The man and the girl are in tears, embracing each other. Just minutes before, the man said: “I can never forgive your people. They killed my family.” It is the first time the girl is setting foot in the man’s country. On a normal day, she and her people are not allowed on this side of the island. On a normal day, the man and the girl are separated by minefields on the border, by the memory of a bloody civil war, by political propaganda and by UN peacekeeping forces.
But this isn’t a normal day. If statesmen were involved, the media would hail Wednesday, July 4, 2001 as a historic date in the reconciliation of Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
The island of Cyprus has been divided into a Greek South and Turkish North since 1964. This was followed by the 1974 civil war, which established the UN-backed ceasefire line which still forms the de facto border today. Turkish Cypriots are not allowed to enter the Greek Cypriot South of the island, and Greek Cypriots are banned from the North. The relationship between the two sides is described as “cold” at the very best.
However, there is no media present in the scorching midday sun of the eastern Mediterranean. As in the rest of the world, most peace-building here takes place in a low-key environment, among regular people. Melina is a Greek Cypriot high school student who wasn’t even born when her countrymen killed the family of Abdul, along with 82 other civilians in his village. Abdul, the Turkish Cypriot shepherd, is one of the only two survivors of the massacre.
The media rarely takes notice of important moments in peace-building like this one.
Abdul has just finished telling the story of the massacre to an audience of high school students from both parts of Cyprus and from all over Europe, who are on the island for a youth camp designed to foster international understanding and bring the two Cypriot communities together.
His moving description of the killing has left none of the students untouched.
Some students leave the scene. Melina starts crying. Abdul’s account is hard for her to comprehend. All she ever learned was that the Turkish Cypriots killed thousands of Greek Cypriots during the war. Turkish Cypriots are presented in the Greek part of Cyprus as “inhuman,” eager to kill any Greek Cypriot they come across. Greek Cypriots are similarly demonized in the North. Yet Melina spontaneously embraces Abdul.
By doing so, she is tearing down all the walls that politicians have erected over almost three decades.
Her gesture is a symbol of what is possible once people are given a chance to meet and see beyond the boundaries of what they are fed by their societies.
The concept seems so simple. However, intense persuasive efforts were needed to convince authorities on both sides to let this historic encounter take place. United World Colleges, the organization which held the youth camp, had a full-time staff member who negotiated with the governments for four months before Greek and Turkish Cypriots were allowed to meet in the North for two days. The resistance to this meeting is evidence of the governments’ unwillingness to allow genuine peace-building to take place.
However, for Melina, as well as for the other participants of the camp, the conflict received a new face that day.
A simple visit gave them the opportunity to learn about the other side of the dispute and encouraged them to take further steps towards peace in Cyprus.