Cyprus refugees tell of losses
When I stepped onto the rocky soil of Famagusta, there were no saloons, no factories left unoccupied by their operators, no tumbleweeds, and certainly no horses left unguarded by a population that has fled their homes. The image of the caricatured ‘ghost town’ of 1970s westerns is far from the reality that awaited me when our group visited the city.
In 1960, the country of Cyprus gained independence from Great Britain, moving forward to carve its place in the post-World War II era – and Famagusta aimed to become the ‘Cancun of the Mediterranean.’ Its ideal environment of temperate climate and crystalline blue waters enabled a tourism boom for both the city and the economy of Cyprus. Famagusta was anchored to launch Cyprus as an independent nation with legitimate international credibility.
The morning of Aug. 14, 1974 brought smoke, gunshots, and Turkish flags with the rising sun in Famagusta. Women dressing their children for school looked out their windows to see Turkish tanks in the streets, men sitting at their kitchen tables for breakfast heard screams of Cypriots being forced from their homes. Whistling bombs and chants of the invading army could be heard over the pleadings of Cypriots who would not leave their homes behind.
More than 50,000 native Famagustan Cypriots fled from the city during the course of the next few days which turned into weeks, as families refused to leave the lives they had built.
Thirty-four years and dozens of negotiations between Cypriot and Turkish governments later, the city of Famagusta remains trapped in time. A line of rusted barbed wire surrounds the border of the city with Turkish flags signaling control over this isolated part of Cyprus. Signs remain scripted in ’70s print, pages of the newspaper are open to the morning of the invasion and an eerie cloud of loss blankets the once-vibrant tourist attraction.
The coordinator of the Famagusta Cultural Center holds back tears when telling me she now lives only one kilometer from her home in the city. She left at age 10 with the rest of her family, has not been able to return to the home of her childhood. Instead, she must settle for seeing her former house crumbling in front of her eyes from her kitchen window. Even with petitions by the refugees of the city and investigations put forth by the United Nations Security Council, Turkey refuses to permit refugees to enter the city or have access to their property.
The political issues between Turkey and Cyprus aside, the stories of refugee Famagustans prove to be the greatest example of how consideration for human life and basic rights are thrown to the wind when powers greater than the people themselves impose control.
The most common reason given by students for studying abroad is to understand cultures beyond our own. Famagusta is the time capsule, which teaches us that while the surface of a culture can appear to be very similar to our own, it is in delving beneath to find both the joys and heartaches of a people from whom we can gain greater understanding of differences in perspectives.
Students at UH attend classes and meetings, work avidly at their jobs and spend a considerable amount of time creating their futures. At the end of the day, we all return to what we consider to be ‘home.’ Armed guards do not prevent us from entering the doorway; no one snatches the keys from our fingers; and no one tells us that because we belong to a certain nationality we must abandon the lives we’ve built.
Perhaps one day soon, the refugees of Famagusta can return home.