Everybody, who knows the work of the bi-communal Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage in Cyprus, would agree on its tremendous success in preserving the island’s legacy.
They would also agree that this success, to a great extent, stems from the very good personal relationship between its members, and particularly between Takis Hadjidemetriou and Ali Tuncay– the respective Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot heads of the committee.
Established in 2008, the committee has been able to isolate itself from the political problems and restore and preserve dozens of historic and religious sites like the Apostolos Andreas Monastery, Ayia Maria Church, Denia Mosque, Othello Tower and many others.
“We are trying to create success stories, which are lacking between the two communities,” says Ali.
The satisfaction he feels is apparent in his voice and eyes. “We are giving the message that if we cooperate, we can do a lot. Our committee is a mini-model of how things should be in the future Cyprus.”
Ali’s feelings were not always like this…He had a very difficult childhood and youth after his father was murdered by Greek Cypriot militia in Famagusta on July 20, 1974. Ali was only seven years old.
“I always tried to keep an open mind, but through all those years I have to admit that Greek Cypriots – for me – were the ones, who killed my father,” he says, visibly shyly. “When I started to work with the committee, I was reserved.”
The incident that transformed Ali as a person, and his relationship with Takis took place soon after the committee was established. As the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot members of the committee were on a bus visiting some of the cultural heritage sites in the north, Takis directed the bus driver to make an unexpected turn.
He stood up, and said: “We are now going to see a monument, where a great crime against humanity was committed by the fanatics of the Greek Cypriot community. A monument where women, children and elderly people were brutally killed.”
The bus stopped at the Maratha Santalaris cemeteries, where the Turkish Cypriot victims of mass murders by EOKA B paramilitary organisation in the Famagusta region on August 14, 1974, lie.
“I felt such a big respect for him,” remembers Ali. “I admired his courage.”
Takis found out about Ali’s past though others when they started working together. The two men have apparently never spoken about this issue, so I realise Ali’s discomfort as Takis talks about it.
“When I heard the story of Ali… how his father was killed in a very brutal way… this was enough for me to understand the pain of the man.” He speaks with hesitation, worried that he may upset Ali.
“We all have to know what happened on this island. There are people – nice people, left-wing people, even people in the committee – who don’t know that these crimes took place.”
“Neither side knows what they have done to the other side,” interrupts Ali.
“If you ask, the majority of Greek Cypriots will say ‘we are the victims.’ And the majority of Turkish Cypriots will say ‘we are the victims’. But we are both victims. We have committed crimes, and, at the same time, we are victims.”
Takis and Ali, who received the European Citizen prize in 2015 for their enormous contribution to the preservation of Cyprus’ cultural heritage and advancing the idea of peaceful cooperation, now describe their relationship as one between “a father and son”,
“And we are actually planning to visit my mother together for the first time,” announces Ali in excitement.
“I have been wanting this for a long time. I asked Ali long ago and I left it to him to decide when,” continues Takis.
There are tears welling up in his eyes. “I need to meet his mother – a person who suffered so much – as a matter of appreciation. I need this psychologically.”
The technical committee led by Ali and Takis has changed the decades-old policy of the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot side accusing each other for of destruction of the island’s cultural heritage.
“When the committee was created, the first decision we took was not to start blaming each other,” says Takis. “We changed the confrontational spirit to one of cooperation.”
During periods of tension between the leaders, when most committees stop working, the committee on cultural heritage continued its work.
“We even enhance our work because that is when people need to have positive messages the most,” says Takis.
The committee’s work is very well received; increasingly it is the villagers, municipalities, mukhtars themselves, who get in touch with it to repair the church, the mosque, the monument of the ‘other community’ in their village. And during inaugurations of the restored sites, the displaced Greek Cypriots or Turkish Cypriots come back to their villages and meet their fellow villagers, some after as long as 60 years.
“It is a healing process,” says Ali.
“We witness that when they come together, they have a sense of fulfillment…a feeling of completion. Something that doesn’t happen when they are only with their own community. This is Cyprus,” states Takis.
“We filled our country with cemeteries, with monuments. It’s enough. We have to create a space for the living now. There is a chance for this country to have a new start.”