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"The Past In Pieces: Belonging in the New Cyprus" by Rebecca Bryant

July 20, 2010 will mark 36 years since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and the subsequent occupation of nearly 40% of its territory. In her new book, “The Past in Pieces, Belonging in the New Cyprus,” author Dr. Rebecca Bryant, who spends her time between Washington D.C. and Cyprus and is a Professor of Anthropology at George Mason University, sheds light on this sensitive and controversial issue.

 “I wrote the book for a general audience because I didn’t want to clutter people’s experiences with academic jargon. There’s been much written about the experience of war, but there’s been much less written about the difficult process of peace, as experienced by those who still suffer from the traumas of war and have reasons for mistrust. I hope that Cypriots will come away from the book with a better picture of the hopes, dreams, and fears of the “other side.”  I also hope that other readers will see the Cyprus experience as an insight into why peace processes remain so difficult even when all the circumstances seem right for a solution and all parties have every reason and opportunity to want a lasting peace,” Bryant says.

What did you study? Where did you study?
I dropped out of high school at the age of sixteen and went first to a small liberal arts college in Arkansas. As soon as I could, I transferred to the University of Chicago where I studied philosophy and literature for my undegraduate degree. Then, it began to seem to me that cultural anthropology was a way to pursue both those interests simultaneously, so I decided to study anthropology for my graduate degrees. I stayed on at University of Chicago for my M.A. and Ph.D., because for quite a long time it’s had one of the best anthropology departments in the country.

What was the political climate during in 2003, that allowed the line that divides Cyprus to open?
I first went to Cyprus in 1993 for dissertation fieldwork, and I ended up staying almost three years. That was at a time when the Green Line was closed, and it seemed that there were few changes taking place in the island. Every day I would read the newspapers, and the news always seemed the same, as though nothing ever changed or advanced.  As a foreigner, I was able to cross from the south to the north, though the police at the checkpoints in the south would write down your passport number and warn you that you had to return before 5:00 p.m.  In the south, the island’s north was portrayed as a large open-air prison camp, and the image I had before I first crossed was of a place always rumbling with tanks and bristling with guns.  I thought I would see soldiers everywhere, and that any interesting conversations would be in whispers.  I was surprised to find that the north was a sleepy backwater where time seemed to have slowed almost to a stand-still,  where the troops I had anticipated were basically invisible, and where people went on with their lives simply making do in their state of isolation.

Although it took some time for me to learn Turkish well enough to understand political debates in the north, once I did, I found that in many ways there seemed to be more of a cacophony of voices and opinions than in the south.  In the south, the demand for unity on the “national issue”—i.e., the Cyprus Problem—meant a suppression of debates and voices on particular, sensitive issues.  In the north, although Turkish Cypriots voted the same nationalist leader, Rauf Denktash, into office again and again, they would also turn out in large protests whenever Denktash and his cronies tried to suppress alternative voices.  It was a sort of coffeeshop politics, where people would shout and argue for hours then slap each other’s backs and walk home together.  Moreover, the Cyprus Problem wasn’t the most important issue on the agenda, since for many people the Cyprus Problem had been solved by division and just had to be accepted as such.

Things began to change, however, with a series of lawsuits brought by Greek Cypriots against Turkey in the European Court of Human Rights, and then economic crises at the turn of the century in both north Cyprus and Turkey.  Following hard on the heels of these losses, the EU gave the Republic of Cyprus a date for entry, and news leaked that the UN had a new, comprehensive reunification plan in the works.  Many Turkish Cypriots were worried about the sustainability of their unrecognized state, and they were especially concerned for their children.  The Turkish Cypriot left began to mobilize youth, who rallied around slogans like “We’ll Be Tied to the World” and “This Country Is Ours.” The latter slogan referred to a sense that Denktash was bent on tying north Cyprus too closely to Turkey, and the fear that north Cyprus would become just another Turkish province. When Denktash refused to negotiate on the basis of the new UN plan, Turkish Cypriots spilled into the streets.  Large and frequent protests outside Denktash’s “presidential palace” ultimately led to the opening of the checkpoints, probably at the suggestion of Turkey, which had just acquired a new and more flexible government under the AK Party. Former Denktash advisers with whom I spoke at the time suggested that they thought the opening of the checkpoints would “show the people” that Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots can’t live together.  They were probably quite disappointed that the opening went on without serious incident.

