Every week for the last 35 years, a small UN convoy delivers a shipment of food, gas and other ncecessities to a diminishing enclave of Greeks living in Northern Cyprus. The island has been divided since 1974 – the year Turkey sent its army to stop what it claimed was an attempted coup d’etat by the Greeks in the south.
Cut off from the rest of the island, these people stayed in their village called Rizokarpaso – which became protected under a UN ceasefire plan. The villagers say they will not leave the village where the were born. They want to die there like their forefathers They fear that if they move south, they’ll be beggars with no houses of their own, and no way of earning a livelihood.
Before 1974, there were 3,000 Greek Cypriots here. Today that number has shrunk to 260. Now, most of Rizokarpaso’s residents are of Turkish origin. They were brought in to farm the land abandoned by the Greek cypriots. In the village centre, the local mosque and orthodox church stand shoulder to shoulder. On one side of the street, Turkish cafés and shops. On the other side, the same, but in Greek.
Ali Karadogan is one of Rizokarpaso 2,500 Turkish settlers who arrived here after 1974. He came from Anatolia and was given farmland. He says he was part of a plan to repopulate empty villages and didnt have a choice. His conscience is clear. He lives in peace with his Greek neighbours.
Although the opening of borders since 2003 has brought more Greek Cypriots to visit Rizokarpaso, few stay. Chris Parpottas is an exception. He returned seven years ago to head the village’s only Greek elementary school. Born and raised here, Parpottas said coming back to his own school was a dream come true even if there are only 20 students. He says he understands the frustration of his older peers who never left and are still waiting for a solution. He himself lost his family home. But despite this loss, he claims he has no hard feelings against the Turkish settlers.
Under the 2004 Annan peace plan, Greek Cypriots would have been able to reclaim their homes in Rizokarpaso. But they would have stayed under Turkish Cypriot control. The Greek side voted no. The Turkish side, yes.
Ragbet Buyukdogan came to Rizokarpaso from Turkey when she was four years old. She lives in a house which belonged to Greek cypriots but doesn’t own it. She pays rent to the Northern Cypriot government. Chris Parpottas is her neighbour. But despite the friendly relations, she says only a solution can make her feel really at home.
Today Ragbet is helping out her younger brother, Sukru who owns a restaurant in Rizokarpaso. They are expecting 50 tourists from Iran. Sukrü was two months old when his family came in 1975. He has never left the island. He feels Cypriot and wants a solution. But he says the European Union has let them down: “Before the referendum, some EU countries promised that if we voted YES, the sanctions would be lifted. If you vote YES, you’ll get direct flights. And what happened? We said YES by a large majority and what did we get out of it? The same line, the same old life. Nothing changed.”
These issues are at the heart of the forthcoming electios in Northern Cyprus which pit current leader Mehmet Ali Talat against Dervis Eroglu, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus or TRNC. They are running for the president of a country which is only recognized by Turkey. But although there are only 280,000 Turkish Cypriots, who they vote for on the 18th of April will have a strong political impact way beyond their small borders.
Talat has campaigned for a bi-federal, bi-zonal Cyprus since he was elected in 2005. But a growing number of Turkish Cypriots, tired of the slow pace and disappointed by the EU’s broken promises, want a two-state solution.
Dervis Eroglu and his party of National Unity are campaigning on this promise of a two-state solution – a popular slogan which has become political music to many Turkish Cypriots. Eroglu’s growing popularity in the opinion polls has led to a concern that time is running out not only for a Cyprus solution but for Talat’s re-election.
Talat says he understands the frustration of the Turkish Cypriots but warns a two-state solution is not up for negotiation. There are too many UN security council resolutions which forbid it.
But imagination or not, the latest polls show that Dervis Eroglu is winning. And while this could be a dream for some, it will no doubt be a political nightmare not only for the international community but for Cypriots from both sides who continue to wait for a solution.