Fighting Words

Another Wall Falls

Turkey lifts the barrier that cuts Cyprus in two.

It’s a pity that everybody used up all their Berlin Wall analogies on April 9, when the statue of Saddam Hussein came crashing from its pedestal in Fardus (“Paradise”) Square. (By the way, April 28 is Saddam’s birthday. Many happy returns, old sport, wherever you are.) An even better opportunity to recycle this metaphor came last Thursday when the barrier that has divided Nicosia was suddenly lifted, and people began spontaneously to greet each other from both sides of it.

The capital city of Cyprus is the only city in the world to endure such a formal division or partition, and until last week the wall of separation was even harsher than the old one in Berlin had been. Family reunions and one-day excursions were occasionally available to East and West Germans before 1989, while in Cyprus a complete apartheid system had been in place ever since the summer of 1974, when the second of two Turkish invasions was halted along a cease-fire line that ran right through the center of town. Ever since, a concrete and barbed-wire barrier of absolute immobility has bisected the entire island, enforced by a large occupation force of the Turkish mainland army.

Without any warning, this forbidding obstacle was thrown open by the Turkish Cypriot authorities, and it was announced that any Cypriots could travel freely on the island as long as they were back at the frontier by midnight. Since Cyprus is about twice the size of Long Island and has a population of no more than 800,000, this meant that almost anyone could get to almost anywhere within the allotted time. About 200,000 Greek refugees have not seen their old homes for almost 30 years, and about 45,000 displaced Turkish Cypriots come from places that lie to the south of the partition line, so there have been plenty of applicants.

I wish I’d been there to see it, having so often traversed this grim border in both directions as a journalist, but I was able to get cell-phone reports from my former sister-in-law, Manto Meleagrou, who was one of the first to make the trip. The sense of exhilaration and liberty was extraordinary, as if people indefinitely confined in a cramped cell had suddenly been allowed to stretch and exercise. And also as if a “no talking” rule in a barren jail had suddenly been relaxed: Conversation that had been impossible for decades was suddenly and volubly resumed.

Germans were Germans on either side of the wall, while Cypriots are either Greek-speaking and Orthodox or Turkish-speaking and Muslim. One of the few benefits of British colonialism is that English is widely spoken on both sides, and the temper of both communities is also heavily secular, but there has been enough mutual distrust in Greek-Turkish history for demagogues to work on. Nonetheless, Manto and others told me that they were greeted very warmly by the Turkish Cypriots and that the local police and army seemed to have taken the day off. The same was true reciprocally: Turks venturing south were embraced by former friends and by new ones.

Motives are slightly different in each case. Greeks want above all to visit the lost villages and churches and beaches and forests that they had feared they might never even see again. Turks had some of the same ambition, but they wanted principally to see the prosperity and development from which they have been excluded by their “own” side’s decision to keep them in a tiny, backward, and unviable ministate that is really no more than a colony of the mainland. In the past few months, there have been mass demonstrations on the Turkish side of the city protesting the intransigence of the nationalist and military leadership. In the first days of April the Republic of Cyprus became a full signatory member of the European Union. As long as the partition lasts, Turkish Cypriots are prevented from sharing in this modern economy. The first action of many Turks who crossed the border was to apply for Cypriot ID cards and passports, establishing a claim to a common citizenship. (Some credit belongs to Richard Holbrooke, once Clinton’s envoy to the island. He always believed that the European dimension would act as a solvent on the apparent stalemate.)

The fraternization among Cypriots—a people long written-off as hopeless victims of “ancient hatreds” and tribal feelings—is of course mainly a compliment to themselves. Those of us lucky enough to know the island are well aware that the majority is immune to fascistic rhetoric and maintains a long tradition of courtesy and coexistence. However, it must be emphasized that the idea of a democratic, open, law-governed society, represented in part by the “pull” of the European Union, does now constitute an alternative pole of attraction and a challenge to traditional, confessional, and nationalist modes of thought. And this has implications across the region.

Along with the slow but now unstoppable movement among the Palestinians for a democratic “civil society” approach to their common problems and their long battle for statehood, this sudden development in Cyprus shows that there is indeed a “wind of change” blowing in the Middle East. Rauf Denktash, the Turkish Cypriot proconsul of the occupation, is a renowned hard-liner and chauvinist. It would have been unthinkable for him to have let so much oxygen into his airless dominion unless he felt serious pressure from below. And the recent isolation of Turkey itself, because of its crass decision to miss the “regime-change” train in Iraq, has only intensified this process. Given any kind of a chance, the people are wiser and more internationalist than their leaders. I don’t know how long this window will stay open in Cyprus but I do know that once it has been opened it will be impossible to shut it completely again.