Your research included fieldwork. Tell us about your experience.
Sometimes in research timing is everything.  I had applied to a Fulbright New Century Scholar Fellowship, which not only provides funding for travel but also allows scholars from around the world to work together on a theme. The theme that year was “Ethnic and Sectarian Conflict,” and in applying to the fellowship I decided to work on a project that had been on my mind for some years, which is how one might document differences in collective memory.  I applied to conduct a project on two villages, one in the island’s south and one in the north, and to interview both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot former co-villagers about their memories of life together before division.  I found out that I had gotten the fellowship in February 2003, and in April the checkpoints opened.  That seemed such a momentous event that I decided to limit myself to one field site but broaden the research’s scope.

The town that I chose for my work was once the largest, wealthiest town in the Kyrenia district in the island’s north.  It was a mixed town before 1964, when in the wake of inter-communal violence all the Turkish Cypriots left the town to live for a decade in enclaves.  All its Greek Cypriot population was displaced either during or after the 1974 Turkish military invasion, and today it has a very vocal refugee association. I interviewed as many Greek Cypriot refugees as I could about life in the town before their displacement and their experiences of the opening.  I made several trips to the town with one couple, and those trips form the narrative backbone of the book.

What was hard for me, as it must be for anyone trying to do comparative work in a conflict situation, was subsequently going to live in the town and interviewing its current residents.  The town is now composed of its original Turkish Cypriot inhabitants, Turkish Cypriot refugees from the island’s south, settlers from Turkey, and Europeans who’ve bought holiday homes there.  I tried to interview people in all these categories, and the reason this was hard is because I began to hear many stories that conflicted with or called into question what I had been told up to that point.  Perhaps the hardest thing, however, was being in a position to see through the niceties.  Many of the Greek Cypriots from this town expressed a desire to return to their homes, while their former Turkish Cypriot neighbors would have liked nothing more than to prevent them from doing just that.  Turkish Cypriot refugees from the south had no intention of leaving, and the UN reunification plan also would have allowed the Turkish settlers to stay.  But when Greek Cypriots went to visit their homes, even the most stridently nationalistic Turkish Cypriots followed the Mediterranean rules of hospitality and welcomed them, offering them coffee and trying to converse with them in broken Greek.  Under the circumstances, this was misleading, and I found myself caught in the peculiar situation of often knowing more than my informants about their interlocutors’ intentions.  In such a situation, it’s impossible to remain objective and yet even more imperative to remain objective.  Trying to maintain that balance is very tiring, and after a while it becomes untenable.  I try to describe some of this dilemma in the book.

How have the attitudes evolved between the Greeks and the Turks, towards each other?
The opening of the checkpoints was a euphoric moment, as people suddenly felt the freedom of the long forbidden. Many people crossed just for the sake of crossing, just to see what was on the “other side,” although large numbers of Greek Cypriots and smaller numbers of Turkish Cypriots refused to cross on principle.  For refugees from both sides, it was a highly emotional time, as they returned to find other people living in their homes, or in some cases that their homes had been destroyed.  Nothing was as they remembered it, and for many people this led to a slow rethinking of the past. Greek Cypriots, especially, had been encouraged by their leadership to remember their homes and villages as they were when they fled them in 1974, and they were promised that any solution to the Cyprus Problem would mean return to their villages and the recreation of their communities.  The opening of the checkpoints was a confrontation with a present from which a return to the past seemed very unlikely.

