I missed (quite a lot) the sunlight packed with Vitamin D of the Eastern Mediterranean after living in Estonia for two months. Good food, nice beaches, culture…Cyprus is as good as it gets. Well, is it really? I’ll provide you with a little bit of context so you understand what I was doing in Cyprus. Turkey invaded the island in 1974 in order to “protect” the Cypriot Turks from growing ethnic tensions with their Greek counterparts. There was a short war and soon Turkey occupied the northern half of the island. About 40% of Cyprus is still occupied by the Turkish forces forming the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a “de facto” state only recognized by the occupiers, Turkey. The UN tried to mediate in the conflict and it managed to create a “buffer zone” in between both sides of the island. The capital city, Nicosia, is cut almost symmetrically in half by the “Green Line”. In the middle of the Old Town there is a small checkpoint in that allows you to pass into the UN Buffer Zone.
In order to cross from one side to the other you need to show your European ID card or Passport (same for Turkish Cypriots, who can cross from one side to the other without restrictions, apparently). The process took me less than one minute. All of a sudden I was in no-man’s land. Weird. While trying to sneak through the large fences that prevent people from staring at other parts of the buffer zone, I managed to see the old buildings which are frozen in time, reminiscent of the golden days of a united Cyprus back in the 70s. After one minute stroll across the demilitarized area and another checkpoint (this time the Turkish one, same process) I entered the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
There was something funny in the concept of talking to the police of a country that virtually didn’t exist, but somehow existed (I was standing on it). First step: changing money. Yes, they do not take euros as in the South of the island. They use the Turkish lira instead which has quite a reputation of dropping its value once in a while. Internet still worked but I knew it was just a matter of time my phone was connected to the Turkish network — apparently they use the same phone operators as in Turkey. The whole place just seems like an extension of Turkey but as annexing the region would be a “flagrant violation of international law” they just decided to create a puppet state (I wonder if they know they are already violating any international convention by occupying the island).
The Turkish side of Nicosia is…grim. I was expecting to find the same city but with a Turkish touch. Like two separate neighborhoods of the same city. It was not the case. First and foremost, the prices were higher than in the Greek side — it just didn’t make sense to me having to pay 7€ for a small breakfast in an occupied territory with no international recognition. For some reason, everything was relatively expensive in the north. North Nicosia had a weird vibe, it seemed as if they had copied the Southern part of the city and made a bad, soulless copy of it. The streets were empty besides from a few locals sitting in a caffe staring at people passing by. I knew I had to write about this experience but I just didn’t know how to put in words how I felt in this place. It truly felt like a parallel world, like an alternative (bad) reality where the placed you knew (the rest of Cyprus) turned into something odd, removed from the concept I had in mind from the first two days of my trip.
Almost like if someone had ordered two different artists with a different background to sculpt the same idea, leading to different outcomes (although at the same time similar). It is hard to explain. On the one hand, the clear differences in development made those differences “tangible”, but on the other hand it was the overall vibe of the place and the people that just didn’t seem right.
Perhaps I’m biased — I love Greece and Greek culture (and I don’t have anything against Turkey) but some things seemed wrong, not “personally thinking” wrong, but wrong wrong. Walking the streets of Nicosia I stumbled upon a Turkish propaganda museum inside an old Orthodox church. Call me crazy, but I thought it was extremely disrespectful, especially when Greek people use live in this side of the city and spent their Sundays attending to the church.
I walked out of the Old Town to find myself in the middle of a “new” city built by the Turks after the partition. Surely, it was possible to tell the city was new, but the different level in development was really evident — the houses weren’t half as good as the Greek side and the streets were overall dirty. It is worth noting how they had built huge highways which reminded me of how developing economies such as Morocco or Malaysia prioritize the building of these roads instead of other basic services. Although the island of Cyprus is located in Asia (geographically), so far I hadn’t had the feeling of being in another continent that wasn’t Europe. However, I was now starting to see patterns that I had only seen in parts of Asia which contributed to my bewilderment in Northern Cyprus. It truly felt that I was in Asia now, like if crossing the Buffer Zone had transported me to Anatolia.
