Facing the long sandy beach stretching from north to south and the crystal sea, the immutable skeletons of abandoned seafront hotels add a funereal tone to the beauty of the landscape. A sepulchral silence cloaks the shuttered houses, shops and restaurants – huge urban tombstones marking the city. The traffic lights of a bygone era, now planted in an empty avenue, bear witness to how time has stood still since 1974. If there is any place in Europe where you can still see what it actually means to abandon a city overnight, Varosha is the best example.
When the Turkish army occupied Famagusta on the east coast of Cyprus, after invading the north of the island following the pro-Greek coup in the summer of 1974, it ordered the Greek Cypriot inhabitants to abandon their possessions and leave the area. Residents of the newly-built seaside resort of Varosha were no exception. Like most of their fellow Greek Cypriots, they had no idea how long their exile was going to last. But 47 long years have passed since then, and this seaside town – once considered the “pearl of Cyprus” and the “Cypriot Saint Tropez” – has become a ghost town, a gaping wound on the Mediterranean landscape of the island of Aphrodite.
160,000 Greek Cypriots fled south in 1974, while the smaller number of Turkish Cypriots living in the south of the island found refuge in the north. The Republic of Cyprus, the only internationally recognized part of the island, has been a member of the EU since 2004. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is only recognized by Ankara. The partition and Turkish military occupation of the north persist to this day; Varosha and its 6 square kilometres symbolise the desire of the exiles to return to their homes.
Deprived of human presence for more than 47 years, the vegetation in Varosha has taken over. Bushes have pushed through the cracked pavements, white and pink laurels have blossomed unpruned, immense bougainvillea clog the streets and ivies have invaded the façades of the houses.
“I was walking around the perimeter of Varosha observing the wilderness and trying to understand the reality of the situation”, says Vasia Markides, 42, a documentary filmmaker from Maine, United States.
”It was different from all the places I had seen before. It was hard to leave behind, knowing that all memories of my family and home were trapped behind that fence. We had to do something”, she confides.
This observation and the support of her refugee mother encouraged Vasia to bring Greek and Turkish Cypriots together over the years to revitalize Varosha and integrate it into the nearby town of Famagusta (Gazimağusa in Turkish). In fact, this bi-communal initiative, the “Famagusta Ecocity Project” (FEP), aims to create the first “European model ecocity”, with a pedestrian centre, powered by solar energy and respectful of the environment. Ceren Boğaç, 42, an architecture professor [at Eastern Mediterranean University in North Cyprus] and an activist for resilient communities in her spare time, is also an FEP member.
“The ecocity concept is an environmental approach to peace. By uniting Greeks and Turks around the common goal of a safe and sustainable environment with adequate resources for all, Cypriots of both communities can put their differences aside and work to meet their common needs. Varosha has everything – the soil is rich, the pre-existing infrastructure is solid”, she explains, strolling down Dimokratias Avenue.
This is also personal for Ceren. After the partition in 1974, her father left Larnaca, a port city in the south of the island, to settle in Famagusta. Her parents' house where she grew up overlooked the fence erected by the Turkish army around Varosha in 1974.
”When I was little I always wondered what was going on inside the fence. Every year I watched the plants in the small pots of flowers on the balconies growing into giant trees.”
Young Ceren used to swim in front of the big hotels abandoned by their Greek Cypriot owners. “I kept asking my daddy, 'What happened, daddy?' He didn't answer. I knew that it was serious”, she recalls. These hotels built during 1960 to 1970 along the beach pose problems for the FEP: they create too much shade and are now too energy intensive. The NGO plans to renovate them in consultation with the descendants of the owners but is confronted by several obstacles.
“We lack funding to be able to continue our work. The other obstacle involves various reopening attempts and scenarios for Varosha, which are decided behind closed doors by men in suits and ties around a table, leaving little hope that an effective strategy will be successfully agreed”, says Ceren sadly.
Turkey is increasing the fait accompli of offshore drilling in the eastern Mediterranean, intensifying fears over the future of the fenced area of Famagusta. At a controversial picnic in Varosha last November, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar announced the partial reopening of the city of Varosha, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions 550 and 789. This announcement dampened the hopes for finding a solution involving the two communities and reunifying the island.
