Occupy Buffer Zone

March 21, 2012

Within Nicosia’s Venetian walls, Ledra Street, with its chain stores and cafés, is in many ways similar to other high streets around the world. However, something quite unique is happening here. As you walk, the shops fade away and the street narrows with the diagonal encroachment of temporary wire fencing. But with all the construction taking place around the island, nothing seems amiss. Perhaps you notice a police pavilion to your right. Perhaps you see the people coming towards you preparing their passports. Perhaps you catch sight of the placard above the pavilion bearing the lament: ‘Lefkosia: The last divided capital’.

The fencing gradually intrudes some more until Ledra is no longer a high street but a lane. You are funnelled out into a space where several people are warming their hands around a fire burning in a metal barrel between two rows of tents and beneath a banner that reads ‘Welcome to Cyprus’ in a combination of Greek and Turkish. You ask what is going on. ‘We’re occupying the buffer zone,’ comes the reply. Indeed, without realising, you have passed over into no-man’s land, the buffer zone between the Republic of Cyprus and Northern Cyprus. And a space which has become the site of Occupy Buffer Zone.

The Occupy camp in Nicosia differs from every other one around the world in that it is taking place not in a jurisdiction of a particular state but in UN-controlled no-man’s land. Following a coup by the ultra-nationalist guerrilla group EOKA-B in 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus and the territory it gained control of – roughly the northern third of the island – still remains under Turkish occupation today. It is now known that Britain and the United States encouraged the division of the island. Between the north and the south runs a stretch of UN-controlled land known as the Green Line, and it is here that activists from both sides of the divide have set up camp.


The history of the camp can be traced to 15th October, the day of global protests inspired, in part, by the Spanish indignado movement.  ‘We gathered at Eleftheria Square. It just happened from the sensation going on all around the world,’ says Rahme, a twenty-seven-year-old Turkish Cypriot sociologist and a member of the camp’s media team. ‘There, we sat down and talked, initially about the capitalist system and then eventually it led us to the Cyprus Problem because we have to get over this problem first before we can deal with the other issues.’ The protesters then marched down Ledra Street to the buffer zone. They returned there to demonstrate every Saturday until, in mid-November, they decided to stay for one night. ‘Waking up the next day was such an incredible feeling,’ says Rahme with a smile. ‘We said, ok, we’re going to stay here and this is going to be permanent until we change something.’

For the activists, the division of their island is a domestic manifestation of international capitalism, the local symptom of a global problem. ‘There’s no country that has a reality like this: a buffer zone to occupy in this way,’ says Michalis, a twenty-six-year-old linguist. Down one of the two alleys running perpendicular to Ledra Street which are now filled with tents and roofed with tarpaulin, Michalis, against a backdrop of barbed wire and broken bricks, continues to talk. ‘The Cyprus Problem [is] not a head-on clash between two peoples. [Cyprus is] an island that was divided to be used as a military base for resource monopolisation happening in the Middle East.’ He describes a handbook for British service personnel stationed on the island entitled ‘Why We Are in Cyprus’ which provides a particularly colonial definition of the island: ‘We can call Cyprus an unsinkable aircraft carrier anchored off the shores of the Levant.’ ‘So within this context,’ continues Michalis, ‘you see that [the Cyprus Problem] is one of the many symptoms of an unhealthy social-economic paradigm which promotes competition and robbing and dishonesty. The Occupy activists plan to stay indefinitely. But one concrete date is fixed in their minds: 1 July 2012, when Cyprus assumes the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The hope is that they will be able to raise awareness of their plight when Europe’s eyes are upon them.

Being in no-man’s land, the protesters are untouchable for both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot authorities. It is the UN which controls the Green Line. Michalis describes the UN reaction after the group’s first night in the buffer zone: ‘The UN came in the morning and they were really rude and really aggressive. They were trying to threaten me personally. One guy took me and said, ‘You step one metre this way and that guy over there is going to arrest you.’’ However, the UN’s attitude soon changed. ‘[The UN] obviously had decided that the public rhetoric will be that [they] have the same aim [as the protesters]. Since then they’ve been really polite.’ Michel Bonnardeaux, official spokesperson for UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), speaks with a diplomatic mix of firmness and understanding: ‘So far we have tolerated their presence. We have served them with conditions. They have not complied. However, they’ve been very cooperative in terms of the work that we need to do in that area.’

Asked if there are any plans to remove the protesters, Bonnardeaux’s answer echoes Michalis’ analysis: ‘Not at the moment. The reasons for their protest are essentially the same reasons why we are in the country in the first place. They advocate reunification of the island which is what we advocate as well. And they ask for a departure of UN troops which we would certainly be happy to do once the island is reunified.’ Not all Cypriots share the activists’ hope for reunification however. One reason for the difference seems to be generational, those with memories of 1974 being reluctant to place trust in the ‘other side’. On the Turkish Cypriot side of Ledra Street, after showing your passport and receiving a visa, you meet Sevgül Doktorolu, a shopkeeper. At fifty-one, she remembers the height of the hostilities.

She asks to stop being recorded as she tearfully recounts atrocities perpetrated by EOKA-B. Parallel stories of violence and sorrow are remembered and retold by Greek Cypriots in the south. Throughout the island, large sections of both communities have been affected too deeply by these events to ever permit themselves to consider the possibility of a peaceful coexistence.

Some have the luxury of viewing the Cyprus Problem more pragmatically. For those who aren’t burdened by issues of identity, security or mistrust, the question can be one of pure economics. In a café next to Sevgül’s shop, Raj works as a waiter. Born in Saudi Arabia to Pakistani parents and raised in Dubai, he has just graduated with a degree in Hospitality Management. ‘The hotel industry here is badly affected because we have no international access,’ he says, referring to a consequence of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus not being recognised by any country other than Turkey. ‘Also if you look at the restaurants, on the north side there is no authority which can open any franchise business.’ What hopes does he have for reunification? ‘The people from the south come here and those from the north go to the south side. They’re peaceful, they sit together, they talk, they have fun. So it’s just political issues which are keeping this border alive.’

The activists in the Occupy camp are not the only ones striving for reunification. In the Ottoman courtyard of the Büyük Han cultural centre, eight Turkish and Greek Cypriots are having coffee together. They meet up on the north side every Saturday in an informal effort to foster inter-communal relations. ‘I have friends from the Greek side who are very active in getting in contact with Cypriots from the Turkish side,’ says Yiannis Michaelides, 68. ‘They try to find people in the same profession on the other side to do things together.’

Dusk descends upon the divided capital and you’re back on the south side. Further along the Green Line, east of Ledra Street, down disorientating backstreets whose walls, jaundiced by street lamps, know how to pull off a good, mysterious shadow, Phanos, 20, sits in a quiet bar. Like all men his age, he’s doing his national military service, although he’s off duty now. When he gets the time, he attends the Occupy camp. ‘The whole movement’s [purpose] is to draw awareness to the fact that the problem is not Turkish Cypriots [against] Greek Cypriots.’ His words are considered but spoken with a confidence that belies his youth. ‘It’s a joint community. We are one. Cyprus is Cyprus. The [Occupy] cause is really genuine. It’s not politically driven. It’s just a cry to break the walls apart.’


Jonathan Socrates is a freelance journalist who blogs at http://jonathansocrates.blogspot.com/