News & Current Affairs

September 7, 2008

Laying to rest Cyprus’s ghosts

Laying to rest Cyprus’s ghosts

A Greek-Cypriot woman holds a picture of relatives missing since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

The issue of the “missing” is still a contentious topic in divided Cyprus

Talks this week on the reunification of Cyprus look more hopeful than many would have dared to think possible. But the discovery of remains from some of those killed during the 1974 Turkish invasion is refreshing old grievances, as Tabitha Morgan reports.

The Cyprus police museum is perhaps not high on the list of must-see attractions for the tourist but it does draw a steady stream of visitors, mostly Greek Cypriot children on school trips.

One of the main exhibits is a dark blue prison wagon, one of a pair used during the final years of the British occupation for transporting captured guerrilla fighters between the central court and Nicosia prison.

Nine of them were hanged there by the colonial authorities during the 1950s, some no more than teenagers.

In transit the prisoners were locked behind a heavy sliding door, while their guards enjoyed marginally greater comfort sitting on a pair of blue padded seats.

Greek Cypriot pupils are shown the bars on the floor of the vehicle to which prisoner’s feet were chained. They are urged to reflect on the courage of those young men who struggled to overthrow colonial rule, and taught to take a pride in the story of their national heritage.

Ethnic identity

What is less well chronicled is how, just three years after Cypriot independence, when inter-communal killings began in 1963 the van was used to transport a Turkish Cypriot prison officer to his death at the hands of right-wing paramilitaries.

Air strike by Turkish Air Force during their invasion of Cyprus, 1974.

An air strike by the Turkish Air Force during the 1974 Turkish invasion

On 21 December 1963 Mustafa Arif, a senior officer at Nicosia prison, was admitted to hospital in what is today the Greek Cypriot side of the city to be treated for a heart condition.

By the next day relations between the two communities had collapsed. Riots broke out in Nicosia, shops were looted and burned and the Turkish Cypriot community retreated behind barricades in the north of the city.

Shortly after, Mustafa received a visit from his Greek Cypriot colleagues who urged him leave the hospital and to go with them in the prison van, to a safer place. He agreed to be driven away.

No-one knows for sure what happened next. Was the sick man allowed to sit on one of the comfortable blue padded seats? How long was it before he realised that something was dreadfully wrong?

On the other side of the city, in the Turkish Cypriot enclave, Mustafa’s 10-year-old son Kutlay had just learned to ride a bicycle. He was eager to show his father what he could do, so every day Kutlay brought his bike to meet the bus that he confidently expected would bring his father home.

But Mustafa Arif was listed as “missing” and for the next 44 years he has been considered “missing”: one of those Cypriots killed because they had the wrong ethnic identity.

Burial sites

Greek Cypriots have their own missing, mostly men killed at the time of the Turkish invasion in 1974. The stories of their grieving children, and of families pulled out of joint, are just as raw.

A man shovels dirt into the grave of relatives in southern Cyprus

Scientists have identified the remains of many missing people

These ghostly figures whose killers have never been punished have a symbolic and political potency. There has been little reconciliation, no attempt to reach across the divide and listen to the stories told by Cypriots from the other side of the island.

But recent work by United Nations forensic pathologists may soon force that to change. Over the last 12 months the scientists have located and identified the remains of many missing people and returned them to their families.

Burial sites that were isolated in the 1960s and 1970s are today in the center of urban development. One excavation took place in the car park of Nicosia’s new multi-screen cinema.

Kutlay is now a middle aged man with a family of his own. Until recently he was the mayor of Northern Nicosia. Earlier this summer he received a phone call from the technicians at the UN lab explaining that most, but not all of his father’s skeleton had been recovered from a well in a Nicosia suburb.

Kutlay and his family were invited to view the remains, spread out on a plastic table draped in a white sheet.

Kutlay has spent much of his career campaigning for the island to be re-united. His views on his father’s killers are clear.

“They were fascist thugs,” he says, “they happened to be Greek Cypriots, but that is not what is important about them.”

While the remains of the missing lay lost underground, issues to do with culpability, justice and retribution could be set aside. Now they are being unearthed, Cypriots will have to decide how deeply they want to search for answers to these more difficult questions.

Mustafa Arif was buried earlier this summer next to his wife. It is a mark of how much times are changing here that one of those present was an official Greek Cypriot representative of the President, Dimitris Christofias.

There is no doubt that among the current Greek and Turkish Cypriot leadership there is a strong desire to overcome the past. What is not so clear is whether Cypriots at large are ready to follow their lead.

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August 17, 2008

Turkish warplanes ‘bomb PKK base’

Turkish warplanes ‘bomb PKK base’

map

Turkish warplanes bombed a hideout of the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq late on Saturday, the Turkish army says.

