Frontpage News 2011 Building inside a ceasefire line: The Home for Cooperation in divided Cyprus

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Building inside a ceasefire line: The Home for Cooperation in divided Cyprus

Our guest writer, Yiannis Papadakis from the University of Cyprus, presents the situation in Cyprus and how initiatives such as the Home for Cooperation are needed to overcome distrust and help towards creating a dialogue among opposing historical narratives between the two communities in Cyprus.

The party was warming up, despite the presence of two secret policemen sitting alone at one of the tables. Music, conversation and the smell of grilled meat transformed the UN-controlled Buffer Zone dividing Cyprus, a place usually eerily quiet, into a joyful setting. By the end of the party, the role of the two secret policemen would also be transformed.

This party took place more than a year ago (video blog), on 6th February 2010, to celebrate the commencement of renovation work (video blog) on a building situated in the Buffer Zone dividing Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus. The renovation is funded by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA and Norway Grants. The building has become the Home for Cooperation, a project initiated by a local NGO, the Association of Historical Dialogue and Research (AHDR). As Chara Makriyianni, President of AHDR explained: ‘We came up with an idea of looking for a house in the buffer zone, somewhere neutral. This will be the first inter-communal building that promotes research and dialogue and issues regarding history education.’ What makes the AHDR stand out in Cyprus is that it is one of a few NGO’s where Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots closely work together.

Fifteen months later, on Friday 6th May 2011, the official opening of the Home for Cooperation took place in the presence of the Greek Cypriot leader, Demetris Christofias, the Turkish Cypriot leader, Derviþ Eroðlu. The hope is that this will also be a home for many other organisations who share the aims of fostering dialogue, promoting tolerance and understanding in Cyprus and beyond. Despite the renovation, bullet holes are still visible on the building. Rusting barbed wire is still lying on the ground behind the building. The blue-white barrel from the sentry post of the UN soldier is still there on the roof. These were left there on purpose to remind visitors of the history of the building and the area. This is appropriate for a project led by an association whose focus is history education. ‘The Association’s mission is to defend and promote productive dialogue and research on issues regarding history and history teaching, to develop historical thinking and strengthen peace, stability and, democracy and critical thinking.’ The visible presence of the building’s wounds due to past conflict in Cyprus reflects the Association’s view that education towards a peaceful future does not mean whitewashing past conflicts away, but learning from them and learning to live with them.

The conflict that has scarred Cyprus as well as the Home for Cooperation is known as the Cyprus Problem. But views are divided on what the problem is. One of the few things that both sides agree upon is that Cyprus emerged as an independent state, the Republic of Cyprus, in 1960 with a total population of almost 600,000 of which 78% were Greek Cypriots, 18% Turkish Cypriots and 4% smaller minorities of Armenians, Maronites and Latins. The official Greek Cypriot position is that the Cyprus Problem begun in 1974 with the ‘barbaric Turkish invasion’; the official Turkish Cypriot position is that it started in Christmas 1963 with the ‘barbaric attacks’ of Greek Cypriots against Turkish Cypriots. For Greek Cypriots, 20th July is the ‘dark anniversary of the barbaric Turkish invasion in 1974’ when the Problem begun. For Turkish Cypriots, 20th July is the ‘Happy Peace Operation by Motherland Turkey in 1974’ when the Problem finished, and Turkish Cypriots soon moved to the north of the island where they established their own state in 1983. Greek Cypriots (and the rest of the international community except Turkey) does not recognize any such state, arguing that Turkish Cypriots live in an illegal pseudo-state. The current negotiations between Demetris Christofias, the Greek Cypriot leader, and Derviþ Eroðlu, the Turkish Cypriot leader, to reach a solution that will reunify Cyprus as a federal state once again appear to be in a stalemate.

As with any such conflict, history is one of the major victims. Given such deeply divided official historical perspectives, it is not surprising that a solution has not been found. It is also difficult to see how any kind of solution could be sustainable if people in the two sides are socialised through education into such opposed viewpoints. This is not to deny the presence of competing historical narratives within each community; yet, these too are as deeply divided as those between the two communities. The common ground necessary for a meaningful discussion on issues related to history is missing. This is where the AHDR tries to contribute by providing the physical and mental space for such a dialogue to begin, inside this home that is located neither in one nor in the other side.

The Home for Cooperation is now located between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots; between a Muslim and a Christian society; some argue that it also lies between Greeks and Turks, given that Cyprus is such a divisive issue for these two countries; and it currently lies in the EU’s de facto border with the East. The potential is there for this to become a space for an enlarged dialogue reaching beyond Cyprus, an island ideally suited to host this located as it is between Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

But in order to do this, it first has to overcome certain local mistrust. Even though the events and conferences of the AHDR are always oversubscribed; even though it has the best record of cooperation in Cyprus with the Council of Europe on issues of history education; it has won awards like the Cyprus Civil Society Special Award for exceptional contribution to island-wide cooperation in 2010; and it has been successful in being awarded large grants not only from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, but also Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and UN organisations like UNDP-ACT, it is also sometimes treated with suspicion, by the authorities and certain groups in both sides as attempting to ‘distort history’.

These are the local challenges to be overcome. The presence of the two secret policemen at the party last year was an indication of this mistrust. That these were supposed to be ‘secret policemen’ while almost everyone knew what they were reflects the local culture of ‘open secrets’ that also affects history; most know of past atrocities committed by their own side, yet would publicly deny they ever happened. By the end of the party the two ‘secret’ policemen were no longer alone. They were eating, drinking and socialising with the others. This could be an indication of an emerging trust towards the activities of NGOs like the AHDR that the Home for Cooperation will provide the space for.