“The Visit” by Campbell Thomas

Cyprus Green Line photo credit: ejbaurdo

ANY visitor to Cyprus who picks up a map is likely to see the northern portion of the island marked with a dotted line bearing the legend: “Inaccessible due to the Turkish occupation.” It’s probably enough to put most sensible people off. But to a journalist it’s a challenge.

So one balmy evening, after an enjoyable night out with my new wife in the resort strip of Protaras, I decided to explore Cyprus a little further. Never mind that we were close to one of the most militarised areas in the world. Put the honeymoon to one side. The time just felt right. I started up our hired moped and with my wife riding pillion, headed north on the old road to Famagusta.

The Greek Cypriots who run the recognised government of Cyprus do not acknowledge the Turkish Cypriot administration in the north, imposed in 1974 after a Turkish invasion in response to a Greek-inspired coup. The result was a short but bloody war which split the island, resulting in more than 200,000 refugees and a massive population exchange. Symptomatic of the impasse is Famagusta and its so-called ghost town of Varosha. The Greek Cypriot population fled in terror, leaving most of their possessions behind them, as Turkish tanks advanced into the suburbs on the last day of the war. Today the only inhabitants are rats and snakes, disturbed by the occasional United Nations patrol. Tattered clothes still hang on washing lines and construction cranes stand frozen in their final positions, mute witnesses to the mass panic of August 1974.

None of this was going through my mind as we puttered along the deserted roads, the warm night air heavy with the scent of herbs and the chatter of cicadas. I just wanted a taste of the forbidden. Soon the moonlit fields lined by tall Cypress trees gave way to scrubland and open spaces, dotted with abandoned windmills spinning aimlessly. We hadn’t passed any traffic or seen lights from houses for at least 10 minutes. I halted at a roundabout with exits left and right but not straight on. My wife, who’d been clutching me round my waist and can sleep anywhere, woke up and stretched. Barbed wire was strung across the road ahead, along with regularly spaced concrete blocks. A rusting sign proclaimed the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” in Greek, Turkish and English. Further travel was prohibited. Maybe those maps made sense after all.

Still, we’d come this far without any challenge and nobody seemd to be about, least of all armed guards. Between us we lifted the moped over the barbed wire and “stinger” spikes, skirted the obstacles and then we were through and standing in the north. We were in the forbidden pariah state of the “TRNC”, unrecognised by the Greek Cypriots and the rest of the world apart from its creator, Turkey. Continuing down the moonlit road with the headlight switched off, we came to a village sign telling us it was Cayonu and the speed limit was 30. We got off the scooter and walked through the deserted settlement. It was still warm and many windows were open. TVs flickered and we heard snatches of Turkish conversation from houses abandoned by their Greek owners years before. This was the first village in Famagusta district. The Ghost Town was close. Dark shapes silhouetted against the horizon were 1970s hotel and apartment blocks. Towering into the distance, it could almost have been Benidorm. But the bullet holes in the walls around us suggested different.

Dawn would soon be breaking and safety was a long way off. Posing beside our Greek Cypriot-plated moped in front of the Turkish village sign, we took pictures then turned around and went back, negotiating the barbed wire and tank traps where we’d crossed earlier. We did better than Steve McQueen, I thought, but admittedly his bike was cooler and they had been shooting at him. Next day we returned to the roundabout. Beyond the wire the area was crawling with heavily armed Turkish soldiers. From a disused farm silage tower two Turks looked at us through binoculars. How had we missed the tower? Had their comrades been sleeping last night? In the sobering light of day we felt pure relief at getting away with it. My wife announced it was the first and last time she would place herself at such risk. I, however, remained silent.

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