19 February 2013

The Cyprus Barrier

Greeted with a mural of a hand dripping with blood, I feel like I don't even need to understand the words, presumably in Turkish, beneath it. This in itself is enough to impart a haunting feeling throughout my time exploring this eerie ghost land.



The border between the Republic of Cyprus and the northern Turkish-controlled section of the island boasts a bewildering array of official military blockades manned by armed guards in some areas, while in others flimsy sheet metal is piled just high enough to block the view to and from the other side.

Photography is of course strictly forbidden in this area, or so a sign reminds me as I tread nervously past, camera over my shoulder in plain view. Hiding it in a bag is an option, but it's always good to have the look of a confused tourist in this area, should you accidentally explore further than you're permitted to.

The Republic of Cyprus has been divided since 1974, with the northern half being declared by its community as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. This move has not been officially recognised by the United Nations, which has declared it illegal. As such, the 'official' name for the northern half of the island is only recognised by Turkey and its inhabitants.

Although the area is not what would typically be described as a seventh heaven, there is something inherently captivating about picking a deserted street and trudging down it until you find the road has been blocked off.
Those with any interest in history or conflict will find the border an exhilarating place to visit, and those without any prior awareness of the Cyprus divide will undoubtedly find themselves wanting to expand their knowledge, even if they find the experience a little nerve-jangling at first.

The difference between the two sides of the island would be evident even if there was no physical border. Spires of churches dot the skyline of the Greek side of the island, and mosques dominate the landscape of the Turkish side, perhaps the most poignant reminder of not only the physical barrier between the two communities, but the social differences the two are now divided by.

Stumbling across the most perplexing sight at the border, my eyes are forced to do a double-take as they notice a basketball hoop erected just metres from the dull yellow brick border. A bright red and clearly very serious sign sits just behind it, designating the land past the wall a forbidden area. My mind can't help but wonder who would play basketball in such a place. It also can't help but hope that whoever does play here is a confident shot; I for one would not want to fetch the ball from across the boundary after a stray throw.
But this is not the most surreal sight to process in this man-made area of desolation - it doesn't even come close to the mysterious ghost-town of Varosha. Indeed, there is no real mystery about why Varosha, once a lively tourist suburb of Famagusta on the east side of the island, is now devoid of human life - aside from the Turkish army patrols, that is.

But that doesn't stop you feeling a real air of apprehension and mystery when you gaze at its crumbling buildings.

After the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974 the area was fenced off and no-one except Turkish and UN forces has been allowed to enter since.

Simply looking through binoculars from the edge of the exclusion zone tells you more than about the impact of the conflict than anything else ever could. Clothes which were left hanging out to dry and then hastily abandoned by their former owners still flap softly in the gentle breeze and bushes grow by the road side and up the walls of the once busy hotels.

Cracks in the roads reiterate the amount of time that has passed since anyone cared for this town, and how nature can so quickly reclaim what was taken from it.

A frail yet enthusiastic local man, Alexis, told me he visited 'the fence' to view Varosha once a month, and explained how he had seen the buildings and infrastructure decay over the past 34 years.
“For a long time after they sealed it off you could still see the lights shining brightly, that's until they grew darker, eventually to a red colour and burnt out of course,” said the 74-year-old. “After such a long time I can notice when things fall or change from the last time I was here, and I keep coming back to remind myself that nothing should be taken for granted in this world, especially here.”

Looking through my binoculars one last time at the hollow, deserted hotels once bustling with tourists, and the derelict houses formerly home to generations of families, I can't help but agree with him.

is a regular traveller and loves getting to know the locals whenever she's abroad.

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