By Gary Gumpert and Susan Drucker
Itʼs July 1994, the heat of the noon day sun is searing through the Nicosia street when the sirens begin to blare and wail, the sounds of the city suddenly cease, the traffic stops, and the drivers stand in the street looking upward and north. Several parachutes drift down on the mysterious side. Several minutes pass and life resumes as it was just before.
We walk down Ledra Street from the city hall past the coffee shops, trinket stores, small boutiques and restaurants until the street abruptly ends at a barricade of sandbags, blue and white painted barrels, and an elevated sentry post. An armed sentry stands guard. This is the Green Line (green because it was the color of the ink used to describe the division between Israel and its neighbors after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War), the area of partition between a divided Cyprus. A blue canopy protecting the sentry has white lettering proclaiming, “Nothing is gained without sacrifice and freedom without blood.” Signs warn the tourist that it is illegal to photograph the divide.
Several years later the curious tourist would be allowed to climb a few steps from where one could look over the wall to the end of the world – the no-manʼs land buffer zone – and photograph a strange landscape of destruction, a scene frozen since 1974. It was the only place in Nicosia where it was legal to photograph across the barriers into the unknown world beyond.
In 1994 we were strangers looking into a no-manʼs world separating Lefkosia from Lefkosha, the Turkish Cypriots from the Greek Cypriots, the known from the unknown.
In 2009 the barred sentry point has been transformed into a checkpoint because of an agreement reached between the two sides in 2008 to open up Ledra Street for pedestrian traffic between north and south. Prior to that time the only pedestrian crossing (and diplomatic vehicles) between the two sides was through the Ledra Palace check point.
In 2009 we are walking from one side to the other along a narrow corridor of almost transparent material painted with pink, blue, green and orange silhouettes of young people, some carrying balloons. The material masks the destruction and decay that remain hidden behind – but one is nevertheless drawn to shadows of the ruins.
Between 2003 and 2009 a number of checkpoints were opened along the Green line, including, Agios Dometios, the primary vehicular crossing in Nicosia and Astromeritis or Zohdia west of Nicosia – closest to Morphu. Every crossing represents not only a transit point, but also a political and symbolic statement. Currently the purposed Limnitis checkpoint near the northwest town of Pyrgos is the latest point of negotiation.[ Although it was agreed by the two leaders in March 2008 to give priority to the opening of the Limnitis checkpoint, no steps have been taken by the Turkish side to this end.]
The two other check points are interesting because they are located on the British Sovereign Base – Pergamos in the Dehekelia area and Black Night (Stroveilia or Azios Nikolaos) closest to Famagusta. It is our impression that Pergamos was always a crossing point where Turkish Cypriot workers could enter and work in the south, because they were theoretically entering onto neutral territory.
But with the addition of the other checkpoints, Ledra Street remained barred and a symbol of division in the heart of the city. Lellos Demetriades, former long-time mayor of Nicosia has said, “every opening is a crack in the wall of division.”
Let us be clear about checkpoints. They are not doors or entrances through which one can enter at will. They are barriers. The fear is that one can be stopped for reasons that are not always clear. The checkpoints are places of ritual and it is necessary to need to know the rules of the ritual in order to pass.
In the case of two curious Americans the ritual involves: walking past the Greek checkpoint unimpeded past a strange neutral undefined space until reaching the white huts of the northern authorities; filling out a small white visa slip with date, name, nationality, and passport number and handing the slip to the uniformed official behind the glass. The passport number is typed into a computer and if one passes the test of whatever might prohibit entry the document is stamped – The unstated and acknowledged part of the ritual is that, in this particular situation, the passport cannot be stamped, but the slip of paper may be re-used for several other crossings, although the passport has to be rescanned each time. Were the passport to be stamped return entry would be in peril, because the Government of the Republic of Cyprus (and practically any other nation in the world except Turkey) does not recognize the existence of the northern Cyprus political entity.
For those seeking to drive across, each of the authorities, requires separate insurance be paid. For tourists driving a rental car, a minimum of a three-day insurance payment is required. Tourists travelling from North to South cannot drive a rental to the other side.
The opening of Ledra Street was not a straightforward development but was marked by a number of aborted attempts, one that we earlier had characterized as the Blue Bridge on the Green Line. (See GreekNews, June 19, 2006). The aborted Blue Bridge involved a poorly designed initiative by the Turkish Cypriots to open Ledra Street by constructing a bridge over the Green Line. The Green Line consists of the Greek Cypriot fortified wall, the buffer zone patrolled by UN personnel, a road used by Turkish or Turkish Cypriot troops, a Turkish Cypriot administered area and the Turkish Cypriot fortified wall.
