With Cyprus’ border opened, a grassroots healing begins

POSTED: May 21, 2003

ARDAHAN, Cyprus — A pair of German shepherds barked furiously as the Mercedes pulled up to a limestone house high above Famagusta Bay. Although the visitors arrived unannounced, a woman stood at the gate, as if she had been waiting for them.

She had dreamed of this moment six months before.

In Husniye Gulersoy’s dream, a white-haired man came to her home and said it was his. He had lost it when the Turkish army invaded northern Cyprus in 1974 after a short-lived coup backed by Greece. The Greek Cypriots fled to the southern part of this Mediterranean island, divided ever since by a border, two armies and U.N. peacekeepers.

Take care of my house, the man told Husniye in her vision, and handed her an orange, a peace offering.

Charalampos Orphanides, 86, did not bring an orange when he went to see the home he had built for his bride in 1948, squaring the stone blocks on a windy field in the village of Ardahan, where his family had lived for seven generations.

For 29 years he had been forbidden to visit the other side of his island. Then on April 23, the government in the Turkish north announced that its border was open. Since then, 300,000 Cypriots – a third of the population – have swarmed in both directions. It is a rare moment, when people’s hunger to heal ancient divisions is pushing politicians who have been unable to resolve bitter disputes over seized property, outside interference and missing persons.

The Orphanides family was among the first to cross from south to north that afternoon. When Kika Orphanides, 54, a textile designer, heard the border was open, she called her brother and father.

“We’ll go for lunch,” said her brother, Michael, 56, an architect.

They brought no maps, knowing the land by heart, but the terrain looked strangely unfamiliar. For a territory recognized only by the Turkish government in Ankara and supposedly strangled by trade sanctions, there was a surprising amount of development, Kika recalled. The signs along a new highway were in Turkish. Her father had trouble remembering the Greek names of villages.

An old chapel in a neighboring town had been turned into a museum. They each paid a pound – $1.90 – to view the icons, then hurried back to the car to see how the town they called Ardana had fared.

Their first views were painful. The house of Kika and Michael’s grandmother was gone. The cemetery had been desecrated. The church where their great-grandfather was priest had no doors or windows, and smelled of hay and urine.

It was a Mercedes full of mixed feelings that climbed the hill to their property.

Kika wanted to walk the land and feel the hot breezes she remembered. Michael was busy photographing everything around him; he took nearly 200 pictures. Their father said little.

With the dogs tethered, they approached the woman in the yard. She did not speak Greek or English, but the old man knew some Turkish. He said who they were, but she knew.

“She was afraid because she was on her own,” Michael recalled later. “She didn’t know how we were going to react, whether we’d be aggressive.”

They hungered to see the inside, but the woman showed them an addition her husband, also a builder, had designed.

Then Kika broke down.

She stood sobbing, and the Turkish Cypriot wrapped her arms around Kika, making a gesture that Kika read as saying “it was not in our hands.”

Then Husniye, 56, put on some coffee and showed them around the rest of the place, so changed that Kika realized “it was not my home.”

Husniye’s husband, Sami, would be home by 6. Until then, they made small talk, the Orphanideses asking about Sami: where he was from, what he did, who his people were.

A kiss

He came from the next village, which they knew as Ayios Andronikos. He was 58, the son of Celal Gulersoy.

The old man brightened.

For six years, he and Celal Gulersoy had served together in the British army, one Greek Cypriot and one Turkish Cypriot fighting the Nazis in northern Africa and Italy.

When Sami pulled up in his truck, the old man rose. “I have to kiss the son of my friend,” he said, and planted his lips on both of Sami Gulersoy’s cheeks.

The Gulersoys said it was as if they were part of his family.

Then cognac and stories flowed. Lamb was grilled. For six hours they feasted.

The Gulersoys told how they had come to the house. Sami’s father was killed in 1974, fighting the Greek Cypriots. After the cease-fire, the Turkish Cypriot government offered his mother her pick of houses. She chose the one that Charalampos Orphanides had built. The Gulersoys raised three boys there.

Like schoolboys

They talked about barbarities on both sides, how each had been taught in school that the other was the enemy. An old friend of Charalampos’ was produced from the village and the two men talked like schoolboys.

Neither family is certain what will happen next. There are calls on both sides to resume the talks that ended last month after the northern government rejected a U.N. plan to reunite the island in time for its May 2004 entry into the European Union. Now that Greek and Turkish Cypriots are remembering what they shared – even the bad parts – few think things can return to the way they were a month ago.

Sami Gulersoy said he was renovating the house and wanted the Orphanideses to return for a proper visit. He doesn’t rule out returning the property if he, in turn, is compensated. “If the man wants his house, he can have it.”

Michael Orphanides said he would like that. His sister, who owns no other property, savors being able to walk those fields: “I was just hoping I could be there again in my lifetime.”

And their father, who for three decades yearned to return, bitter at the loss of land and history and memory, now talked of moving on.

“I think it is good to mix together,” he said. “Maybe it is time all this stopped. I went in their house. I want them to come to mine.”

 

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