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26th April was the third day of the border opening between the occupied and unoccupied parts of Cyprus.
Almost 29 years ago, in August 1974, Turkish troops invaded northern Cyprus. Since that time the island has been divided by the Green Line, a strip of wasteland running coast to coast from east to west. The division of the island has been maintained by the UN security forces and armed border guards from both sides of the line.
For years there have been talks between politicians from Turkey, Greece, Britain and the Republic of Cyprus. More recently negotiations for the entry of the Republic of Cyprus to the EU and negotiations for a peaceful settlement of the Cyprus Problem were happening at the same time. There was a great wish for a united Cyprus to join the EU. But all the best efforts of the UN negotiators seemed doomed to failure as the days sped by. In April the Republic of Cyprus signed the accession treaty to become full members of the EU in May 2004; while the Turkish Cypriots living in the occupied northern part of the island remain under Turkish rule.
Then, for no apparent reason, on 23rd April 3 border check points were opened to issue one day passes which permit all people to cross in either direction between the hours of 9 a m and 12 midnight.
At first there was a feeling of suspicion. What will happen if we cross over?
This mood changed to one of fear. Will the border close as quickly as it opened.
I was invited by two very special friends to accompany them as they returned to see the homes of their childhood and those they and their family members had fled from in terror in August 1974, while bombs and fighting happened all around them.
Now people have grasped this opportunity to show they want to live side by side in peace with their neighbours.
This is the background to my first border crossing on Friday 25th April 2003
Full of excited anticipation, we left Larnaka at 8 a m on the morning of the Holy Friday of Greek Orthodox Easter.
By 8.15 a m we had reached the turning for the Dhekelia checkpoint in the Sovereign Base area, so technically we were in Britain and under the jurisdiction of the British military police.
Here we were told there was no chance of us crossing the border because of the long traffic queues. We were advised to go to Nicosia to cross at Ledra Palace checkpoint.
As we were speaking relatives pulled up in their car travelling away from the crossing. They told us the area was so congested they was going home, they had heard on the car radio that Ledra Palace was just as bad.
But in spite of the advice we decided to drive a little further to see the situation for ourselves.
Soon we joined the end of the stationary traffic queue. The feeling in the air was of great excitement at the prospect of being so physically close to the border, and we were drawn to the crossing point like lemmings towards the sea. We abandoned the car and began walking the 3 kilometres to the crossing. As we passed, people were calling out to us, friends , family, all waiting with the same excitement we were feeling. It was like a huge street party. Later we passed cars full of people who had slept where they stopped, having queued from midnight the night before, determined to cross on this Holy Friday. The cars, vans, pick up trucks and 4 by 4's were parked nose to tail on all the approach roads as well in fields and lay byes. Thousands of vehicles, all packed full of people heartbreakingly close to realising some of the dreams they had dreamed for 29 long years.
In the distance I saw the red flag of Turkey flying above the checkpoint and we walked on in the knowledge we were in a kind of no mans land between regimes.
We pushed our way towards the narrow bridge spanning the dried up river bed that marked the border. The crush of good humoured people around us grew ever greater.
We had no plans, no intentions, just wanted to see where the next step took us. The checkpoint was due to open at 9 a m. We stood on the river bank watching the crowd on the bridge. So many police from the British Military and from the Turkish civil police were there, but with no real purpose.
The checkpoint opened for business with only one person to check all the passports and issue the one day passes.
I felt concerned that people would become frustrated and begin to surge forward. But the patient waiting and gentle pushing continued.
We waited and watched from the safety of the Republic side of the Green Line. More officials appeared on the opposite bank, and people began to walk across the river bed and were turned back. All the officials had an air of trying to help and just seemed to want to get people across as quickly as possible with due observance of the red tape and beaurocracy.
We decided to begin queuing to cross over. Suddenly there was more movement forward as more officials were drafted in to issue the one day passes and to check passports. >From that point on we were crushed and shoved forward at a steady pace.
I felt as if I were participating in a huge moment in history.
One of my friends was pushed near to the front of the queue, we asked people ahead of us to give her our passports. In that way she obtained our 3 passes and we escaped into the open space of the occupied area.
It really felt as if we were entering a foreign country. Shop signs, street signs, spoken language of course were all Turkish. While we knew this would be so, it was still very strange to be suddenly confronted with these barriers to communication. Thankfully a few people spoke some English and we tried to learn a few words of Turkish.
After negotiating a price to hire a taxi we set off on a four hours long emotional adventure into the countryside surrounding Famagusta and Salamis.
We tried to communicate with the driver who spoke a few words of English and did his best to answer our questions about our route. 29 years previously my friends knew the area very well. Now, with the passing of the years and changed place names it was difficult for them to get their bearings.
