Kosovo war is old news in Cyprus

Experience: A Greek Orthodox majority sets upon a Muslim minority. Sound like the nightmare in Kosovo? Except it's Cyprus nearly 25 years ago.

War In Yugoslavia

April 12, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AGIOS GEORGIOS, Cyprus -- In a bucolic valley, the ghosts of Agios Georgios roam among the village's crumbling, war-ravaged houses. Red poppies and yellow crown daisies flower amid collapsed roofs, shattered windows and the mined cemetery.

Among the remnants of the people who once lived here are a child's composition book, a rusty bed frame, a broken clay pot perched in a window.

Here, the refugees of Kosovo might see their past and their future if they depend on peacemakers to restore them to their homes.

The families of Agios Georgios fled the village in an ethnic-nationalist conflict that split this island between Greek and Turk in July 1974.


The Cypriots of Greek ancestry -- Orthodox Christians as the Serbs are -- were pushed south, while their Turkish neighbors -- mostly Muslims, like the Kosovar Albanians -- fled north.

The scene was repeated throughout Cyprus. Families who had lived in their homes for generations became refugees, many fleeing with little more than what they could carry. They often resettled in houses abandoned by the other.

About 200,000 Greek Cypriots and 80,000 Turkish Cypriots were displaced in the exodus in 1974. Most have never returned to their native villages and towns. The island's dividing line is patrolled by U.N. peacekeepers who have been here since an earlier conflict in 1963.

Would-be peacemakers have tried and failed to find a way to reunite the island -- including Richard C. Holbrooke, the senior American diplomat involved with Yugoslavia.

TV news reports of the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo remind the Cypriot people of their dark times. They take sides in the more recent conflict, depending on their history and religion.

The Greek Orthodox Christians, who live in the southern Republic of Cyprus, celebrated Easter this weekend as did the Serbs waging the ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo.

Serb and Greek Cypriot share an enmity for the descendants of the Muslim Ottoman Empire which once ruled them both.

Greece, though a NATO member, opposes the alliance's air campaign against Yugoslavia and that sentiment has led to protests on the Greek side of Nicosia, the divided Cypriot capital.

There are other similarities. The war here started after Greek Cypriot nationalists, favoring annexation by Greece and encouraged by the military junta in Athens, toppled Archbishop Makarios III, the moderate Greek Orthodox prelate who was president of the island republic.

Turkey, infuriated by the idea of Greek annexation of the island less than 100 miles from its shores, invaded five days later to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority.

When the fighting ended, the Turks held a third of the island in the north and placed it under a Turkish Cypriot government.

Avyie Savvidou, a Greek Cypriot who was a toddler at the time, recalls the Turkish airplanes bombing the farmlands near her native village of Peristerona. She and her family fled in a neighbor's car to another village about 25 miles away.

"It's very similar to the picture of what you see now from Kosovo," said the 28-year-old, American-educated marketing specialist. "If only the people had the courage to say we're not going."

The histories of Greek and Turkish Cypriots also are eerily similar to the tragic tales told today by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian refugees: Knocks on doors, imminent flight, men herded into a stadium, mountain treks on foot or by mule.

But the Cypriot experience did not include the packed trains and missing children of Kosovo. And, unlike the Kosovars, the island-bound Cypriots could not flee to neighboring countries.

Unforgiving hatred

A roadside billboard in the Greek Cypriot sector of the country reminds its citizens of the 1974 invasion: "Remember the Turks are occupying our land."

After three months in a nearby village, Savvidou's family returned to Peristerona, about a half hour's drive from Nicosia. Of the 200 or so Turkish Cypriots who once lived there, only two returned. Both have since died.

The minaret of the village mosque towers above the steeple of the 11th-century Greek Orthodox church. The gate to the mosque is padlocked. The key is held at the Greek Cypriot police station.

Many of the Turkish Cypriots of Peristerona relocated to villages in the Turkish-controlled north along the 112-mile "Green Line" that separates the Greek south from the Turkish north.

"Most of the Peristerona people came to my village as refugees," said Husan Kasapoglu, a Turkish Cypriot who lives in the border village of Elia. "They left their villages and houses just to save their lives.

"The ethnic cleansing happening in Kosovo today reminds me most of the Turkish Cypriots who experienced these human disasters before. It reminds us a lot of the period from 1963 to 1974."

Likewise, the Turkish occupation of the north drove thousands of Greeks from their homes there.

Famagusta, once a bustling seaside resort in the north, still bears the scars.

Churches became mosques

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