By Constance Valarie Baroudos
As a participant of the AHIF Foreign Policy College Student Trip to Greece and Cyprus, I personally experienced the Turkish occupied area located in northern Cyprus. Turkish troops invaded the island on July 20, 1974 and continue to maintain their presence in the northern part of the country. While the state of the area can be read in books and discussed by pundits, the only way to truly relate and understand the state of the occupied area is by experiencing it in person. If I had not visited the occupied area, I would not be able to feel as passionately about the unfairness of the region as I do today. During my visit, I felt as though I had stepped into a horror film. What personally evoked the most emotion out of me in the occupied area were the desecrated churches, Turkish troops holding weapons in an offensive posture, and the deserted city of Famagusta.
As a Greek American, I hold my Greek Orthodox religion close to my heart and value its ability to keep Greek Americans close together in the United States. Unless an individual has been brought up in the church from birth it is impossible to understand the sadness I felt as I saw the way in which several churches had been destroyed. As I entered one of the desecrated churches, emotion overcame me. This church was extremely ill kept on the outside with weeds growing around the building and broken crosses carelessly piled in an open shed. Inside, the church was bare with mountains of pigeon feathers and feces.
I found myself trying to imagine what the church looked like with its proper interior of icons, pews, altar, and other components of Greek Orthodox Churches. I found myself experiencing chills and reminiscing about my childhood holidays, such as Easter and Christmas, which I spent inside my Greek Orthodox Church with my family close to my side. I wondered how many families once spent quality time in this very place, which was reduced to a bare building.
At the Byzantine Museum in Cyprus, I learned that many Greek Orthodox religious icons in the occupied area were stripped from the walls of churches and sold on the black market. When I first heard this, I felt a pain inside my chest, which made me realize how important the church is to my culture and how disrespectful it is for Turkish Cypriots and Turkish settlers to disregard valuable structures that symbolize our faith. As I left the church, I felt depressed and, ironically, motivated. I experienced a rush of passion to bring awareness of the occupied area to the masses and assist with a successful negotiation between the north and south of Cyprus. A successful negotiation between the communities would lead to the restoration of desecrated churches in the area, allowing them to be the beautiful buildings they once were.
As we drove along the road in the occupied area, I looked out the window and saw that one side of the road had deep ditches in the ground that looked like huts. Under these huts, Turkish troops stood and held M-16s in an upright offensive posture. I felt instantly violated and almost ducked to make sure I was safe if a Turkish troop were to shoot at me on accident or on purpose. The area was particularly peaceful and tranquil, which made their presence and arms completely unnecessary. When I learned that there are two Turkish troops per Turkish Cypriot in the north I was appalled! Turkish troops maintain presence in the occupied area as though they were in war.
Emotion completely overcame me as I drove around the city of Famagusta. As I peered through the wired fencing and barrels that surrounded the city, I saw the property and belongings of Greek Cypriots. I imagined myself as a Greek Cypriot that came home from work on July 20, 1974 only to find that I am being forced to leave the home I own and the belongings I purchased. I began to cry. After all, the property was not being used for anything useful. Homes were just deserted and not occupied by anyone. Greek Cypriots were removed and made homeless so that their properties and belongings could stand and serve no purpose.
The Turkish invasion and continuing presence in the occupied area of northern Cyprus is inhumane, violates international law, and the Geneva Conventions. While I was in Washington, DC I had the opportunity to view a documentary presented by The Assembly of Turkish American Associations. As expected, the documentary convinces its audience that Turkish troops must maintain presence on the island to keep Turkish Cypriots safe. This cannot be further from the truth. Turkey needs to remove all of its involvement in the area and allow Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots to reach an agreement that is tailored to their needs. It is absolutely unnecessary for Turkey to act as an imposing third party in the area and should remove its troops from the occupied area to allow the two communities to reach a workable agreement.
**** Constance Valarie Baroudos is currently an intern at Congressman Randy Hultgren’s (IL- 14) office in Washington, D.C. She received her M.A. in political science at California State University Fullerton. Baroudos was Treasurer of Pi Sigma Alpha (The National Political Science Honor Society), and a member of Phi Beta Delta (The National Honor Society for International Scholars). Baroudos was one of 14 Greek-American students who participated in the third annual AHIF Foreign Policy College Student Trip to Greece and Cyprus sponsored by the American Hellenic Institute Foundation.