A trip back to the scene of a childhood idyll

Greek Cypriots were expelled from their homes more than 40 years ago

 Famagusta: the outbreak of war saw 36 multistorey hotels evacuated overnight. Photograph:  Francoise De Mulder/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Famagusta: the outbreak of war saw 36 multistorey hotels evacuated overnight. Photograph: Francoise De Mulder/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

 

My guide, Ionnis, prepares for our trip. He opens his wallet and checklists passport, driving licence, insurance, visa and a couple of aspirin. We’re all set. He’s taking me to his home town, Famagusta.

Ottoman Turks expelled Greeks from the city in 1571 and the Greeks resettled a mile away in Varosha. The city’s dual identity was not lost on travel writer Robert Byron, who visited in 1937. “There are two towns here, Varosha, the Greek and Famagusta, the Turkish,” he noted in The Road to Oxiana.

A 1974 Greek-sponsored military coup in Cyprus led to Turkey unleashing a show of force which convulsed the entire island. Long before ethnic cleansing became a tidy phrase an estimated 200,000 Greek Cypriots fled south; some 60,000 Turkish Cypriots fled north. Over 1,400 people from both sides are still unaccounted for.

Ionnis was 15 at the time and like so many Cypriots displaced by war he hasn’t been able to return home since. “I’m not optimistic that I’ll get back to my house,” he says ruefully. “I thought as a child I’d be back in the afternoon. Then a few days, then a few months. It’s 40 years now.”

He trades as Mr John and has been bringing visitors to Famagusta for the past eight years. We pause at the city outskirts in Deryneia. Fifty yards away a UN jeep patrols the Green Line that divides Cyprus into north and south. Only Turkey formally recognises the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Waste ground beyond the Green Line used to be his family’s land. It’s now used by the Turkish army for military exercises. Gunfire punctuates the air day and night. He points to a white speck amid distant trees. His family house. Gazing at it Ionnis tries to quell the riot of memories clamouring for attention. Even though he has the title deeds it’s four decades since he set foot inside. “They’re only documents,” he sighs, fingering the painkillers in his wallet. “I can’t believe that in modern-day Europe you don’t have the right to live in your own house.”

Idyllic

From these sandy shores Varosha stretches back into the historic old port city of Famagusta, with its magnificent Venetian walls and Byzantine churches. Through its heyday Varosha welcomed celebrities like Liz Taylor, Richard Burton and Raquel Welch to Vegas-sounding hotels like Golden Sands (now a Turkish command post), Florida and Argo.

The resort was the jewel of Cyprus’s burgeoning tourist industry but the outbreak of war saw 36 multistorey hotels evacuated overnight. “I remember it very clearly,” says Ionnis. “August 14th, early morning. From the sea and the sky bombs were falling around us. There was no time to take anything with us. We got in the car with my father and my mother and drove through fields because we knew the way under the trees. It was panic. Everybody was crying.”

Dead animals

Today’s skyline reveals cranes still poised over half-built high-rises. Trees push through balconies of the more ornate Savoy, where Byron stayed. Hundreds of Greek Cypriot homes in a town of 45,000 people have also succumbed to nature. The projected cost of rebuilding Varosha is $2 billion upwards.

A Swedish journalist once described it as a “ghost town” where clothes were left drying on lines, breakfasts unfinished on tables, new cars gathering dust in showrooms. That sterile tranquillity is long gone. Properties have been stripped bare by looters. In contravention of UN Security Council Resolution 550 many homes, forcibly abandoned, are now occupied by new residents, mainly from Anatolia in mainland Turkey. Other UN resolutions and rulings by the European Commission for Human Rights have also been ignored.

Ionnis notices a black Mercedes trailing slowly behind us. Turkish soldiers man a checkpoint up ahead. “I don’t like it,” he says uneasily. “You don’t know - you just don’t know.”

He pulls in to let the car pass and is relived to recognise the passenger. “His mother and father worked in our gardens,” exhales my guide. “He’s come back to see the house he used to live in.”

Ionnis relaxes visibly as we cross back into the south, the threat of headache gone for now. “I spent my childhood years in these places, the best years of my life,” he says. “If I don’t keep going back I will forget one day. And I don’t want to forget.”

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