The bus station had nothing to do with the bus station in Southern Nicosia. It reminded me of the bus station in Andijan, Uzbekistan — messy but entertaining. Contrary to the “Southern Cyprus”, there was no schedule at all — the buses left whenever they were full. Five minutes after arriving to the bus station I was already on my way to Girne.
On the way to the town, we passed across a massive (like absolutely huge) mosque which appeared to be quite new. Nonetheless, it was in the middle of nowhere in the Northern plain of Cyprus. It looked…seedy, artificial, weird. Around 20km kilometers behind the mosque there’s a rather big mountain range with the massive flags of Turkey and Northern Cyprus painted on it. The dystopia was becoming more real with every passing minute.
Girne reminded me of Batumi (although I have never been there). Big skyscrapers full of fancy hotels and shops with renowned brands (which surprised me at first — how do they operate in a “fake” country?). There’s a cool fortress and a laid-back old town. That’s about it. Girne was the first settlement to fall to the Turkish Army in 1974, that is why I wanted to visit it, but I fell it didn’t have nothing special that could properly encapsulate the essence of the conflict. After going back to North Nicosia for logistical reasons I was soon on my way to my last stop in Northern Cyprus: Varosha, the “ghost town” in Famagusta.
After missing my stop (my Internet had stopped a few hours ago so I was completely blindfolded) I arrived to a small, dusty station in the center of Famagusta. The town had once been an important stronghold for the crusaders and had become a trendy tourist destination in the middle of the 20th century. However, one of the biggest battles in 1974 took place in Famagusta, completely sinking its reputation ever since. After having a lunch break and realizing I didn’t have much time, I asked the man at the “bar” for directions which he wrote in a self-made map in a piece of paper. “Don’t go this way…army!” he warned me as he wrote the map. Long story short, Varosha is a neighborhood in Famagusta which used to be a TOP world tourist destination in the 70s with huge hotels, skyscrapers and nice beaches. Most of its population was Greek. After the Battle of Famagusta more than 30,000 Greeks were forced to leave their homes to never come back.
The Greeks pressed the UN to forbid Turkey from resettling the place with Turks. The UN agreed and declared the area under its surveillance. No one was allowed to enter the place after 1974. Not a soul (just a few UN workers and Turkish officials). Nonetheless, three years ago they managed to reopen some parts of the neighborhoods for visitors. What I saw was beyond the pale, the true consummation of the dystopia.
Against the will of the previous settlers, the Turks had established an actual “theme park” out of the horrors of the War. People can now eat an ice cream and rent a bike to explore the place. A small section of the beach has also been reopened. People can swim in the warm waters of the Eastern Mediterranean while old hotels full of bullet holes rot a few meters away.
Yes, I did rent a bike to visit the place but I did it against my will given the fact I barely had an hours to visit Varosha in order to write a reportage for my job. In case you’re wondering — yes, it is not ethical to give tourist money to the occupant country. The place feels like a post-apocalyptic world. Hundreds of homes now eaten by plants keep waiting for their original owners. Several undercover policemen control the tourists walking across the hell on Earth and prevent them from taking pictures of the UN buildings. I’m unsure if this fits the definition of “dark tourism” but it surely doesn’t feel right. Nonetheless, nobody seems to care in the Mediterranean dystopia. As I returned to the Greek side of Nicosia everything seemed to be back to the right place, like if the “Breaking Bad-styled Mexican orange filter” had been removed. I now say this with irony, but it was how I truly felt. Like if had just visited a dystopia.
I asked my travel companion if she had also felt the same way or if I was just an “Orientalistic nerd” — we both seemed to be on the same page.
In just one day I was able to visit the three main settlements of Northern Cyprus and it was enough to make me draw big reflections in my head. I don’t want to state the obvious but living in an occupied territory with “self-declared sovereignty” (whether it is Cyprus, Ukraine or Georgia) doesn’t seem to be something to be happy about. I came to Cyprus to learn about the horrors of the War. I was left with more questions than answers, feeling puzzled instead of saddened.
Thanks for reading!