Skip to main content

Yiannakis Rousos can see his childhood home in Famagusta, a city on the northeast coast of Cyprus, only when he presses his face against the cold eyepieces of his binoculars. In the distance, in the abandoned citrus groves that his father once planted, the sight of a nameless shepherd and grazing sheep used to send Rousos' blood pressure into overdrive. It's been just a few months, he says, since he stopped popping pills to help him through the workday.

Almost daily, 59-year-old Rousos brings a busload of tourists to the edge of the Green Line, a buffer zone that divides the Greek Cypriot south from the Turkish Cypriot north, and points out the small house, once his, that's now trapped in a desolate field, surrounded by fencing.

Rousos' tour advertises "Ghost Town Famagusta," a morbid journey through eerie, abandoned buildings overrun by pigeons and vegetation. But despite the garish block letters plastered across his bus, for Rousos, this is much more than a gimmick for tourists.

His family was one of thousands displaced by the struggle for control of Cyprus between Greece and Turkey—and, Rousos insists, between world powers keen on protecting their geopolitical interests. Today, the British still have extensive radar installations here, and military bases from which they've recently launched strikes on Syria. American and Russian warships regularly loom on the Mediterranean coastline.

With a customized microphone fixed to the right-hand side of the dashboard and positioned directly in front of his face, Rousos drives and talks at the same time—a rapid succession of hard facts mixed with political theories that he's formed about the conflict. But Rousos tends to slow down when he describes the trauma.

"One day you're a millionaire, the next day you're nothing. You don't have clothes or shoes," he says, recalling the sudden displacement.

Rousos parks near the barbed wire, next to a painted sign that reads STOP and another designating the United Nations-patrolled area a "No-Man's Land." But Rousos has documents to prove that some 50,000 square meters of that land are, in fact, his. He just hasn't been allowed to set foot on it for 44 years.

When Cyprus Split

The years surrounding Cyprus' independence from Britain in 1960, and leading up to its division in 1974, were tumultuous, marked by violence between the Greek Cypriot majority and Turkish Cypriot minority populations. The terms of Cyprus' sovereignty assigned Great Britain, Greece, and Turkey as security guarantors for the fledgling Mediterranean nation, and the seeds of prolonged conflict were planted.

In July of 1974, the Greek government backed a coup d'état, overthrowing Cyprus' president, Archbishop Makarios. In response, the Turkish military occupied about 37 percent of the northern part of the island. More than 210,000 people were internally displaced as a result of the division. By some counts, approximately 162,000 Greek Cypriots moved south, and at least 48,000 Turkish Cypriots moved north. Over 31,000 people fled Famagusta.

Yiannakis Rousos was just 15 years old when his family fled their home during military shelling. Forty-four years later, he's still waiting to return home.

Yiannakis Rousos was just 15 years old when his family fled their home during military shelling. Forty-four years later, he's still waiting to return home.

Rousos remembers everything about that August morning in 1974, when Turkish forces shelled Varosha, his neighborhood in Famagusta. He was 15 years old, hiding in the family's citrus groves, peeking out just enough to see black clouds rising from the explosions, feeling both terror and awe. When the family later piled into a car and fled to safety a few kilometers away, they left behind everything—even Linda, the dog. They planned to return home that evening, or in a few days if things really dragged on. But after all Varosha's inhabitants had evacuated, the Turkish troops sealed off the area.

Right up until the invasion, Varosha had been a famed holiday destination for Hollywood royalty, including Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, and Paul Newman. More than half of all tourist accommodations in Cyprus were located at this beachside resort town. Today, most of those hotels are hollowed-out ruins, with slabs of concrete hanging off steel rods. There's still tourism, mostly visitors from Turkey and the United Kingdom, and their beach volleyball games and pop music from trendy cafés make for a surreal setting next to the crumbling structures.

Military signs on barbed-wired fences warn civilians to move along, to not photograph the abandoned houses, schools, churches, hotels—reminders of the unresolved conflict, one of the U.N.'s longest peacekeeping missions. But a glimpse behind the fences—a single shoe in a doorway of a house, or a sun-bleached sofa cushion on the floor of a decaying porch—betrays the human toll of displacement.

'Never Going Back to How Things Were'

In 2004, Rousos came very close to getting his land back. The U.N. had brokered a plan for a United Cyprus Republic, with hundreds of pages of complex technical points, including resettlement, compensation, and the withdrawal of thousands of Turkish and Greek troops.

There was a general mood of cooperation, since 2004 was also the year that the Republic of Cyprus would join the European Union; Turkey, meanwhile—still the only country to recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus—was angling to be considered for E.U. membership.

Under the plan, much of Famagusta, including Varosha, would have been returned to its previous inhabitants.

But while 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots voted to unify, Greek Cypriots rejected the plan by an overwhelming 76 percent. Since then, academics, sociologists, and psychologists have kept working to understand what happened and—more important—what it would take to bring the decades-long conflict to an end.

Charis Psaltis, a psychology professor at the University of Cyprus, studies the population’s sentiments on the issue. He says that, politically, the Greek Cypriot population can be broken into three parts: About 20 percent are very conservative, or even xenophobic, and reject the idea of a bi-communal government. Another 20 to 25 percent are the progressives, committed to creating a unified nation, and working to establish inter-communal relations and reconciliation. The bulk of the population—the remaining 55 percent or so—accepted the basic idea of a federated republic, but objected to some of the 2004 plan's provisions, and had underlying fears.