For the Greek Cypriots the bridge was seen as an intrusion stressing division rather than a span to understanding and unification. The objections result in the dismantling of the bridge.
The Ledra Street remained closed until April 3, 2008 when an agreement was reached between Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat. “By opening this street, we hope the road to a solution to the Cyprus problem will also open,” George Iacovou, an aide to Cyprus President Demetris Christofias, told reporters. EU Commissioner Oli Rehn said: “I am delighted that the two sides on the island have moved ahead with this important decision to open the Ledra Street crossing. It will bring direct benefits to those living and working in the neighbourhood of Old Nicosia. Even more important is the symbolic value of the opening. It shows the two sides on the island are ready to put aside the difficulties of the past and work together to bring a comprehensive settlement and reunification to Cyprus under the aegis of the United Nations. The European Commission will for its part, fully support both communities on the island in this task.”
So Ledra Street opened 44 years after it had been closed, 15 years prior to the Turkish invasion in 1974. While the symbolic significance of the opening was self evident, the economic impact for merchants within the walls was an anticipated.
It is interesting to look at the changing traffic patterns. The following statistics were supplied by the United Nations spokesperson in Nicosia. Obviously, the number of people crossing at the Ledra Palace checkpoint decreased dramatically with the opening of Ledra Street. On Thursday April 10, (during the first week after Ledra Street opened) 2802 persons crossed through Ledra Street. That figure dramatically increased to 8832 on Saturday. In January of 2009 the figures decreased somewhat with 1996 people crossing on Ledra Street and 1531 through Ledra Palace. On the weekend (Sunday the 26th) 625 crossed at Ledra Palace and 2009 at Ledra Street.
Formerly to cross at Ledra Palace was to experience the past devastation and the impact of war with the scene of gutted buildings, bullet pocketed walls and crumbling terrain sitting opposite the Ledra Palace itself. The addition of the Fulbright Center and the Goethe Institute began to change that impression, but the juxtaposition of old and new, of barbed wire and fading political slogans create a surrealistic landscape in which memories of the past are frozen in time. But even those memories have begun to fade and the crossing appears to be entering the age of gentrification with the new high-end restaurant Château Status opening across from the Ledra Palace itself and with rumors that a hotel is being planned.
To some extent the Ledra Palace crossing is defined by Ledra Street and Ledra Streetʼs hopes and character is influenced by the increasing amount of automobile traffic through the Agios Dometios checkpoint. The interlocking influence of each crossing upon the other is further demonstrated by another factor – that being the opening of the 27,000 sq. metres Mall of Cyprus on September 27, 2007. The huge complex including multiplex cinemas, Debenhams fashions, Carrefour shopping, Ikea, a food court is siphoning off the trendy shoppers who used to play on Makarios Avenue in downtown Nicosia. Free parking and variety attract the mobile shoppers from all parts of Cyprus and those entering the city through Agios Dometios. We are witness to shoppers from the north who drive 20 minutes from the checkpoint to enjoy the once forbidden fruits of the south.
A number of years ago we suggested that it was not only the Green Line that was defining the character of Old Nicosia, but that Strovolos and the sprawl of suburbia was equally threatening to the past urban center. The multiple checkpoints will have an equal impact upon the character of Nicosia, especially since the traffic of Agios Dometios by-passing the heart of the old city.
The old town had and is in the process of change. It has become a place of diversity with its less than affluent pedestrian tourists, its immigrant underclass, and its struggling pioneers seeking to preserve, gentrify and rebuild within the pressures of suburbanization and redefinition.
The political and economic realities of Ledra Street remain problematic, but clearly the character and heart of the street will change – as the result of the multiple checkpoints. It is a bit ironic that the increased opportunity of movement across the Green Line ultimately threatens the future of Ledra Street as a vibrant commercial and social thoroughfare. To some extent no matter how many checkpoints are opened, their presence still announces the specter of division and as long as division rules, Ledra Street will remain in a strange state of incompleteness. The greater number of checkpoints reflects some progress but there remains a distinct Nicosia problem. The problems of Nicosia are in part, problems of division. The problems of Nicosia are also similar to those faced by many undivided modern cities – the redefinition of the inner city.
**** Gary Gumpert (Ph.D, 1963, Wayne State University) is Emeritus Professor of Communication at Queens College of the City University of New York.
*Susan J. Drucker, (JD, 1982, St. Johnʼs University School of Law) is a Professor in School of communication, Department of Journalism/ Mass Media Studies, Hofstra University.
For the past fifteen years they have been writing about the Communication Division of Cyprus. They are currently working on a documentary entitled “Memories in Cypriot Soil” that explores the historical significance of the British Detention Camps that existed in Cyprus from 1946 to 1949.