By Rhiannon Williams
Since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, the island has been split north and south, with an out-of-bounds strip of land marking the boundary between each side and patrolled by the United Nations. Refugees, both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot, have found themselves unable to return to the family homes they fled, as they have become occupied by invaders and other displaced families.
How do you reinterpret a site that preserves conflict? The first time I passed through the Cypriot buffer zone was in 2004, not long after it had been opened for the first time. We were channelled along a path bordered by plastic sheeting, white and dusty and crackling in the hot breeze, separating us from miles and miles of No-Man’s Land.
Something dark moved by my shoe and I looked down to see a rat whisk its bulk out of sight beneath the sheet to my right and into the inaccessible land beyond. Inaccessible physically - plastic sheeting won’t keep out a curious person but armed soldiers will - but also in terms of visuals.
The restricted land either side of the checkpoint has always been covered up, nowadays tall padlocked doors of MDF, and I find this strange. The message is that something is being specifically withheld; even the sight of the buffer zone is not granted to islanders. The informal structuring at the buffer zone maintains a language of warfare and hurt: repurposed rubble, walls of rusting oil drums, liberal toppings of barbed wire. ‘Keep Out’ signs depicting gunmen.
What’s even more interesting is the symbology that goes beyond the necessity of keeping people out. Other things I often see around the border include nationalist graffiti, written notes of grief and mourning tied to barbed wire fences, Greek or Turkish flags as opposed to the Cypriot flag, and photographs of war victims and grieving families.
I found a small Christmas tree at the Ledra Street checkpoint last December, decorated not with baubles and lights, but sun-bleached photographs of crying mothers, dressed in black. I understand the need to grieve, and the need to physicalise the memory of a lost loved one. But sending someone across the border with these highly emotive images in mind only widens the divide. I try not to look, when passing through at Ledra Palace, at the image of a young man being beaten to death, but it’s massive and hard to avoid; next to it his name, his age, immortalised.
Violence between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots these days is not as much of an issue as it used to be, but the situation remains aggravated, unresolved.
On a societal level, tensions can be high between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. Much of my interest in the conflict is down to witnessing the purposeful encouragement within my community of this mistrust while growing up in Larnaca.
With so much fossilised pain strewn about the island, and concentrated along the rift of the buffer zone, it is difficult to avoid triggering reminders of the war and of the tensions within the Cypriot community, and it is no wonder Cyprus still has not managed to come to a resolution. With the preserved nature of the buffer zone land mimicking the almost traditional preservation of prejudice and resentment amongst Cypriots, a culturally unsustainable definition of ‘Cypriotness’ has been allowed to thrive: one of division.
Fracture Edit is a project that proposes alternate buffer zone ‘inscriptions’: installations that instead make a progressive commentary on future uses for the buffer zone; of bi-communality between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. I began the project as part of a masters’ degree in Narrative Environments, and my medium is poetry. You could interpret poems as symbols perhaps, considering that both a poem and a symbol try their hardest to crystallise meaning - to boil a story down to its absolutes and to transfer that message in the most powerful and impacting way possible.
I didn’t want my message to be the only one transmitted though; I represent only a small part of Cypriotness. I did a call for Greek and Turkish Cypriot poets who might share my interest. A few of us got chatting, writing and digging through our archives. We all had written about the buffer zone through lenses different to the usual lamentations, examining instead its beauty, its creatures, its neighbours and their lives, even its banality to some as a barely-noticed fixture of everyday life. The poetry collection for Fracture Edit was formed. I began thinking of ways to embed the poems into the land.
The initial plan was to install some poetry engravings within the buffer zone. I wanted to plant something hopeful written in Greek, Turkish and English, that manifested the care many islanders have for the buffer zone and its future. The idea was that a digital, web-based platform would allow people to read these poems from anywhere with an internet connection, but that the physical poems would only be accessible once the buffer zone barriers were finally down, initiating a kind of time capsule-countdown. The knowledge that they were embedded in the land beyond the nesting barbed-wire and oil-drum walls would raise an awareness of the land itself, with the words telling of the relationship between the islanders and the land.
When the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in Cyprus rejected this proposal, Fracture Edit instead became a temporary installation at Home For Cooperation, a peacebuilding organisation located within the Ledra Palace checkpoint. The building is situated within the buffer zone, among sand-coloured relics of Mediterranean architecture and opposite the Ledra Palace hotel, now used as accommodation for buffer zone troops. The poems were installed on ceiling-to-floor lengths of scrim, channelling visitors through the room similarly to how I was first ushered through the checkpoint by the hushing sheets.
Visitors could also pull a card off of a huge Google map of the buffer zone, a passport-like ‘buffer pass’ bearing a website where all the poems are readable as location pins on another map - this in response to Google’s current depiction of the Cypriot buffer zone as devoid of street names and locations. Visitors coalesced after a while in the cafe area, and the other poets and I read our work to them as they snacked and drank wine.
I guess what I keep thinking about is the ways in which we choose to signify our care. The monumental fractured concrete bearing the names of the dead at the Ledra Street checkpoint, the grainy, blown-up photograph of the young Cypriot being murdered at the Ledra Palace checkpoint - and beyond this, no curation.
Perhaps bit by bit we can reclaim the buffer zone ourselves by continuing to implant interventions, no matter how temporary, to remind passers-through that this land has not been forsaken; that this issue is not resolved, and that it won’t be, until Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots can co-exist as fellow islanders in no-man’s land.
It was late when I left the building after the poetry reading. The air was hot, and while the area in front of the hotel was lit up lozenge-orange by a street lamp, the path leading off further into the rural North was black. I could hear music and people laughing, the sound reverberating through the checkpoint, and I felt a pull to go and find its source. It was the sound of dancing and drinking and togetherness, and I wanted to go and see. But I didn’t really know what was down that dark path; I didn’t know who was playing those instruments and how they might feel about people crossing over, about a Southerner. I might meet an indifferent soldier, or I might meet a soldier with a chip on their shoulder.
One day I’d like to be able to wander Nicosia, Varosha, and other restricted regions and feel as comfortable as I do in my old hometown of Larnaca. That night, I recorded a few seconds of the music I could hear on my phone to preserve it, and started walking back southwards.
The poems inhabit the buffer zone at fractureedit.com.
Photographs by the author:
- Building at the Ledra Palace checkpoint.
- Grafitti at a barrier.
- Communal art from the annual Buffer Fringe festival.