Despite these emotionally charged issues, however, the first year after the opening was very positive, and there was considerable enthusiasm on both sides to have more interaction.  What ultimately destroyed that atmosphere of good will was the referendum on the UN reunification plan, usually known as the Annan Plan after then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.  Turkish Cypriots believed that they had fought important political battles to open the checkpoints and bring their leaders to the negotiating table, and when it became clear that Greek Cypriots would oppose the plan, they felt betrayed.  Greek Cypriots, on the other hand, often remarked that it was a “Turkish plan,” meaning that it made concessions to Turkey, and they were disappointed that Turkish Cypriots expected them to support it.  In my interviews about coexistence before the island’s division, I often heard people say, “We got along perfectly fine until politics got in the way.”  For many people on both sides of the divide, the differing views on the Annan Plan seemed to be another example of that, and for many people there were echoes of a past that many people hoped they had put behind them.  After the failure of the reunification plan, that initial good will gradually dissipated, and it’s been replaced once again by considerable distrust.

What were the factors that influenced the Greeks not to accept to opportunity to reunite the island?
The Annan Plan was hardly a perfect plan, and implementing it at the local level would have been painful.  It would have required a lot of social engineering, as large numbers of Turkish Cypriot refugees would have been uprooted from the Greek Cypriot homes where they had lived for so long in order to provide for territorial readjustment.  The section of the plan dealing with property claims was the most complicated, but what people understood was that not everyone would go back to their homes, and many would have to take compensation.  Putting a plan of such scope into immediate action would have required a continuation of the good will that we saw with the checkpoints’ opening, and unfortunately we also saw how quickly that dissipated.

The plan would have taken Turkish and Greek troop levels back to their 1960 levels over a period of several years, and many Greek Cypriots saw this as a security concern, since they didn’t want any Turkish troops in the island.  Others were disturbed by the fact that up to 50,000 Turkish settlers would have remained in the island and that many would have been able to keep the Greek Cypriot properties they had been given.  Many others objected to having to submit their property claims to a commission rather than being given a choice.

At a psychological level, however, I attribute the failure to two factors: lack of serious discussion over the past several decades of what a bizonal, bicommunal federation would really mean; and the experience that I discussed before of seeing one’s home and village again and realizing that things would never go back to the way they once were. The former is what many Greek Cypriot civil society activists meant when they said again and again in 2004 that they didn’t have time “to prepare the people.”  For several decades, Greek Cypriot politicians had paid lip-service to the idea of a federal solution, which they knew would have meant two states with ethnic majorities.  Maintaining a Turkish majority in the island’s north would have meant that there could not be complete freedom of movement or settlement, and that not everyone would get to return.  Even though Greek Cypriot leaders accepted this in principle, the intransigence of long-time Turkish Cypriot leader Denktash meant that they never had to face this problem in fact.  Instead, they were able to continue with the rhetoric for domestic consumption that emphasizes the three rights of property, movement, and return. Until the Annan Plan, then, most Greek Cypriots never had to face the contradiction between the bicommunal federal solution they said they wanted and the insistence on everyone going back.

And as I discuss in the book, for many older Greek Cypriots “return” is not simply about going back to one’s home but is about recreating the communities that were destroyed with the island’s division. Crossing to see one’s home and village brought home to many the impossibility of this kind of return—which is one reason that many people still refuse to cross, so that they don’t have to be confronted with such a devastating reality.  As one refugee activist who refuses to cross said to me, “Either everything will go back to the way it once was, or we’ll continue to live in our dreams.”

Greek Cypriots didn’t have time to digest these new realities before being asked to vote on a plan that would have asked them to give up current certainties for an uncertain future.  I don’t find it surprising that many people chose the conservative route and voted against the plan, even though many people found that decision very hard, and families were often divided. For many, their impending entrance to the EU was also a decisive factor, as they believed former president Tasos Papadopoulos that they would be able to use their EU membership to pressure Turkey and negotiate a better deal.  Unfortunately, recent years have shown this not to be the case, and polls in the Greek Cypriot community show that support for some form of permanent partition is rising.

