Growing tensions in cyprus: ghost town receives visitors

After 46 years, the town of Varosha in Turkey’s northern Cyprus is to be reopened. Greek Cypriots and the EU protest.

The ghosts Erdogan called: Is the dispute between Turkey and Greece now escalating further? Photo: ap/Petros Karadjias

Behind a rusty fence, crowned by barbed wire, a fine sandy beach stretches eastward. High-rise buildings, villas and apartment blocks stretch along the coast. For 46 years, no civilian has set foot on this beach. The buildings are dilapidated, and the adjacent streets, visible from the fence, are overgrown with shrubs. No one has lived in the town of Varosha, a suburb of Famagusta, Cyprus, since 1974. Soldiers from the Turkish army are the only people allowed to enter Varosha.

On Thursday, the slumber of this ghost town will end. The prime minister of the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus," recognized only by Turkey, Ersin Tatar, announced during a visit to Ankara that parts of the cordoned-off town, which bears the name Naman Maras in Turkish, would be opened. On Wednesday, Cypriot Turkish workers were busy setting up a checkpoint at the cordon.

The opening could be a gesture of normalization, but Greek Cypriots living in the south of the island see it as the opposite. Their president, Nikos Anasasiades, complained on television, "With what Turkey has decided, all UN Security Council resolutions are violated. It is an extremely unacceptable action."

Turkish President Rezep Tayyip Erdogan sounded a very different note, saying Varosha was "indisputably" on the soil of northern Cyprus. And, "We know that this will make many uncomfortable." Indeed, the opening of Varosha is exacerbating tensions on the island.

Accidental conquest

Inhabited exclusively by island Greeks, Varosha came under Turkish control during the Cyprus War of 1974. At that time, the Turkish army occupied about one-third of the Mediterranean island in response to a coup by Greek military forces. The population of Greek origin living there was forced to flee to the south, and soon after Turks living in the south left their homes and were forced to move to the now Turkish north. After this ethnic cleansing, the rulers on the now Turkish territory proclaimed their own state, the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus," in 1983.

Varosha is said to have been captured by the Turkish army in 1974 only by mistake; actually, the plan was not to attack the Greek suburb of Turkish-inhabited Famagusta. The cease-fire agreements stipulated that the place was not to be settled. Varosha was cordoned off and fell into disrepair, as a bargaining chip for the Turkish side in negotiations for the reunification of Cyprus, which never reached a conclusion.

Dangerous firing

Varosha will apparently not be opened up completely now: according to Cypriot media reports, it is mainly the beach area that is being targeted, not the whole town, which once had 40,000 inhabitants. Also no business or houses are to be renovated and opened, the property right of the former inhabitants are not to be touched thus.

The unilateral Turkish move comes at a time of growing tension in the triangle of Cyprus, Greece and Turkey. Just a few days ago, a Turkish research vessel left sea waters claimed by Cyprus near the island in search of gas. Previously, a similar mission in waters claimed by Greece had pushed the conflict between Athens and Ankara to near war.

The EU, of which the Greek Republic of Cyprus is a member, has accused Turkey of fueling the conflict in Cyprus with the move. EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrelll criticized this as a "first-time violation" of the UN ceasefire agreement. He said the decision was "not helpful" for a solution to the Cyprus conflict.

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