both sides to cross over on day-long visas. The United Nations monitors these crossings that many Cypriots use for work or to revisit the days gone by. Many Cypriots get emotional at the thought of what has been lost in this fratricidal conflict. “Graves of our ancestors are on the other side and we cannot visit them," people in Nicosia will tell outsiders.

Change is visible everywhere, except in the coastal city of Famagusta, once the busiest port of the Ottomans that supplied goods to the silk route. The Varosha quarter of Famagusta, famous for its beaches and a symbol of Hedonism, has been sealed off since 1974. This beach town is a virtual ghost town—where no living being moves, except perhaps rabbits, cats and bats. It’s known as a place where tortoises hatch their eggs. Guarded by the Turkish army, no outsider has visited Varosha, except an intrepid British researcher who slipped in stealthily. Paul Dobraszczyk’s account of his two visits tell us what urban annihilation looks like. A north Mediterranean Sea resort with fluffy white sand, Varosha was famous in the 1960s and 1970s for being a playground of the rich and famous—Elizabeth Taylor, Raquel Welch, and Richard Burton among them. Old timers in Nicosia still recall Hollywood goddesses sunning themselves on its beach. When Turkish forces attacked the island, some tourists at the resort were injured as they made a hasty escape along with about 40,000 Greeks to the southern part of the island.

Why did I visit Varosha? Ruin porn holds no appeal for me, as it seems to for many photographers and artists. Nor am I a sci-fi aficionado keen to explore the ravages of, say, a nuclear disaster. My concerns were a bit different. As a globally curious journalist who reports on conflict, I wanted to understand how fault lines in a country could lead to a self-destructive lockdown of a town for 45 odd years by an occupation army. Why was it kept this way? Could this happen elsewhere?

I have not been unfamiliar with Cyprus’s standoff with Turkey. The country was brutally partitioned right down the middle. Nicosia’s main market, Ledra Street, remains split. I was in Nicosia when this street, also known to be the hunting ground of snipers, was reopened in 2008 after 34 years.

Travelling to Famagusta requires a detour through Aiya Napa, the new Ibiza, a beach haven for the young and restless. The old port is not far from the checkpoint one has to negotiate to cross over to the Turkish side. As the European Union does not recognize this port, its cargo is mostly destined for Turkey. A short distance away from the Famagusta wall, a legacy of the Venetian occupation of this city in the middle ages, is Varosha. Its high-rise buildings, though decrepit, can be seen from a distance. As one approaches, the enormity of Turkish occupation is starkly visible. Barbed wire, corrugated iron sheets, accompanied by notices in English, Greek and Turkish warn people from entering or even taking photographs. Though it is possible to get close to the famous Palm Beach Hotel, and look at hollowed out buildings, one can only imagine what must have happened to the posh interiors after the Turkish attack.

I try to take an open road into the forbidden zone, but an angry-looking guard stops my car and tells me to turn back. Going around the fenced-off Varosha, it is possible to see inside the wind-battered houses whose occupants left in a tearing hurry, hoping to return, but never could. There are miles and miles of ruins, telling a story with multiple interpretations. Is it how nature will reclaim our highly urbanized world? Pictures taken by Paul Dobraszczsyk are a testimony that the town was unprepared for war or a sudden evacuation. There are garages full of new cars, household cupboards full of clothes—all left behind, never to be recovered.

Many Cypriots wait for the day when they can reclaim their memories and properties in Varosha. The Turkish Cypriot government wants to use the threat to unilaterally build Varosha to negotiate settlement with Greek Cypriots. Even if the Turks get Varosha, it would have to be pulled down and rebuilt as a bi-communal settlement where they can live together with Greeks. Would politics allow that?

Sanjay Kapoor is the editor of ‘Hardnews’ magazine and writes on foreign policy

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