July 2, 2020 | News | No Comments
In a dusty corner of Cyprus, on the frontier between the Greek south and the Turkish north, a large sign proclaims in black and white letters: “No Man’s Land, Stop.”
This is the United Nations buffer zone, a windswept strip of rock, scrub and coils of barbed wire that is patrolled by UN soldiers in white Landcruisers.
Beyond that, on the Turkish Cypriot side of the border, lies a vast ghost town called Varosha, which has been deserted and fenced off since the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974.
But Varosha, which is under the control of the Turkish military, may not remain a ghost town for much longer.
The self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) has announced that it intends to redevelop Varosha, once a glittering tourist resort that, in its heyday, attracted the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor.
The project promises to transform this surreal zone of abandoned hotels, empty apartment blocks and weed-choked streets into a booming Mediterranean playground.
One day it could rival nearby Ayia Napa on the Greek side of the border, a party resort renowned for its wild night life.
Varosha “will become Las Vegas again”, Ersin Tatar, the Turkish Cypriot prime minister, said during the summer.
It is a potential gold mine – a prime piece of real estate in the Mediterranean, with miles and miles of golden beaches sloping down to shallow, turquoise waters reminiscent of the South Pacific.
Land claims by thousands of Greek Cypriots would be taken into account, but so would conflicting claims by Islamic religious organisations dating back to British colonial rule of the island, the prime minister said.
But the intention to unilaterally go ahead with development has infuriated the Greek Cypriots, with an aide to the president of the Republic of Cyprus calling it “completely unacceptable”.
Around 45,000 Greek Cypriots had to flee the area during the war between the two sides and they still own land and property in the sprawling ghost town, which is situated in the Turkish Cypriot north on the southern edge of the port city of Famagusta .
Untouched for 45 years and out of bounds to the public, Varosha harbours old clothes shops with mannequins dressed in 1970s fashions and a car dealership full of old Toyotas.
Nikos Nikolaou, 57, owns a café right next to the No Man’s Land sign, near the Greek Cypriot town of Deryneia.
The border lies just 100 yards away, down a rough track which ends at a Turkish army checkpoint.
In the distance, Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags fly over camouflaged watch towers and concrete bunkers.
On the roof of the café is a viewing area from where tourists peer through binoculars at the windowless hotels of Varosha, lined up in eerie silence along the beach.
Uninhabited, their balconies collapsing and their concrete lift shafts exposed to the elements, they present an apocalyptic sight.
Mr Nikolaou was 12 when he fled Varosha with his family, who left behind houses, a restaurant and land, including beach front plots which will be worth a fortune if the resort is developed.
“The Turkish Cypriots are taking a city that doesn’t belong to them,” he said, in between serving coffee to visitors and tending to a large population of cats at his feet.
“I remember living there. We’d go to the beach, to the cinema. It was a very sophisticated place compared to the rest of Cyprus at the time,” he said.
“But then the war came. Turkish aircraft bombed the city, we heard the soldiers shooting with machine guns. We left.”
The café that Mr Nikolaou runs was built by his father on the only piece of land that the family did not lose.
“We used to own land right next to the beach. It would be worth a fortune now. If Varosha was ours, I would be a rich man – and so would a lot of Greek Cypriots.”
For years, a progressive group of Greek and Turkish Cypriots has been pushing for Varosha to be turned into a sustainable eco-resort.
Vasia Markides, the founder and director of the project, is trenchantly opposed to the idea of a "Copacabana-like redevelopment" of the ghost town.
"That is the complete opposite of what we’re trying to inspire with the Eco-city Project," said Ms Markides, the daughter of an exile from Varosha.
She thinks that if the Turkish Cypriots forge ahead on their own, any prospect of Cyprus being unified as a federal state would be killed, "given that Famagusta and the resettling of Varosha is one of the big ticket items discussed in any negotiations".
"I think taking a green, collaborative approach to Famagusta versus the quick money approach will be much more productive, lucrative and beneficial for both communities, and could really solve many of our problems on the island."
Cyprus appealed to the UN Security Council last week to intervene in the dispute and to block the development plans.
The government points out that under UN resolutions, Varosha is supposed to be administered by the UN, rather than the Turkish military, and should be returned to its original Greek Cypriot owners.