It says the jets “successfully” hit the PKK base in a cave in the Avasin-Basyan area and returned to their bases.

The Turkish army did not give any details of casualties.

Turkey accuses PKK rebels of using hideouts in northern Iraq to fight their campaign for self-rule in mainly Kurdish south-east Turkey.

Ankara has staged a number of air raids on suspected rebel targets in northern Iraq since last year, and mounted a major ground incursion last February.

Some 40,000 people have been killed since the PKK launched its campaign in 1984.

August 13, 2008

German ice cream murders probed

German ice cream murders probed

German police examine the scene of the shooting in Russelsheim

Police could not establish a motive for the attack immediately

A huge manhunt is under way after three people were shot dead at an Italian ice cream parlour in a town near the German city of Frankfurt, police say.

The assailant or assailants fled the scene after the attack in the central pedestrian area of Ruesselsheim, 28km (17 miles) south-west of Frankfurt.

German media said the two men killed were Turkish. The woman appears to have been caught in crossfire.

Police said the motive for the attack was unclear.

Officers are using dogs and a helicopter in an effort to find the killer or killers, and have sealed off the center of Russelsheim.

Map

The shooting occurred around 2000 (1800 GMT) at the Eis de Rocco cafe, police told the Associated Press.

First reports had suggested that some of the victims might have been stabbed and that four people had been killed in the incident. A third man – also Turkish – was seriously injured in the attack.

“According to our investigations, more than one person committed the crime. They were all thought to be males, who used guns and were armed at the time of the crime. According to eyewitnesses, a knife was also possibly used,” said police spokesperson Marc Wuthe.

Almost exactly one year ago, six people were shot dead in the town of Duisburg, north-west of Frankfurt, in a shooting blamed on an Italian mafia clan.

Seven people were arrested in connection with the Duisburg deaths.

Mr Wuthe said it was unclear whether Tuesday’s shooting had any link to organized crime.

“We have no idea as to the motive behind the crime. We will investigate all avenues,” he said.

August 8, 2008

Kosovo lives: Not gone with the wind

Kosovo lives: Not gone with the wind

Courtesy BBC

Sani, Lili and Dani Nikolic in their room at the Greek K-For camp

The three women thought they would be left alone in Urosevac after the war because there were no men in their house

In the fifth and final piece by BBC journalists on life in Kosovo today, Patrick Jackson meets three Slovenian-Serb women who intend to be the bane of K-For’s life until they regain their ancestral home.

Their great-grandfather built Urosevac, the Nikolic daughters like to say, so how can they leave it now?

Sani (Santipa), the very image of mildness and physical slightness, beams mischievously at the memory of how she floored a US soldier with her karate skills, the day K-For came to evacuate her family.

I am not saying she is over 60, because her disabled younger sister Lili (Liljana) reminded me, when I inquired, that you must never ask a lady her age. A smile of assent crossed the mask-like face of their blind mother Dani (Daniela).

However, the soldier’s commanding officer was certainly impressed by Sani’s resilience, telling her she was “as tough as a Texan lady”, according to Lili.

The Americans evacuated them from Urosevac (Ferizaj in Albanian) on 18 March 2004, to save them from Albanian rioters, who then destroyed the house.

But the Nikolic women have refused to join the thousands of other non-Albanians who fled (most of them in June 1999).

They argue that K-For failed to defend their property and removed them against their will, so it should take them back.

And that is how they come to be living today inside a Greek army base outside Urosevac.

Sickbay

The sole civilians to live on a base in K-For’s eastern sector have a medical ward to themselves at Camp Rigas Fereos.

The Nikolic family's cooking arrangements in the camp

The facilities in the room meet the family’s basic needs

It is a large, spotlessly clean room equipped with the bare essentials such as a fridge and a microwave oven, but no television set or radio.

From the window they can see only the camp and the mountains in the distance. Some paper religious icons are stuck to the blank white walls.

What personal effects they have seem all to come from charity.

Asked what she misses most from her home, Daniela says her family photographs and her jewellery, including her wedding ring from her husband who died before the war (she had taken it off to wash her hands the morning they were evacuated).

There is also the antique furniture, her library of 1,800 “beautiful books in five languages” and her paintings, especially a 17th-Century Italian Madonna she brought with her from her native Slovenia when she married her Serb husband.

Theirs was a wealthy family in its time, Lili explains. Their great-grandfather helped found Urosevac, a late 19th-Century town that arose around the new Belgrade-Thessaloniki railway, after he persuaded the Turkish authorities to let him build there.

Thessaloniki played a new role in the Nikolic family’s history in 2004, when Greek K-For, having sheltered the evacuees at Camp Rigas Fereos for four months, transferred them to its military hospital.

All three women needed specialised medical help.

