Monday 2 March 2015


24 June 2003, Tuesday 00:00

* EDITOR'S NOTE: Esra Aygin, a 23-year-old Turkish Cypriot journalist, crossed over to the Greek Cypriot south of Cyprus for the first time after Turkish Cypriot leaders eased a nearly 30-year travel ban. This is the account of her trip to her father's hometown in the south.

"Ozel, I knew you would come," shouted Andonis as he warmly hugged my father, who still couldn't believe he had found the man who saved him almost 30 years ago.

"You lost your hair," my father said, examining Andonis with curious eyes. "You got fat, Ozel," he replied, tapping my father's big belly. They had last seen each other in September 1974, when my parents fled their house in the southern city of Limassol for northern Cyprus after a Turkish invasion drove Turkish and Greek Cypriots to opposite sides of the island.

Last month, the Turkish Cypriot leadership eased a ban it had imposed on travel between the two sides, prompting more than 300,000 Greek and Turkish Cypriots to cross the line dividing Cyprus and visit their old houses and friends for the first time since the Turkish invasion.

My parents and I were among them. My father, now 65, always avoided talking about the clashes between Turkish and Greek Cypriots and the ensuing Turkish invasion. But the night before we went to Limassol, he told me about Andonis. As Turkish troops landed in Cyprus on July 20, 1974, the Turkish Cypriots in Limassol, including my parents and then 9-year-old brother, were detained by Greek Cypriot soldiers.

"We had no idea what was going to happen to us," said my mother, Yucel. "People were crying and begging the soldiers to let them free." After the family spent a night in custody, a Greek Cypriot soldier recognized my father as the physical therapist who had treated him some years before. "He drove us back home," my father told me. "And he told us not to leave the house. He was back at night with a basket with bread, cheese and a bottle of milk."

Adonis Ioannou, the young Greek Cypriot soldier, had risked his life to help my Turkish Cypriot family. My father hid for several days in fear of being rounded up again. It was a time when many people disappeared some in custody of Greek Cypriot soldiers _and my father sometimes wonders what would have happened had he not encountered Andonis.

About 1,000 Turkish Cypriots and some 1,500 Greek Cypriots are still listed as missing from fighting between the two sides in the 1960s and during the invasion, which was prompted by a short-lived coup by Greek Cypriot supporters of union with Greece. About 3,000 people were killed during those troubled times.

Nearly 200,000 Greek Cypriots from the north and 40,000 Turkish Cypriots from the south were displaced and divided by the "Green Line" that cuts across the Mediterranean island, home to nearly 1 million people, mostly Greek Cypriots. My father hid in the trunk of a Greek Cypriot's car to flee to the North. A British couple took my brother over the line, acting as if he were their son.

My mother pretended to be Greek Cypriot, burying her nose in a Greek newspaper as she crossed north in a car.

The easing of the travel ban was widely seen as an attempt to appease Turkish Cypriots frustrated at the collapse in March of talks on reunifying the island. Although Cyprus will join the European Union next year, the benefits of membership will apply only to the Greek Cypriot south and won't be extended to the Turkish-controlled north until Cyprus is again united.

Tens of thousands of Turkish Cypriots, including my parents, had taken to the streets to urge the leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state, Rauf Denktash, to accept a U.N.-sponsored reunification plan. The state in the north is only recognized by Turkey, which maintains 40,000 troops on the island. It was an unnerving one-hour drive from the checkpoint in divided Nicosia to Limassol _ my first time in the Greek Cypriot south.

It was also the first time I saw my usually cheerful father crying like a helpless child as he stood on a wooden bridge across from the one-story house where he grew up. The house was gone, replaced by multistory apartment buildings.

My mother held on to him as they slowly and silently walked back to the car. "I feel like I have lost my childhood," my father told me later. "That house is gone, taking with it all my memories."

We stopped at a coffee shop to ask if any of the elderly customers knew Andonis. My father could only remember his first name _ and that his family had owned a grocery store.

After chatting in a combination of Greek and English over thick Cypriot coffee, a man offered to take us to Andonis.

He had been waiting for us. "I saw in my dream that you would be back," he said. "I had the same dream four times. This is a dream come true."

"This has been the best day of my life in the last 30 years," my father said as we slowly walked toward the checkpoint at the end of the day with two huge bottles of famous Cyprus wine and a camera full of photographs.

My mother, who grew up in a village called Moniatis on the Greek Cypriot part of the island, took a deep breath as if trying to trap the air of the "other side" in her lungs before reaching the checkpoint. She was 32 when she fled from the south.

"They stole 30 years from my life," she said, referring to the politicians' maneuverings that led to the island's decades-long division.

Reflecting on my parents' emotional return, I found myself recalling a Turkish Cypriot poem:
"My father tells me to love my country, But my country has been divided in two. Which side am I to love?"

Then I remembered what Andonis told my father: "We waited for peace for 30 years, Ozel. We can wait for another two or three."

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