Now the Turkish Cypriot authorities are promoting Varosha as a macabre “black tourism” site similar to that of Pripyat, the ghost town next to Chernobyl. To attract tourists, the “municipality” of Gazimağusa has started renovations. Roads have been cleaned and paved; tourist infrastructure has been built (benches, bicycle rental, kiosks). The beach where the 2020 picnic took place awaits visitors.
“We are scared, disappointed and angry. I see people touching up the buildings and I wonder who are they to do this without consulting the original owners”, protests Ceren. “We have to resolve the Cyprus issue. They are going to be opened for Russian tourism and Varosha risks becoming a new Las Vegas. But nothing is more important than the ecology,” she exclaims.
“By opening Varosha, Turkey is using the salami tactic, which involves advancing on the ground in small steps”, explains Fiona Mullen, FEP member, as well as director of Sapienta Economics. The Republic of Cyprus quickly denounced Turkey's violations before the UN Security Council and EU leaders and institutions. The European Council of June 24 and 25 underlined the importance of Varosha's status and called on Turkey to fully respect the UN resolutions.
And then the TRNC tossed another stone into the water. Turkish Cypriot authorities have stepped up their calls to exiles to (re)claim their property by contacting the Turkish Real Estate Commission (IPC). For the legal Greek Cypriot inhabitants, this would mean returning to live under Turkish administration and occupation outside the framework of the UN and a negotiated solution, and without any guarantee of receiving a stable and legal restitution of their property. The Republic of Cyprus discourages refugees because such a return would imply the recognition of the “TRNC” entity and would hamper the government's negotiations.
At present, things are at a standstill. Last April, an informal “5-party + 1” meeting under the auspices of the UN resulted in an impasse. Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar has been adamant about a federal solution within UN parameters and EU values. For its part the Turkish side now wants to put a two-state solution on the negotiating table, which is to say to recognize the sovereignty of the TRNC.
“Given the context and that there is no prospect of resuming negotiations, the international community will seek other means of reducing tensions. And ideas like Varosha's joint development into a sustainable ecocity might work”, Fiona Mullen comments. “Varosha is a place of conflict where civil society must be able to engage. Ideally, setting up the FEP in advance of a solution to the Cyprus problem could be an example of peaceful cohabitation and co-management, as well as of co-development”, she adds. “The only conditions in which the FEP could come to life are if the development of Varosha adheres to the program of confidence-building measures set up by the UN within a wider process of negotiations on the Cyprus issue.”.
The European Council has also welcomed the de-escalation of tensions in the eastern Mediterranean between Greece and Turkey.
“In this context, agreement could be found on Varosha and UN confidence-building measures could also strengthen de-escalation between Cyprus and Turkey.”, believes Fiona Mullen. “In order to reduce tensions, a scenario involving a broader agreement that would include both gas and Varosha might be envisaged”, she adds.
For Chrysanthos Zanettos, Deputy Mayor of Famagusta and also a refugee, the FEP is a good idea for a Famagusta where Greek and Turkish Cypriots could live and cooperate together. But the refugees are outraged by the government's inaction and the lost opportunities for resettlement.
“The situation in Famagusta is more tragic than ever. Varosha has been a victim of the stagnation of the talks on a settlement of the Cyprus question since the failure of the negotiations in Crans-Montana in 2017. If the Greek Cypriot side does not return to the negotiating table, we risk losing Famagusta and all the occupied territories forever”, he says.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan plans to visit Varosha again on 20 July, the anniversary of the 1974 invasion. The Municipality of Famagusta believes that time is running out and is demanding a national strategy before the visit.
“We propose the creation of a bi-communal technical committee on the management of the restitution of our property. Only through international law could a chance be taken for Famagusta to become an example of cooperation and coexistence linking two communities.
Unfortunately, Turkey's actions over the years have not taken this path”, Zanettos argues. Although the news about Famagusta is incredibly disheartening, members of the FEP are hopeful that the city's tory can inspire other communities around the world to embrace both sustainable lifestyles and peaceful coexistence.
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