A military ambulance parked outside the family's room

Life for the women at the base is punctuated by bugle calls

During the evacuation, Lili, paralysed in one leg since a car crash in her youth, was struck by a rioter’s stone, which broke her bad knee.

Daniela was already going blind and Sani suffered from arthritis.

Nearly five years of constant stress had also taken its toll.

Their house was placed under 24-hour K-For guard in the summer of 1999 after intruders robbed and beat them.

The last time Sani had left the building was in October 2000, when she slipped past the guards to go to the nearby market.

Some teenage boys recognised her as a Serb and started to beat her. She fought back with her karate, but she says she “did not want to hurt them”. She returned home covered in blood.

The boys told the police she had fired a gun at them, she adds, and an Albanian policeman turned up at the house. But when he saw the K-For guards, he just said “no problem” and left, Sani says.

In November last year, the women left the hospital in Thessaloniki and returned to Camp Rigas Fereos at their own request.

Private property

While they were in Greece, new buildings were erected illegally on the site of their property, a prime location in the centre of Urosevac.

Sani Nikolic in her room at the Greek K-For camp
We have just this one card left to play, and we are playing it now. We have nothing else to lose
Sani Nikolic

Sani says she was phoned by an Albanian when she was still in Thessaloniki, and advised not to try to come back because there was “no room” in the town for her family now.

“I said to him: ‘You Albanians want to join the EU and from what I know, the English and the Americans respect private property very much. I don’t want yours, I just want my own back. And nobody can deny me that’.”

The UN refugee agency has offered them a new home in a village enclave near Urosevac but they are refusing.

“What would I do in a village?” asks Sani, an architect by profession.

“I have never lived in a village. I know nothing about agriculture. I am ill.

“If we agreed to be relocated to a village enclave somewhere, we know that we, like the other IDPs [internally displaced persons], would never get our home back.”

The newly elected mayor of Urosevac has taken an interest in their case and visited them at the camp this June. They gave him a file of property deeds.

The mayor pledged to ensure their information was processed through the legal system, K-For says.

Last card

K-For also says the Nikolic family cannot stay on the base indefinitely.

After all the family has suffered, and given their ill-health, age and isolation from other Serbs, I ask the women if it is not better to yield and accept a peaceful existence somewhere other than Urosevac – perhaps in Greece, which has they say, offered them asylum.

How can these three women, so proud and outspoken about their Serbian identity, even think of living again in a town that war turned against them?

They admit themselves that they feel uncomfortable in the camp, ever grateful to the Greek army for its hospitality and ever embarrassed about getting in the soldiers’ way.

Sani accepts the difficulty of returning now but her sense of grievance is greater.

“I will be frank,” she says.

“We know that we are like a thorn in the side for the Greek camp because as long as we are here, we are a problem they have to resolve.

“But this is the last card we have to play. We have nothing else to lose.”

August 7, 2008

Istanbul site ‘hit by grenades’

Istanbul site ‘hit by grenades’

Map showing Turkey

Several hand grenades have been thrown at a municipal building in Istanbul, according to local reports.

A local mayor told semi-official news agency Anatolia that three grenades had exploded. At least one person was hurt.

Reports say two men fled the scene on a motorbike. The attack took place in Uskudar on the Asian side of the city.

Last month, double bombings blamed on Kurdish separatists killed 17 people in the city. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) denied any role in the attacks.

A month ago, three police officers and three gunmen were killed in an attack on the entrance to the US consulate in Istanbul. Turkish police said they were investigating possible links to al-Qaeda.

Political tensions

Police are searching for the two suspects who are thought to have fled on a motorbike after Thursday’s explosions.

A funeral ceremony for victims of Istanbul's 28 July bombing

A double bombing in Istanbul last month claimed the lives of 17 people

Uskudar mayor Mehmet Cakir told Anatolia that one blast had occurred in a rubbish truck in the car park of the municipal building and two more in a neighbouring cemetery.

NTV Television said the wounded person suffered a minor injury to the leg.

The latest incident comes at a time of increased political tensions in Turkey.

Last week, Turkey’s Constitutional Court narrowly voted not to close down the governing AK Party, accused of undermining the country’s secular system.

Meanwhile, an investigation continues into a shadowy ultra-nationalist group, known as Ergenekon, which is suspected of plotting to overthrow the government.

Dozens of people have been arrested and charged in connection with the inquiry, including two retired high-ranking military generals.

Turkey has seen armed attacks from a variety of groups in recent years.

The most deadly was in November 2003, when 58 people were killed by Islamist militants in suicide bombings outside two synagogues, the British consulate and a British bank in Istanbul.

The Kurdish rebels of the PKK have also been blamed for several attacks, including a car bombing that killed six people in the city of Diyarbakir in January.

Leftist and ultra-nationalist groups have also been accused of violence.

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