An acquaintance recently told me a story that seems to encapsulate the entrenchment of division on the island of Cyprus. It was in the heady days of 1990 or 1991, before the time Cyprus had joined the European Union.

He told me of how there had been organised a Conflict Resolution day, firstly in Larnaca, and then they met Turkish Cypriots in Ledra Palace Hotel. It was 1990; almost no Greek Cypriots had actually met Turkish Cypriots face to face since 1974.

The island of Cyprus became independent from the British Empire in 1960, as the Republic of Cyprus.

The constitution contained provisions for power-sharing between Greek and Turkish Cypriots on the island.

A civil war erupted on the island in December 1963 which led to a UN force being sent to the island. Many Turkish Cypriots became refugees.

After a coup backed by the Greek Junta, against President Makarios in 15th July 1974, Turkey invaded the island.

Turkish Cypriots moved to the Turkish army controlled areas – Greek Cypriots became refugees.

The Turkish Cypriots declared the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Turkey, in November 1983.

The Republic of Cyprus entered the European Union on 1st May 2004. The areas occupied by the Turkish army are considered to be “not under the control of the Republic of Cyprus”. The acquis communautaire is suspended there.

It was only around sixteen years after the Turkish invasion of the island and twenty-six years since the start of the island’s civil war. Indeed, 1990 is much closer to 1974 than it is to today, 2019. The remnants of the old Cyprus, an agricultural island where most people had lived on the land, in small villages, hadn’t yet been swept away.

After Ledra Palace, they were taken on a trip to Kerynia. They drank some coffee at a place there, with their Turkish Cypriot companions and then had some free time. Out of the things he told me, two things stand out. Him and another Greek Cypriot went into a shop; they spoke Greek to each other at one point. Suddenly, they heard from the first floor a voice saying «Γιε μου, μα ήρτατε ποδά;», Young man, you’ve come to this side?! And down the stairs came an old man, crying. He was a Turkish Cypriot who could speak Greek and had spent most of his life in a peaceful Cyprus. If we take a reasonable estimate: he could have been seventy-five years old when they met him. That means he would have been forty-eight years old in 1963. He had lived most of his life while Cyprus was in peace.

The fading of memory

That made me wonder how many people are still alive from two crucial eras in Cypriot history. And not only alive but who were at least twenty years of age/thirty years of age. I chose those ages arbitrarily, but it is an age that most people at that time, in the 60s and early 70s, would have started working and a reasonable number would have already married. By age 30, most people would have had children. I decided to search for 1) before the outbreak of civil war on the island in December 1963 and 2) the Turkish invasion of 1974.

The last census by the Republic of Cyprus was done in 2011. It does not include Turkish Cypriots as they overwhelmingly live in the areas occupied by the Turkish army, which are not under the control of the Republic of Cyprus.

Examining the numbers of the Census, the total population recorded was 840 thousand, out of which 667 thousand (79,5%) were Greek Cypriot, the rest being foreigners.

From the total, 81 thousand were at least 20 years old in 1963 and were thus more than 68 years old in 2011. In contrast only 30 thousand people still alive were at least 30 years old in 1963 (and were at least 78 years old in 2011.)

With regard to 1974, 102 thousand people are alive who were between 20 and 31 years old in 1974, and were between 57 and 68 in 2011.

There’s an important caveat here. Median life expectancy in Cyprus is 81.8 years. Thus I would expect substantial reduction in these numbers in 2019.

Total population: 840

Greek Cypriot population: 667

Number who were at least 30 years old in 1963 (born before 1933): 30

Number who were between 20 and 30 years old in 1963/31 to 41 years old in 1974 (born between 1933 and 1943): 51

Number who were between 20 and 31 years old in 1974 (born between 1954 and 1943): 102

Percentage of foreign population above 65 years old: 6%

What is the significance of this?

The old man is almost certainly dead now. He would be a hundred and five years old if he were alive. But he was someone who had emotional ties to the Greek Cypriots, someone who knew how to speak Greek. Almost everyone from that time, the people for whom a Greek Cypriot or a Turkish Cypriot was not someone who was the “other”, someone who was not to be seen through barricades or to be met with bayonets, are dead.

My acquaintance told me a second story. He was driven by his Turkish Cypriot companion to Lapithos, west of Kerynia. He didn’t stay at the village though. He asked to leave when he saw two ropes hanging from the tree. One had a sign below it saying “Makarios”, the other one had a sign saying “Grivas”.

The most important cohort numerically from a time when contact with Turkish Cypriots was not impossible is those born between 1943 and 1954. They are those who were teenagers or young adults in the dark years of 1963-1974, the years of constant conflict, suspicion and segregation. They may have fought in the conflict, either as soldiers in the Republic of Cyprus’ National Guard or in the Turkish Cypriot paramilitary force, TMT, which was renamed in 1967 Mücahit.

Nonetheless, this is a complex issue. There is no-one alive below sixty years old who has fought in the civil war or the Turkish invasion. Even the “hard men”, to borrow a phrase from the Irish conflict, have become old.

And this story is from 30 years ago. Where does it leave us now? Separation has become entrenched; few people remember co-existence, some more remember conflict, but even those are old.

There are no answers. However, it’s good to know what is slipping away from living memory (and what has yet not done so).

Nicolas Mavreas was born on what later became Europe’s eastern frontier, on the island of Cyprus. He lived through Europe’s enlargement and the turmoil of the early 2010’s. After completing his two-year compulsory national service, he went to the University of Cambridge to study. He observed the Brexit debate and result. Being a European in another member-state sharpened his awareness of the European “we” and spurred on a search to understand the European interest.

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