Around four decades ago, time was frozen in the coastal Cypriot district located in Vorasha.
Eggs that were being boiled still lay on rusty stoves. Child’s toys have remained strewn across living room floors. Clothes had been left on their hangers inside of brimming closets. This shows that thousands of everyday lives had been abandoned in an instant.
The Greek Cypriots had believed it was temporary when the Turkish military ordered them out of their homes in the summer of 1974. Yet 42 years has gone by, and Varosha remains a ghost town.
The beaches used to be filled with families playing beach volleyball. Now there are barbed wire fences that cut across the sand, patrolled by armed soldiers. Children run in and out of the shallow surf, trying to remain oblivious to the present tension. It has always been this way all their lives.
Cyprus is now a country divided. Centuries following the Ottoman rule this tiny island nation formally subordinated itself to Britain in 1914, prompting resistance from the Greek Cypriots who had wanted to unify the country with Greece.
Five years of freedom fighting warfare had ended with Cyprus getting their independence in 1960. Yet regardless of the power-sharing deal struck between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, the tensions between the two communities continued.
In 1974, ten years after the United Nations created a peacekeeping force in Cyprus to stop the rising violence, Greece staged a takeover, trying to seize control of the island from the former President Archbishop Markarios III. The move had failed, and Turkey responded by sending military forces to northern Cyprus.
Tens of thousands of Greek Cypriots had fled south, while the smaller population of Turkish Cypriots living in southern Cyprus fled north.
The military occupation and divisions still last to this day, with the six square kilometer ghost town of Varosha standing on one of its more iconic emblems. Yet negotiations between Greek and Turkish leaders still continue. There is a joint progress report expected to be released this week; one group wants to change this situation.
Varosha represents the ongoing problem of Cyprus. It is a physical representation of a decades-long conflict that just does not stop. This is causing despair in the spirits of their people.
Vasia Markides is leading the Famagusta Ecocity Project, an initiative aimed at reviving Varosha with the rest of Famagusta, hoping to make it “Europe’s model ecocity” and creating a solar powered, walkable, environmentally sustainable hub.
Her documentary on this project is waiting to be released later this year. Her ultimate goal is to see Famagusta and Varosha as a whole begin to be an ecocity.
Markides mother had grown up in Varosha, on a once-thriving stretch of coastline that was a destination for films stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot, and Richard Burton. For Markides mother, her strongest memories include the smells of citrus blossoms and jasmine that floated through the air. She remembers spending her childhood playing among the reeds on the beach.
Through the past years, Markides has gotten together a small team that includes the Turkish Cypriot architect Ceren Bogac as well the Greek Cypriot urban planner Nektarios Christodoulou.
Amongst others, they are helping to create momentum and collecting ideas on how to convert Famagusta into an ecocity.
The project would involve the whole city, and not just the deserted district of Varosha. It involves rethinking the electrical infrastructure, building design, and the streetscapes, as well as aiming to preserve as many of the historic structures as possible.
They are hoping to provide a time when the issues can be talked about in cooperation with both communities.
For Bogac, the story is also personal. Her father’s family had come to Famagusta from the southern port city of the Larnaca, after the 1974 partitioning.
She had grown up in a house that looked over the fence that was around Varosha. Now a tangled barbed wire, sheet metal, and wooden planked fence declared the Forbidden Zone.
Bogac at all time was facing the border, and it was very traumatic and terrible. He had seen the same curtains deteriorate every single year. He would think about the people who were staying there.
Political challenges ahead
Regardless of the growing interest among both the Turkish and Greek Cypriots, the ecocity project is still facing large obstacles. There is a chance of the negotiators coming to a solution within the broader Cyprus dispute. Until that time, Varosha will stay frozen in its current state.
Even if a resolution were to happen, and Varosha was able to reopen to the public, there could possibly be several claims on the abandoned properties by the developers.
Then there would be the significant challenge of reaching a general agreement on how to recreate the city in a manner that worked for both groups of current residents.
The current population is at 40,000, and could increase to around 200,000 with the reopening of Varosha. This would be a large redevelopment for the city. Several would not be prepared for what they could find when they arrive.
The people who used to live there in 1974 have romantic images of the place. They remember it exactly how they had left it. Several people do not even know that there are large trees growing through their houses; that everything has been demolished and there is not much left to save.
Christodoulou recently worked on a “mental map” study of Famagusta, asking 500 Greeks and Turkish Cypriots to sketch their image of the city’s existing urban fabric.
The results showed a stark contrast in their understanding of the city, with Greek Cypriots, mainly recalling features of southern Famagusta, comprising Varosha, and Turkish Cypriots focusing primarily on the north.
There are only a few people who have been able to sneak in and take a look at the city of Varosha.
Paul Dobraszczyk, a visiting lecturer from London’s Bartlett School of Architecture who is the author the book, The Dead City: Urban Ruins and the Spectacle of Decay, stated he was hit by the sense of serenity to the deserted homes.
He had thought it would be upsetting, but it felt untouched and quiet; he experienced peacefulness and tranquility. Everything had been taken over by nature. Several of the buildings were inhabited by pigeons and other animals. You could as well hear several sounds outside of the Forbidden Zone.
Around an hour’s drive from the west of Varosha is another relic of the 1974 conflict. The Nicosia Airport has been standing abandoned for 40 years.
Not far from the old airport terminal that still has decaying posters that were advertising Seiko watches and Bata shoes, is a building that since May of 2015 has hosted UN negotiations for the Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci.
The Cyprus peace talks are continuing to make good progress in an atmosphere of goodwill and trust. Both of the leaders have expressed their hope of reaching a complete agreement by the end of 2016.
If the agreement is reached, both sides intend to hold a general vote to decide the outcome.
However, despite being backed by the majority of Turkish Cypriots, previous general votes calling for unification had failed. Three-quarters of the Greek Cypriots had voted against it in 2014.
Located on the edges of Varosha, tourists peek over the fence that is surrounding the deserted city, while Turkish soldiers stand on the rooftops nearby, Al Jazeera reported.
The fence goes around the perimeter of the city Varosha. Famagusta residents that live along this line have to look at it every day from their front porches. The view is of emptiness and of the buildings and the city itself decaying.
Rusted doors that are falling off the hinges sit against iron balcony railings. The fence that surrounds the city has been there so long it is starting to slump in places.