In light of the election of Turkish Cypriot nationalist, Dervis Erolğu, how do you project the future of Cyprus?
Eroğlu is known as a hard-liner, but I don’t think his election will be decisive.  His election is a symptom of rising nationalism on both sides of the island, not the disease itself.  One thing to keep in mind is that Turkish Cypriots managed to garner a 65% “yes” vote in the Annan Plan referendum mainly because the plan provided them with a semi-independent, recognized state in a federal system. Many people remain dedicated to the unrecognized state in the island’s north, and many nationalists who wanted to see that state recognized now see federation as a way to achieve that goal by another means.  Eroğlu is known as a man of the people, and it’s not hard to see that Turkish Cypriots are increasingly frustrated in their unrecognized state, especially after their Greek Cypriot neighbors joined the much-coveted EU.  People want to see Eroğlu stick the negotiations out, and he’s actually put together a very good negotiating team that has interesting, new ideas.  I don’t think he’s going to be the key figure in the negotiations from the Turkish Cypriot side but is going to rely a lot on his advisors.  I don’t see any closed-door tete-a-tetes of the sort that Mehmet Ali Talat and Dimitris Christofias had together, but this is not necessarily a bad thing, since those closed-door sessions didn’t seem to lead anywhere. I think Eroğlu will put more pressure on Christofias to submit to a timetable and allow third-party mediation.  I also see the possibility of Eroğlu politically sidelining Christofias and forming alliances with other Greek Cypriot parties that have views closer to his own

Do you believe reunification is possible within the next ten years, and why?
I think that reunification is possible, but I’m not convinced that it can be achieved through a comprehensive reunification plan.  There are too many uncertainties in such a plan, and too many things that can go wrong.  The Annan Plan, once it was filled out in all its details, was more than nine thousand pages, which gives you some idea of the kind of detail required to create a new state out of what are effectively two separate administrations.  It also suggests how many ways such a plan could be undermined by forces that may wish to do so, or simply how many points at which such a fragile agreement might risk collapse.  I’m not convinced that Cypriots want such a comprehensive plan, though everyone will say that they want some kind of “solution.”  The problem as I see it is that the international community has presented Cypriots with only black or white options: either a comprehensive solution or no solution, either “yes” to the Annan Plan or “no.”  Frustration with such black-and-white options—and the failure of those options—has driven many people to take matters into their own hands, especially in courts of law. The lawsuits over property that have divided the island over the past few years are partly a response to the fact that a comprehensive solution that might pass at referendum doesn’t seem anywhere on the horizon, even though people believe that “something” has to be done. Refugees have started taking the property issue into their own hands, and this has lasting effects on the ground.

At the same time, it may show a different way forward, possibly through a piecemeal solution that would allow Cypriots to tackle certain important and urgent issues first, independently of a comprehensive solution.  Why is it not possible to negotiate for the return of Varosha or other territories independently of negotiations for a comprehensive settlement? Politicians might say that the return of these territories before a solution could undermine the will for a comprehensive settlement.  But what if gradually solving the problems that can be solved helps to build trust and serves as a stepping-stone towards a more gradual settlement, one that wouldn’t require sudden and massive social engineering?  Looking at those endeavors that have been successful, I see that many of them are at the local level, are led by motivated individuals, and take considerable time to develop.  So while I’ve become increasingly pessimistic about the possibility for a comprehensive settlement of the sort that the international community would like to see, I maintain my hope for a gradual settlement, one worked out between Cypriots truly interested in solving their problems

Why did you write this book? What do you hope your audience will take away from it?
So much of what’s written about Cyprus describes the conflict at an abstract level, focusing on a few politicians and the role of “great powers.” Even researchers who focus on what average people think often frame their subject in terms of abstractions like “ideology” or “nationalism.” I’ll never forget attending a conference in which I presented a paper on gender, territory, and nationalism, and how one person in the audience stood up and said, “You’ve presented a very convincing argument.  But, I really doubt that my parents or grandparents, who come from the village, would understand anything of what you’ve just said.” I thought that he was right, and that’s why I wanted to focus on how people experienced and remember the conflict from inside the village, where they witnessed inter-communal relations breaking down at the local level. What did that mean to them?  How did they interpret it?  

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