I can only imagine how the people of Famagusta felt on and around 14th August, 1974, when they heard that the Turkish army was coming their way. The widespread panic that ensued after the news reached the town must have been terrible and devastating. People grabbing their children and running towards south, leaving everything they had behind—their houses, cars, all possessions…
The legend is that even today there are “brand new” 1974 cars in people’s garages and car showrooms in pristine condition. The interiors of hotels are untouched albeit probably not very functional, especially with the exteriors disintegrating. A crane is rusting, but still standing alongside of an uncompleted building. People’s laundry is still “drying” on balconies and dinner tables set as if someone is about to have a feast. Light bulbs are said to have burned for months until they died of natural causes. It was a complete neglect.
The forgotten Riviera
The Riviera of Cyprus—a town with beautiful, white sandy beaches and luxurious hotels—was destroyed within hours, and it has remained a ghost town ever since. The district of Varosha, as the sealed part of the town is called, has thousands of housing units spread over tens of square miles, all empty, falling apart, waiting for their bitter end. Beautiful beaches with sunshades ready for sunbathers are just rotting away.
It is indeed a sad sight. The entire district is surrounded by a barbed fence with signs on it saying “Forbidden zone” and “Photographing is prohibited”. Turkish Cypriots live around Varosha with children playing their innocent, cheerful games and riding their bikes next to the fence as if this were a perfect childhood. At the background there are smaller and bigger houses, still rather nice-looking Greek Orthodox churches and… 40 years of brushwood.
A piece of the beach—incidentally called Palm Beach—is open at the north-eastern corner of Varosha. There’s a little hotel and a little kiosk-like restaurant at the beach. However, at the side of the 20-yard sand line there’s barbed wire and former hotels in ruins. At the southern corner of the beach there’s a watch tower where a Turkish soldier keeps an eye at sunbathers and tourists with cameras. If you spend too much time at the southern end of the beach, the soldier becomes visibly agitated, stands up and looks at you threateningly. It seems as if he doesn’t really know why he’s there and doesn’t much care either. But he knows that an order is an order.
They’re always watching
Watch towers are all around Varosha. Some of them seem to be unmanned, but you never know—it’s probably not very healthy to disobey the signs and take photos around the towers. Elsewhere it at least appears to be possible. No one comes to harass random tourists even if they walk right up to the barbed wire and look through. It feels though as there are invisible eyes keeping you under surveillance.
A narrow road runs around Varosha’s western side, and ends at the south-western corner with a military base. Soldiers at the gate don’t seem threatening, although they patrol with machine guns and appear as if it’s strongly advisable to turn around and go back where you came from. It’s right next to the Green Line—the UN-controlled buffer zone—beyond which lies the Republic of Cyprus. There are no roads to the Republic there though—the closest checkpoint where you can cross is in the village of Ayios Nikolaos, a few miles southwest from Famagusta, right in the middle of the Green Zone and manned by Her Majesty’s troops. People say that the Ayios Nikolaus crossing is the easiest place to bring goods from the North to the South, as the British don’t really care what you bring. The Greek Cypriots in other checkpoints are said to care, because they don’t get VAT for goods purchased in the North and may thus confiscate whatever you bring.
What a waste!
I am not blaming the Turks for invading Cyprus in 1974. Hadn’t the Greek junta and EOKA-B staged a coup in Cyprus, Turkey probably wouldn’t have invaded the island. But I am blaming the Turks for their “political statement” that left Famagusta a useless ghost town. As the Greek fled the North, the Turks escaped the South, and that was a consequence of war. But leaving an entire city empty, fenced off and rotting away is inexcusable. To waste such potential is economically and socially so incredibly stupid it makes one cry.
Famagusta could be the same Cypriot Riviera it was prior to 1974 if the Turkish (or Turkish Cypriot) government came to its senses and released the blockade, started rebuilding and made something out of it. Of course, the issue of ownership and potential compensation remains, but that is not the main issue. The main issue is wasting a beautiful beach resort for idiotic political reasons no one could really understand.
Of course, the ideal would be if the Turks and the Greek of Cyprus came to some solution and reunited the island once again. But as of now, there is no such solution in sight. After the Annan plan failed (and rightly so, because it was indeed too unfair to the Greek Cypriots), there have been no serious negotiations or approaches from either side. And as the Turkish economy is more or less flourishing, the Turkish government hasn’t advanced in their attempts to join the European Union either—which means they have no incentive nor will to settle the Cyprus issue.
But the truth is, if the Turkish government really cared about the “state” only they recognise, they would have allowed the Turkish Cypriots t have a beautiful beach resort that would benefit the Northern Cyprus economy a great deal. The southern neighbours of the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” have gorgeous resorts and they get enormous economic gains from the tourism industry that the Turkish Cypriots lack and could very well use. Every sensible argument speaks in the benefit of reopening and recreating Famagusta as a tourist destination, and yet, for the last almost 40 years, they’ve all been constantly ignored.
I just hope there won’t be 40 more.
*From Stelios Chiotis’ song Ammohostos (Αμμόχωστος)