Our first stop was at a small village, the birthplace of one of my friends. It was like going back in time, as if the clock had stopped somewhere in the last century.
At the village coffee shop the warm welcome by the male customers was overwhelming. No women were to be seen. Everybody shook hands, welcomed us and wanted to have photographs taken with us. They found chairs for us, pulled their own chairs around in a big circle and we spoke to each other as best we could. The taxi driver insisted on paying for our coffee. The price? 2 million lira for 4 coffees. Imagine carrying that kind of money around with you?
Later I found out the Cyprus pound is worth 3 million Turkish lira. So for the first time in my life I was a millionaire.
When we left there were more handshakes all round and one of the men accompanied us in the taxi to act as our guide.
Next stop was the birthplace of one of my friends.
In the past I believed the occupiers of refugees houses would feel unhappy when the place they had called home for 29 years was revisited by the house owners. But that was far from the truth. The kindness and understanding was overwhelming. More handshakes, refreshments, invitations to look around. The occupiers were refugees from the south, so they were anxious to hear about their own area. Everybody shared the great desire to return to their own homes and live side by side in peace. This was such an emotional time. The lack of a common language ceased to be a barrier as we shared our joy from our hearts. Greek, English, Turkish, no matter. We spoke with our eyes, our expressions, our gestures and we all understood the pain and the hurt of the past, and a deep longing to live in peace together for now and for the future. As we left we shook hands with great warmth, kissed on the cheeks in the customary way of neighbours and said 'until the next time'.
We toured the village, visiting churches, schools, fields. Long buried memories of the happy times were revived and the pain for the lost years was great. We photographed houses of other family members to take back with us, to give them something to treasure until they could visit and see for themselves. People appeared from nowhere, stopped whatever they were doing, old and young, just to greet us and communicate. Without exception we were warmly welcomed. Tears of mixed emotions were always prickling our eyes and throats sounded huskier than usual.
Our patient taxi driver hovered close by in a kind of protective role, never imposing his presence, but always taking care of us and whisking us away at just the right moments.
Next stop was to realise a long held dream for me. We visited Salamis.
My friends had been involved in the original excavations of the site. For them it was a bitter sweet moment when we finally stood among the beautiful statuary, the marble columns, admired the marble floors and finally swept into the magnificent theatre. They could not believe they were there, and the time we could stay was far too short. We took many photographs to help remind us that it happened. Our dreams really did come true.
Next stop was Famagusta, to visit areas and buildings they had lived in. Now I could look back toward the unoccupied area; towards the look out point near to Derynia where I have often stood on the viewing platform and gazed at Famagusta through binoculars.
The tour of old Famagusta was amazing, such a beautiful place within the walled city. I want to go back there and spend more time just walking around and soaking up the atmosphere.
Yes, the beach at Famagusta really is as beautiful as everybody said it would be, even under grey skies and drizzly rain. We viewed it from the terrace of the Palm Beach hotel, where the management tried to persuade us to rest awhile and enjoy their friendly welcome. But time was pressing and we had one more vital stop to make.
Our taxi driver wanted to take us to his home to meet his wife and family. We drove off through the streets of Famagusta, often being greeted by fellow travellers. People came from their houses and waved as we passed. One man asked if we had seen all we wanted to see. 'Yes' we replied.
'Did you have any problems?'
'No, none at all.'
'Good, that's what we want to hear, no more problems.'
We came to the home of our taxi driver who had phoned on ahead to warn of our impending arrival. Again, a warm and friendly welcome from his son, wife and daughter.
We were given refreshments, ice cream, tea, cake. All so very nicely served on the best china.
At last it was time to say our goodbyes and head off back to the crossing point.
Most of the cars were through and queues were minimal. People were passing back and forth through the checkpoint quite freely.
We managed to hitch a lift back to our car which was as I had left it. Now it looked lonely and isolated. No sign of the thousands of cars which had surrounded it that morning.
A passing British Military policeman asked me to kindly move my car off the highway. Down to earth with a bump, after the magic of the day.
Now there are so many memories, thoughts and emotions for me to process.
For my friends even more so.
Imagine dreaming of returning to a home you had been forced to leave 29 years before , then suddenly, one day you wake up and it is possible, and it happens.
When all the peace talks fail, it happens, the borders open and the barriers are down.
A young Turkish Cypriot man in Famagusta said to me 'You know why this happened? because the people have spoken. We want peace and we wont allow the barriers to go up again.
We reached out to each other, and shook hands.
Whatever happens in the future, please remember this true account of how it was for us on this Holy Friday of the year 2003.
Remember that people can speak with a concerted voice, when the desire for peace in this world is great enough, when there is love and goodwill towards our neighbours.
Then the power of the people is very great.
Please share this with as many of your friends and neighbours as possible, and in the sharing help to bring more thoughts of peace and goodwill into the world.
love, peace and light