Andreas Mavroyiannis, Cyprus’ permanent representative to the UN, sent letters of protest to the president of the General Assembly and the head of the Security Council.
Fiona Mullen, an expert on the economics and politics of Cyprus, agrees that if the Turkish Cypriots go ahead with the development of Varosha, then efforts to push for the unification of Cyprus would be doomed.
"If Varosha opens under Turkish Cypriot control, I think it is the end of any chance of uniting the island. And I think the people doing this know that," said Ms Mullen, director of Sapienta Economics, a research consultancy in Nicosia.
"Varosha was the one place that was guaranteed to come under Greek Cypriot control after a solution of the Cyprus problem."
The confrontation comes at an already fraught moment in relations between the internationally-recognised Republic of Cyprus on the one hand, and the self-declared TRNC and Turkey on the other.
The discovery of vast reserves of oil and gas in the waters around Cyprus has sent both sides scrambling to stake claims.
Cyprus vehemently objects to Turkey sending vessels, escorted by warships, to drill in waters where it has exclusive economic rights.
Nicos Anastasiades, the president of Cyprus, last week condemned what he called Turkey’s “threats and unlawful actions” in conducting offshore drilling operations.
On Friday, the Cypriot government denounced the arrival of a Turkish drilling vessel in an area that has already been licensed to French and Italian companies as “utterly provocative and aggressive behaviour”.
The government said the presence of the ship was “a severe escalation” by Ankara and vowed that it would not give in to “threats and bullying tactics”.
Turkey does not recognise Cyprus as a state, claims 44 per cent of the island’s exclusive economic zone and says it is merely protecting the interests of Turkish Cypriots.
The timing of the Varosha development announcement may well by linked to the battle over oil and gas prospecting.
“The Turkish Cypriots are making this move to retaliate against the Greek Cypriots on the drilling issue,” said Prof Ahmet Sözen, a professor of political science at Eastern Mediterranean University in Famagusta, in the north of Cyprus.
“It’s to scare the Greek Cypriot side and push them to the negotiating table.”
Whether the Turkish Cypriots and their backers in Turkey have the financial clout to demolish the crumbling hotels and build anew is open to question.
The cost of constructing a new resort town has been estimated at $30 billion or more.
“We are talking about a huge area which has been left to nature and decay for decades. All its infrastructure – water, sewage, electricity supply – would have to be rebuilt. It will require a massive amount of financing and a lot of time,” said Prof Sözen.
But the Turkish Cypriots would not have to revive the entire ghost town to put pressure on their neighbours across the island’s divide.
“As a tactic they may develop part of it, the part closest to Famagusta, to showcase what they intend to do,” said Prof Sözen.
James Ker-Lindsay, an expert on Cyprus at the London School of Economics, said the Turkish Cypriots have deliberately kept Varosha empty and out of bounds to settlers in order to use it a bargaining chip.
“They know the Greek Cypriots will view this talk of development as very provocative. Tensions are high at the moment and it could well be linked to the oil and gas issue.”
On the Turkish Cypriot side of the border, tourists sunbathe on a beach that stretches right up to a scrappy fence made of corrugated iron, wooden pallets and barbed wire, topped with images of Turkish soldiers armed with automatic rifles.
Beyond stretches Varosha, its ranks of empty hotels lined up along a long, curving beach that is devoid of life.
“What a weird sight,” said a middle-aged tourist from, of all places, Greenland, as his children played in the shallows.
Turkish Cypriots would love to see the former resort brought back to life because it would massively boost the economy of the region, but some have their doubts as to whether the development will happen.
“I came here from Turkey when I was five and they were saying back then that Varosha would soon be opened up. I’m 47 now and it’s still not happened,” said Salih, the owner of a beach bar who declined to give his surname.
Back on the other side of the border, as a Greek Cypriot army helicopter clattered over parched scrubland, Mr Nikolaou recalled the one time that he ventured over the frontier to peer at his former home in Varosha through chain link fences.
“It was a strange feeling. In a way, I didn’t want to go back because it made me feel so sad. On the other hand, I wanted to be there. It reminded me of all the good times. It was paradise.”