Her name is Ayşegül. She is 28 years old. She works at a nail salon in Kyrenia.
She was born to settler parents 13 years after the division of the island, in a house that belongs to a displaced Greek Cypriot family. She has lived in Kyrenia all her life. She knows of no other life.
“I would never knowingly take away somebody else’s house,” she says. “Of course I can imagine the pain.”
Her parents were brought to Cyprus from a remote village in southeastern Turkey after late Turkish Cypriot Leader Rauf Denktash, in May 1975 signed a secret protocol with Turkey named, ‘Ordinance on Overcoming the Shortage of Labour Force in the Turkish Region of Cyprus by Sending Labour Force from Turkey as Requested by the Turkish Cypriot Federated State.’
This ordinance – published for the first time by journalist Cenk Mutluyakalı in 2011 – served as the basis for the (illegal) transfer of population from Turkey to Cyprus.
As the majority of settlers, Ayşegül’s parents had abandoned their village for economic reasons, in search for a better life. According to a 2005 PRIO report by Mete Hatay ‘Beyond Numbers’, farmers were recruited through radio announcements and by mukhtars in village coffee shops in Turkey.
Volunteers were transferred to the port of Mersin by buses, embarked on a ferryboat to Cyprus, and then taken to the abandoned Greek Cypriot villages in which they were to settle.
As quoted by Professor Niyazi Kızılyürek, Dean of School of Humanities at the University of Cyprus, the Turkish Cypriot ‘minister of housing’ – of the time – İsmet Kotak, in an interview in 2011, recounted: “We used to bring the immigrants to Famagusta at night… so that the peacekeeping forces… could not take any photographs… We would greet them at the port…say ‘Welcome…It is your duty to make this place a homeland’.”
“As they disembarked the ferryboat, I would ask ‘How many are they? We want population in Cyprus.’… We would tell them, ‘We will tell you about the place you will be going. You used to produce such and such. You will be able to produce the same things.’ (…) The first village we resettled was Bahçeli (Kalogrea) village in Kyrenia. We asked them: ‘Now, we will name your village. Look, I have an axe and I am knocking this name (former name) down. Which village do you come from? Tell us the name and we will write it down.’ They would say ‘We are from so and so village.’ ‘Okay mukhtar, write it down, the name of this village is: Bahçeli.”
“My parents were uneducated, illiterate,” Ayşegül said.
“They were brought here and given a house to live in. They didn’t think they were doing something bad. They didn’t think they were harming anyone.”
As a child, Ayşegül was surrounded by Turkish Cypriots, went to school with Turkish Cypriot children, talked like them, dressed like them. She felt one of them. She did not realise she was ‘different’ until she grew older. She did not realise she was a ‘settler,’ and most of the time, just a ‘number’ – and a contested one too – for both Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots.
“The worst times of my life are the two weeks every year that I have to spend in my parents’ village in Turkey, where I am forced to go to visit my family,” she says in perfect Turkish Cypriot dialect.
I hear the distress in her voice. “I feel out of place. I don’t dress like them, I don’t talk like them. I don’t get them. They don’t get me.”
She hates the way she is frowned upon in the conservative and sternly Muslim community – a stark contrast to her circle in Cyprus – in her parents’ village. “As if I am not proper enough to belong with them,” she says.
Ayşegül’s relatives in occupied Kyrenia supported Mustafa Akıncı during April’s elections for the new Turkish Cypriot leader.
In fact, contrary to expectations, Akıncı either led the polls or closely followed former Turkish Cypriot leader Derviş Eroğlu in regions like Lapethos, Trikomo, Kythrea, Akanthou and central Kyrenia, where Turkish settlers outnumber or are at almost equal numbers with Turkish Cypriots.
Proving widespread predictions that the majority of settlers would vote for the conservative, nationalist Eroğlu wrong, Akıncı won considerable support even in settler villages such as Acheritou, Gaidouras, Kalogrea, Flamoudi, Rizokarpasso and Davlos.
Research suggests that the voting patterns of settlers in Cyprus vary considerably and are mostly determined not by ideology but by social and economic factors.
For example, many settlers participated in the demonstrations held in support of the Annan Plan in the early 2000s and, according to estimates, 44% of the predominantly settler villages voted for reunification.
Ayşegül has never voted because she has not been granted ‘citizenship’ by the Turkish Cypriot authorities. She tells me she hopes the Cyprus problem will be solved because she wants a better life for herself and for her younger brother, whom she has been looking after since their father left them 10 years ago. She knows a better life will only come with a solution. But she is scared.
“Will they send me back to that village?” she asks, her big dark green eyes fixed on mine. “I don’t belong there. I would rather die than go back.”
Ayşegül is just a face behind the numbers. She is one of the tens of thousands of Turkish settlers in Cyprus, whose future status is one of the most controversial issues for both communities. While the transfer of population is clearly a crime and a violation of international law, the expulsion of the entire settler population including their descendants is as inhumane as it is impossible.
Can individuals like Ayşegül be penalised for crimes committed by their home state causing an equally major humanitarian tragedy as the displacement of refugees?
This very contentious and controversial question should be debated not only as a legal, but also a humanitarian issue, leaving populism, stereotypes, fears and myths aside.