Fate of Cyprus ghost town rests with peace talks

Fate of Cyprus ghost town rests with peace talks

Famagusta (Cyprus) (AFP) - Forty years since the jet-set graced Varosha's beaches, former residents of the one-time "Riviera of Cyprus" hope Friday's renewed talks between the divided island's leaders could see them finally return home.

What was once one of the eastern Mediterranean's premier travel destinations today resembles a barren moonscape, with kilometres (miles) of razor wire dissecting the abandoned coastline.

Crumbling houses, flats on the verge of collapse, a skeleton of a petrol station: Varosha still bears the scars of the 1974 Cyprus conflict.

Around 45,000 people once lived in the neighbourhood, part of the eastern town of Famagusta that used to be known as the "pearl" of Cyprus.

Tourists came from across Europe and beyond to enjoy Varosha's pristine beaches and turquoise waters. Sophia Loren owned a house there, and it was a favourite of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Its heyday was short-lived, however.

In 1974, in response to an Athens-engineered coup attempting to unite Cyprus with Greece, Turkish troops invaded the north of the island.

The self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was unilaterally declared in 1983 in a move recognised only by Ankara. Varosha residents were forced to flee south and the town remains occupied by Turkish troops to this day.

Round after round of UN-brokered peace talks have failed to resolve the Cyprus dispute, leaving many displaced Cypriots with little more than memories of their former lives.

"They were the best years," says George Fialas, who was 19 when Varosha was invaded.

"We were really careless and restless young people. I still have memories from friends going from one club to the other."

Fialas, now 59, still remembers the day he and his family had to leave Varosha.

"All our dreams, everything that we knew, everything that was granted to us, was taken away," he says. "We were stunned."

- 'I lost my city' -

Last month's election of Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, a longtime advocate of reconciliation with the Republic of Cyprus, has brought optimism that a settlement can finally be reached.

Akinci met Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades Friday in the presence of UN envoy Espen Barth Eide in what observers say could be the best chance to reunify the island in years.

Varosha itself has fallen into disrepair after decades of isolation and disuse. Nature has begun to reclaim the land, with bougainvillea creeping up the walls of abandoned houses and roads overgrown with weeds.

Birds flit between old hotel rooms, their windows long since vanished.

Emily Markides, who grew up in Varosha, still hasn't forgotten what was taken from her 40 years ago.

"I lost my city. That has haunted me all my life," she says.

"What was special about Varosha was that it had orange groves all around it, so around spring time... you could literally die from the smell of orange blossoms. It had jasmine everywhere. The smell of jasmine is haunting me."

- 'Returned to nature' -

Convinced that Varosha residents would one day be able to return, Markides presented a project to the UN in 2006 to transform Famagusta into a "smart", ecologically friendly city.

Her daughter, Vasia, began work on the vision two years ago, and architects, engineers, economists and ecologists from both sides of the divide have come together to form the Famagusta Ecocity Project.

Other groups have thought up similar schemes aimed at rebuilding and reinhabiting Varosha, in spite of the conundrums created by any plans to resurrect the town.

Who would own the properties? How much needs demolishing? Who pays?

Economist Fiona Mullen says it is "very difficult" to estimate the cost of rebuilding Varosha until experts are granted access to the town, though she guesses the amount to be at least five billion euros.

Famagusta residents have been left with the empty shell of Varosha, with the military divide cordoning off one of Cyprus' most stunning stretches of coastline.

The will is strong, but no one is under any illusion that the actual rebuilding of the town, in the event of the latest round of peace talks yielding a breakthrough, will be easy.

"We can not press a button and rebuild a town that for 41 years has been the home of snakes, rats and has returned to a big extent to nature," says Famagusta's mayor-in-exile Alexis Galanos.

"It needs years and work."

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