New York.- By Susan Drucker & Gary Gumpert
The road that leads to the Ledra Palace checkpoint that crosses the “Buffer Zone” is a strange path that in the last several years has gone through a transformation which symbolically provides contradictory but understandable messages about the meaning of division in everyday life. The buffer zone or “dead zone” of Ledra Palace is being redefined. Where once it was a place to pass through, it has become “a place to be.”
For the past twenty years we have been “walking the walk” from the Republic of Cyprus checkpoint to the occupied area’s checkpoint at least one or twice a year. This is not a tale about the invasion but a description of parts of the path. You may know the way, some of you have taken the tormenting steps, but for those who have not some orientation is necessary.
You are looking north with the Ledra Palace on the left. This formerly posh central Nicosia hotel became the headquarters for a part of the UNFICYP in 1974. It has served as the neutral site for meetings between community leaders and visiting officials
The approximately 400-meter walk consists of three parts: the approach to the Cypriot checkpoint, the area between the checkpoints, and the approach away from the alien checkpoint.
The approach to the Republic’s checkpoint includes an abandoned building, a run-down coffee shop, and the Greek Embassy Residence on the left. On the right are a less than inviting coffeeshop/taxistand, the exiled Municipality of Kyrenia’s Town Hall, the vacant Karpasia building (once a meeting place for its members, but now a crumbling site), toilets, and a monument to Efrosini Proestou, “the Lady of Lapithos” who saved 12 young Cypriot soldiers during the 1974 invasion. Two other vacant and graffiti filled buildings lead to the shacks of Cyprus officialdom that checks traffic between the two zones – primarily passport control for pedestrians from the “other side.”
Upon leaving the Republic’s checkpoint and prior to entering the buffer zone (in itself a strangely zoned area with part of it actually a legal part of Nicosia – but located in the buffer zone) two concrete barriers on each side require official automobile traffic and pedestrians to zig-zag before entering the strange zone of neutrality. Of the five checkpoints, Ledra Palace is for pedestrians only and for official cars such as UN vehicles.
Prior to entering the buffer zone itself the walker is confronted by graphic details about the 1996 violent incidents in Deryneia where two Greek Cypriots were killed during protests against the occupation. The pictures deteriorated over the years, but have recently been refurbished.
But changes are evident and begin with the Goethe Institute and the Fulbright Center on the left – these sites once represented safe spaces furnished and maintained by “external authorities” (non-Cypriot authorities) playing host to Cypriots who dared enter. Just beyond is the gated entrance to the Cyprus Community Media Center (CCMC), the “no photograph” area of the Ledra Palace housing United Nations personnel and the place of much bi-communal activity over the years, including negotiations between the two sides, and the dormant temporary building that once housed the Nicosia Master Plan information center.
Significantly, the Cyprus Community Media Centre (CCMC), was opened in 2009 as a site created explicitly for community media and the interpersonal training to utilize the tools of communication. The CCMC is funded by UNDP (United Nations Development Programme Action for Cooperation and Trust (ACT). The Cyprus Community Media Centre’s activities often bring people to the buffer zone.
On the right side after leaving the Republic’s checkpoint is the upscale Chateau Status restaurant and catering hall, a place for fine-dining and wedding receptions, a place of the young and established (the restaurant suffered a fire a few months ago, but continues to operate).
Further along is the new bi-communal-oriented Home for Cooperation complete with a café. Located just before reaching the occupied north in a recently renovated building, the Home for Cooperation opened on May 6, 2011. The “H4C” stated purpose is to transform “the dead zone into a zone of cooperation.” Administered by a bicommunal board, the “H4C” provides a shared space for intercommunal cooperation and dialogue. Funding and support has come from several European Economic Area (EEA) countries including Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein) as well as individuals, organizations and in Cyprus and the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme.) Conferences are held, cultural events hosted and a library and exhibition space is provided. Concerts are held filling the space with music. The “H4C” café now provides hot and cold drinks, Debbie’s American cookies, Wi-Fi, and comfortable seating inside and on the porch adjacent to the street of crossing.
Just before the security barriers of the north, one whitewashed building on the left houses a journalists association. It appears to be vacant. The old signs of torture and “atrocities” across the way have been replaced with a signs welcoming visitors to enjoy “the pleasures of North Cyprus.” This is immediately followed by the occupied area’s checkpoint where all who enter must submit their passports and fill-out a form that is stamped instead of the passport. Upon exiting, the ritual is repeated.
What is clear is that changes along the walk from one side to the other have resulted in an interesting dilemma. Is gentrification good for the buffer zone? There is a degree of tension that exists between the preservation of destruction as a rhetorical statement of division and aggression and the cleaning up what was in order to look to a future without reminders of the past. Where once this area was clearly a place that spoke of division and provided a context to communicate and protest division, social life has been introduced.
Nowhere is this ambiguity made clearer than in the approach to the Cypriot checkpoint. In the tangle brush and barbed wire area behind the ruins of the Karpasia structure is a long wall that separates Nicosia from the no-man’s land and the oppositional wall on the other side. We have been photographing that wall for the past 15 years because some time ago an extraordinary series of murals were drawn on that wall depicting the nature of aggression and the consequences of the loss of freedom and expression. One of those panels was to be the front and back cover of a book we are writing on the division of Cyprus. The front cover is vivid with brilliant colors and the back cover shows the same panel, which we have called “muzzled” is the same panel 15 years later faded, but still meaningful because of its statement about forgetting the past.
Late this June we walked and asked the Cypriot police officer if we could go behind the building to photograph the wall (the wall is not visible to passersby and even most of the police are unaware of its existence). Expecting to see our familiar pet wall we were surprised to see that the old deteriorating mural was gone and had been replaced with different upbeat brightly colored panels depicting old houses and announcing the 2017 Nicosia campaign to represent Cyprus as the European Cultural Capital. Nicosia and Paphos are vying for the honor of representing Cyprus. One city will be chosen along with one site in Denmark.
We were shocked and concerned, why had they not checked with us? Who decided to replace the old with the new? Was this is a municipal decision? On the previous day we had met with Constantinos Yiorkadjis, the new mayor of Nicosia where we learned of the Nicosia 2017 campaign theme of “Get in the Zone” www.nicosia2017.eu. We were referred to Stavros Pombollis (Project Manager for Nicosia 2017) and the Katrina Andreou (Project Coordinator) for Nicosia 2017 and met with them. They are a youthful, enthusiastic bright team working hard to win the bid. They professed to be unaware of the old set of murals but explained that the decision was reached to whitewash the old wall, stencil in new and relevant designs, and invite a group of children to start filling in the walls at a Nicosia European Cultural Capital 2017 kick-off party held in the area on April 30, 2012. We learned that the old building would either be renovated or be replaced to make this area headquarters if Nicosia’s bid is successful.
April 2003 of course ushered in many changes in this area of the buffer zone. Where once traffic between the two zones was limited to foreign nations and UN personnel, crossing has become a more regular occurrence, at least for some Cypriots. The street between has come to life. While the crossing is not filled with throngs of people as in the earliest days of the opening of the crossings, a steady trickle of people now walk the walk. At night social and bi-communal events and fine dining have replaced the reminders of war. The buffer zone has gone from a no-man’s land of passage to a site of interaction. The emphasis has shifted from passing through to occupying and that term is not used lightly. The buffer zone has become a communication zone.
*** Susan Drucker, Professor, Hofstra University
*** Gary Gumpert, Professor Emeritus, Queens College