"These were people who were afraid that Turkey would interfere, either by blocking the functionality of the state, or militarily," Psaltis says.

Signs mark fenced-off areas of Varosha, a quarter in the city of Famagusta, Cyprus, which until 1974 was a popular seaside resort. The buildings seen in the background are abandoned beach hotels that attracted Hollywood movie stars until the country's division.

Signs mark fenced-off areas of Varosha, a quarter in the city of Famagusta, Cyprus, which until 1974 was a popular seaside resort. The buildings seen in the background are abandoned beach hotels that attracted Hollywood movie stars until the country's division.

Peace Through Education?

Sociologists say such distrust is rooted in ethno-centric narratives built around historical events on both sides of a conflict. The narratives make their way into history textbooks and build collective memory that's one-sided, silencing the trauma of the other side.

"In troubled societies, narratives about the past tend to be partial and explain a conflict from narrow perspectives that justify the national self and condemn, exclude, and devalue the 'enemy' and their narrative," note cultural anthropologist Zvi Bekerman and education professor Michalinos Zembylas in their 2012 book, Teaching Contested Narratives: Identity, Memory and Reconciliation in Peace Education and Beyond.

Progressive politicians on both sides of the Green Line have initiated efforts in the past 15 years to overhaul textbooks, but each time those efforts were undermined when conservatives on both sides were re-elected. Since 2003, non-governmental organizations have also worked to challenge ethno-centric narratives through educator trainings and multi-communal interaction. For example, the Nicosia-based Association for Historical Dialogue and Research renovated a derelict building in the city’s buffer zone in 2011, named it the Home for Cooperation, and launched cultural, artistic, and educational programs. The AHDR describes the space as a "bridge-builder between separated communities, memories, and visions."

There's been progress since the 2004 referendum, Psaltis says, noting that, "there's more critique of nationalism now, especially in education." Today, the idea of Cyprus as the homeland of Cypriots, rather than of Greeks or Turks, is "more mainstream."

But the competing narratives are still alive in language. Greek Cypriots are likely to call the events of 1974 an "invasion," while Turkish Cypriots are likely to use the term "intervention." And while Turkish Cypriots might refer to Turkish citizens who moved to Cyprus after it was divided as "immigrants," Greek Cypriots are more likely to call them "settlers."

Rousos refers to north Cyprus as "occupied" territory and tends to grow frustrated at the checkpoint crossings. "I have to show my passport to get on my own land," he mutters, as the border guard climbs onto the bus to collect his and his passengers' documents. But Rousos reserves his criticism for politicians, whom he blames for the decades-long conflict. "It's a shame for politicians in Europe; a shame for politicians all over the world," he says. "It's a waste of time, a waste of life, a waste of money, a waste of everything."

Indeed, much as in any conflict, politicians on both sides have exploited their people's narratives and the traumas.

"For almost three decades, politicians in the south told constituents things about what a plan would look like, promised displaced people they could return and there would be restoration of property, and that they wouldn't settle for anything less. In this [2004] plan, they did," says Rebecca Bryant, a professor at Utrecht University who studies the conflict.

After border checkpoints were opened in 2003 as a confidence-building measure, some of the displaced visited only to find that things had changed since they fled: Other people were living in their houses, and the cities had been developed during the intervening three decades of Turkish rule.

Between 1974 and 1980, some 20,000 to 30,000 Turkish citizens moved to north Cyprus under a government effort to bring in more workers. These were mainly poor laborers and farmers, some of whom were also losing their ancestral homes because of development. The open parts of Varosha—those streets and houses not within the buffer zone—became home to about 3,000 immigrants, mainly nomads from Turkey's Taurus Mountains. And about 48,000 Turkish Cypriots also migrated north after partition, some settling in houses abandoned by their compatriots.

"People went back and saw that's not how they left things. That it was never going back to exactly how things were," Bryant says. "Many retreated into a conservative political stance."

'Talks About Talking'

Out of curiosity, Rousos joined a Famagusta tour group five years ago. He didn't like what he heard.

A trendy café in Famagusta with crumbling buildings in the background.

A trendy café in Famagusta with crumbling buildings in the background.

"The professional guides, they know nothing. They're not even from here," he recalls thinking. Most of all, they didn't convey the lived experience of displacement.

The next day, Rousos started plotting. He left the strawberry business he'd been managing with his brother, bought a minibus, and began operating under the moniker of "Mr. John"—an Anglicized version of his Greek first name, easier for tourists to pronounce. Precisely because of his visceral narrative, the tour has become a hit. "It was an extremely poignant and moving account of the past and the present," a recent client wrote on TripAdvisor. Another described it as "very interesting, sad & emotional."

Geopolitically, things have shifted enough over the past few years to make some unification advocates optimistic, even if most of the world has stopped paying attention.

"Greek Cypriots are more likely to see a unified Cyprus as an economic opportunity," Psaltis says, pointing to recent offshore gas explorations. So far, those efforts have caused political friction, but the prospect of Cypriot prosperity could ultimately help break the political stalemate.

At the moment, after more failed negotiation attempts, there are now just "talks about talking," Bryant says.

And Rousos' Varosha is now into its 45th year as the famed ghost town in Famagusta, attracting curious visitors but no development. "I can't find the right words for this city: ghost, mute, abandoned, closed, forbidden, empty—maybe a combination of all the words," Rousos says.

Given the chance, he would vote for reunification again. "It’s not so big a rock in the Mediterranean Sea to be divided into two forever."