Usually, Helena Smith writes ignorant, facetious rubbish about Greece for The Guardian. However, she has done a good piece on the fight of Greek Cypriot refugees to reclaim the homes they were expelled from as a result of the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974.
The article contains annoying comments from Cyprus' former president, Giorgios Vasiliou, and better remarks from Meletios Apostolides, who this week won an important victory against British usurpers and the Turkish occupation authorities regarding his land in Lapithos. (See here and here). Apostolides aptly describes the struggle of Cypriot refugees to return to their homes as a struggle for 'roots, memory and culture.' Read Smith's article in full below.
Another point worth making relates to the 40,000 Turkish Cypriots who left the free areas in 1974 for Turkish-occupied Cyprus. These 40,000 are often referred to in the same breath as the 200,000 Greek Cypriots forced out of northern Cyprus by the Turkish occupation authorities, as if the Turkish Cypriots were forced out by Greek Cypriots. This is not true.
The fact is that the Turkish Cypriots who remained in the free areas after the Turkish invasion were transferred to the occupied areas by Britain – in the case of the 10,000 Turkish Cypriots who had taken refuge at the British base at Akrotiri; or at the instigation of the Turkish-occupation authorities, which insisted to the Cypriot government that if the Turkish Cypriots were not transferred to the north, then the 11,000 Greek Cypriots who were still living in the Turkish-occupied Karpasia peninsular – mainly in the villages of Yialousa, Agia Triada and Rizokarpaso – would be expelled.
The Turkish Cypriots, mainly from Paphos, were transferred – and as soon as this process was complete, the Turks, breaking their pledge to leave unmolested the Karpasia Greeks, expelled them anyway.
It should be stressed that most Turkish Cypriots in Akrotiri and Paphos had no desire to go to the occupied areas, and abandoned their homes, according to a contemporaneous Washington Post report, amid great 'sobbing and wailing', handing over keys to their homes to Greek Cypriot neighbours and urging them to 'look after them well'; victims of British malice, Cypriot naivety and the Turkish ambition to create an ethnically homogeneous entity in northern Cyprus.
Scent of victory among the lemon trees as displaced Cypriots win claim on ancestral land
Like so many Cypriots, Meletis Apostolides has long been haunted by memories of a lost past.
All his adult life he has yearned to return to his boyhood home – and this week, nearly 35 years after war left what should be an idlyllic corner of the Levant brutally divided, the European court of justice brought him one step closer to fulfilling that dream.
Even now, in late middle age, the architect can still recall the scent of the lemon trees, the smell of the sea, the dappled light that filtered through the citrus orchards of Lapithos, the village in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus where he and his ancestors were born.
"It's never gone," he says, homing in, with Google Earth, on the property his family was forced to flee when Turkey, in the name of protecting its minority on the island, invaded in 1974.
The Apostolides family – like 170,000 other Greek Cypriots forcibly displaced at the time – always thought they'd be back. Instead, with only minutes to gather their possessions, and with the Turkish military entrenching its positions in response to a coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece, they found themselves turned into refugees, and robbed of their past overnight.
"The only thing my mother, Andriani, managed to take were her threads and embroideries," says Apostolides, 24 at the time. "We left photo albums, everything. People think that [my legal battle] has been all about money, when actually it is about roots, memory and culture. My family had lived in that part of the island since 1860."
In Cyprus' supercharged politics few issues excite more passion than that of properties lost during the conflict. In the war's wake peace talks aimed at resolving the west's longest-running diplomatic dispute have repeatedly collapsed on the matter of refugees' rights and land exchange. Enraged by the European court's decision to back Apostolides's claim to property – since bought by a retired British couple – Turkish Cypriot politicians have threatened to walk out of reunification talks.
"Cypriots are very attached to their land. In England you had an industrial revolution, here we did not," said Cyprus's former president George Vasiliou. "Until fairly recently people lived from their land so it meant a lot to them, and before the invasion northern Cyprus was almost exclusively Greek. Then there is memory. That plays a role too."
Like many on either side of the ethnic divide, Apostolides returned with his mother – and their title deeds – to see his home in 2003, the year that Turkish Cypriot authorities lifted restrictions on intercommunal travel. "It was the first, and only time, that my mother would see it after the war," he recalls.
But it was a previous visit – one by a Turkish Cypriot colleague who had once lived in the island's Greek-run south – that spurred the silver-haired architect into action. As an early proponent of interethnic contact in the 90s, Apostolides participated in an organised tour by Turkish Cypriot architects around the south. "One of them, who would go on to become a great friend, was desperate to revisit his family home in Limassol," he said. "When the Greek Cypriots living in the house opened the door, he produced a framed picture from his rucksack and said 'finally I have fulfilled my parents' wish to return home'. The Greek Cypriots immediately put it on the mantelpiece. At that moment I identified with him so much. It was such a powerful thing."
When Apostolides pressed charges against Linda and David Orams, the East Sussex couple who built their dream home on his land in 2002, he never envisaged the case would cause such a furore. "I decided to take legal action after a chance meeting with Mrs Orams on the plot in 2003," he says. "She was out watering the plants and when I asked her who she was, she said 'I am the owner of this villa'. I said 'I am the owner of the land' and she responded by saying 'well that was a long time ago'."
Five days after the European court pronounced that the UK judiciary should enforce the decision of a Nicosia court to return the property to its original owner, and demolish the villa to boot, the affair looks set to run and run – not least among the estimated 6,000 Britons who have also picked up properties at bargain prices in the territory that is only recognised by Ankara.
Yesterday despondent rosy-cheeked expats, living in the scenic villages above the picturesque port of Kyrenia, refused to comment, with one denouncing the case "as Greek Cypriot lies and bullshit".
But, says Vasiliou: "Greek Cypriots may feel justice has been rendered, that property is sacrosanct. However, serious people on this island also know that the best way to solve this issue is through speeding up negotiations and reaching a settlement, not taking individual cases to court."
Apostolides, the man of the moment, would agree. While his is a victory, he says, it springs from a lost past.