Notes from Lapta, Cyprus – The Openings by Ken Dunn

On the 23rd April 2003 I happened to be with some friends on top of the Saray Hotel in Lefkoşa surveying the spectacular view. The day was warm and bright and everything seemed to be as normal. We could see the top of the Ledra Palace and a glimpse of the road between the trees just beyond the border crossing. That’s when normality changed. Hundreds of people were moving towards the Turkish checkpoint.

My immediate reaction was to assume there was going to be trouble, some kind of protestation or demonstration from ‘you know who’. But no, this was the day when the borders were opened by the Turkish State allowing Cypriots from both sides to cross with relative ease. However, the rest of the day and following few weeks didn’t go so well. I’ll go into greater detail later but it took me back to the memory of my first time crossing the line at the Ledra Palace.

It was 1982 and a very hot July morning. We arrived by car at the Turkish checkpoint. My father in law, his wife, my wife and myself. Fishing out our passports Geoff took them and the Turkish Police went through the procedure of allowing us through. Once that was done we moved off but at the half way point in no man’s land, between T’s and G’s, Geoff stopped the car, got out and opened the boot. He clanked around for a few seconds, closed the boot and then walked to the front with a rectangular metal strip. He leaned over the front and then climbed back into the car, the rectangular strip nowhere to be seen.

‘What was that all about?’ I asked. ‘Changing number plates, dear boy,’ he said. ‘Clip on Greek plates, keeps the buggers happy!’

The Greek checkpoint took much longer but they eventually let us through. Now, this was at a time when the Ledra crossing point was used by most of the ‘Ancient Brits’ as it gave easier access to south ‘Nicosia’ and ‘the shopping’. Shops on the Turkish side were still suffering from relatively small and limited stock and so most weekends saw a sporadic convoy of Ancient Brits crossing over to buy the stuff they couldn’t get in the North.

The difference between the two halves of the city then was more marked than it is today. I can best describe the other side as a ‘hot Oxford Street. I was not that impressed. But we ‘shopped’, had a couple of beers and a sandwich and then returned, all the happier to get back to the North, remembering to take off the Greek plates on our way back through! Thirty seven years after the border controls were first imposed along the line it’s much, much easier to pass either way with several crossings in use but GC Police at the checkpoints are still as miserable as ever.

The need for ‘the shopping’ has tailed off these days but there is still a high volume of folk who continue to go over, especially to and from Larnaca airport since the demise of CTA. But let me take you back to that incredible day in 2003 and the surge of GC’s who squirted through the Ledra checkpoint, fanning out across the whole of the North like a human tsunami.

We left the Saray Hotel, but driving towards Girne was a little more tricky than usual. The roads were full of Greek vehicles all going, it seemed to us, the same way. Not realising what had happened we continued on amongst this ‘bank holiday’ traffic with all of us wondering what the hell was going on. We found out from a few of the locals when we eventually arrived back at Lapta.

Over the next few days thousands of Greeks poured through, their cars stuffed full of people, all hunting for ‘their’ properties and businesses, but many became completely lost, sometimes not being able to recognise any of the towns or villages due to the proliferation of building, building, building which had already happened years before. Most of them were polite and deferential to the locals, albeit a bit ‘miffed’ to find these ‘invaders’ renting their houses from the TRNC. Many were invited in to see the house and retrieve their belongings which had been left behind and had been carefully stored away, untouched, undamaged.

Others, of the ‘head-banger’ variety, caused a few unpleasant situations, skirmishes and incidents which the Turkish Police were not happy about. I won’t go into detail here but a warning was then issued to all GC’s coming over that if they transgressed in any way they would never be allowed back again. Things did calm down after that.

Down in Girne Harbour, and in many of the restaurants throughout the TRNC, the prices shot up dramatically overnight, much to the disapproval of some of the older locals but the GC’s were completely oblivious of this, their lifestyle and income being substantially higher than any of the TCs enjoyed. During that first month, particularly at the weekends, the place was heaving with GCs, filling up the towns, villages, restaurants and shops, many of them amazed to find ‘civilisation’ instead of the squalor they had been led to believe existed. Such is the double-edged sword of poisonous propaganda.

I had my own confrontation with a less than savoury bunch of GCs up at our place in Lapta. Pottering around upstairs one morning I was fiddling about with a minor repair to something when I heard voices, rather close. Now, it’s a funny thing but the position of the house to walls and other houses around can confuse the ear. Voices, which I used to think were just outside were actually coming from the road above or houses below as the locals chatted with each other.

I ignored this latest chattering but then realised it was not Turkish being spoken but Greek! I looked out and saw a group of folk wandering around our garden, pointing, taking photographs and becoming rather animated and louder. Young children teenagers, adults and an elderly man were milling around haphazardly, looking at the house with many of them nodding and waving their arms around as they continued their gabbling conversation. This needed looking into so I came downstairs, walked out and asked, ‘Can I help you?’

Their collective reply was a torrent of abuse. F, C and B were the first letters of the many words hurled in my direction. Expletives removed they shouted, ‘Who do you… think you are?’ ‘Why don’t you… go back to… England where you… belong, you…!’ ‘… English!’ ‘You’re all… thieves!’ And so on. The most vociferous were the women!

I managed to shout back, ‘Which of you claims to own this house!’ The elderly chap came forward, his eyes damp with tears. ‘I do, this my house, I built it!’ The others quietened down as he spoke so I asked him another question. ‘When did you build it?’

His slow, sorrowful reply was, ‘1958.’ I just replied, ‘Well, I think you’re wrong.’

Uproar from the rest of them erupted, some of them shaking their fists at me, their foul language filling the air. I was ready for the worst but yelled back at them, ‘If you bastards don’t get off my property in ten seconds I’ll phone the Police!!’ They left rapidly, still shouting abuse, but knowing the threat the TRNC Police had made might well be carried out.

I didn’t bother to inform them that the house hadn’t been built until 1960 and, as a concrete box without power, water, windows or doors, had never been lived in and stayed that way when my father in law and his wife bought it in 1969. I don’t think they would have listened let alone have believed me. They’d found the wrong house but I have to say I did feel sorry for the old man who was obviously in some distress.

Today things have calmed to a more reasonable attitude from the GC checkpoints but after 2003 the process of crossing from the North to the South were ‘complicated’ by the sheer bloody-mindedness from the Greek Police at every checkpoint. Complaints about the searching of any luggage, including handbags, and every crevice of any vehicle crossing over were frequent. Even carrying documents relating to property purchased in the TRNC threatened, at one point, a seven year gaol sentence! One couple were actually arrested for buying a villa in the North. Madness!

The most ridiculous event was during the bird flu scare, a few years ago, when the GC’s insisted on anything crossing the line being thoroughly disinfected. The fact that ‘clouds’ of birds and pigeons were flapping back and forth didn’t percolate into the ‘Hellenic’ mind as being of any importance!

Everybody knows that Cyprus is an island deeply rooted in mythological lore, but its people must look for something beyond the myths that abound, particularly the more recent post ’74 inflammatory myths regarding looting and destruction in the North. There must be action that is based on reality and not myth. Property issues will, I hope, resolve themselves with common sense, honesty and justice playing a part but there are some difficulties which may never be resolved. One of them is the interesting fact the Larnaca airport was built on land formerly owned by Turks!

So, here we are. Eight years later and when will ‘they’ remember or recognise the simple fact that the TURKS opened the borders, NOT THEM? We crossed over last year, using the Ledra crossing point just to have a ‘mooch’ around and see how things might have changed. They hadn’t. The chilling Greek propaganda posters are still there in no man’s land and the population seemed to be just as miserable as the GC Police on the checkpoints. We didn’t stay long. It was too expensive and still too much of a ‘hot Oxford Street’.

On the way back the same TC Police were on duty and, as we walked towards their office to go through the brief formality of checking passports, one of them came out, grinning widely, arms opening wide and called to us, ‘Welcome back to Paradise!’ How right he was and still is!

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