Cypriot officials opened two new border crossings Monday for the first time in eight years, the latest push for peace by the two sides after UN-backed talks collapsed last year.
Dozens of people from the island’s Greek Cypriot south streamed across the eastern Dherynia border post, walking past United Nations peacekeepers into the breakaway Turkish-backed north.
At the same time, the Lefka or Aplici crossing opened in the northwest of the Mediterranean island.
“I am very pleased,” said 65-year-old Turkish-Cypriot Hasan Uzun about the move. “I am sick, but I wanted to come here and see this beautiful day with my eyes. I am very emotional now.”
Ahead of the reopening of the Dherynia crossing, soldiers removed barriers wrapped in rusty barbed wire while a small group of riot police stood by.
Despite arguments breaking out among onlookers in the run-up to the midday (1000 GMT) opening, the crowd passed peacefully across the border.
The wreckage of a car could be seen off the main road in the UN-patrolled buffer zone, while nearby signs warned of mines beyond a barbed wire fence.
“Today is good day for Cyprus,” said Elizabeth Spehar, head of the UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus.
“These crossing points will play an important role in helping to increase people to people contacts, contributing to build much needed trust and confidence between the communities on the island.”
The development is also seen as a vital step to reviving peace negotiations, which collapsed in acrimony in July 2017.
“It’s another asset to the peace talks,” said Chris Charalambous, who was just 18 when war broke out more than 44 years ago.
‘Time destroys everything’
Cyprus has been divided along ethnic lines since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded and occupied its northern third in response to a coup sponsored by the military junta then in power in Athens seeking to unite the island with Greece.
For the first time since fleeing the conflict, Charalambous was looking forward to seeing his house which now lies in a military zone beyond the border posts.
“I’m just going to walk down and then I walk back, I don’t know if I can stand spending time in the north,” he told AFP.
While houses still line the road to the north of the checkpoint where Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags fly, trees and bushes now cling to the abandoned buildings.
Goats were grazing in the former residential area, which remains fenced off behind wire and red military signs.
“All these houses are destroyed… time destroys everything, 44 years is too much,” said 72-year-old Iacovos Coshandis.
Before the war, he used to walk to school along the road and said he still hopes to see Cyprus reunited.
The island has been divided for more than four decades and the two communities lived isolated from one another until Turkish Cypriot authorities cleared the way for the free movement of people following a previous round of talks in 2003.
In 1996, Dherynia was the scene of riots when two Greek Cypriots were killed by Turkish forces in one of the worst incidents on the ceasefire line.
But despite being pleased that the Dherynia crossing had been opened, resident Helen said she felt anxious about going to see the conflict-hit area she once travelled through daily.
“I think the political situation is the problem. The people, we are friends, because we are all Cypriots,” she said, declining to give her surname.
The decision to open the two border crossings came after President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci met last month in the UN-protected area in the divided capital Nicosia.
Can Emre Cagin, a 21-year-old Turkish Cypriot, said he was feeling excited after waiting for years for the border crossing to open.
“I think this is a really important moment for us Cypriots,” he said, as he and his mother waited to have their documents checked.
“I’m going to see that side for the first time, and I’m going to live that peace feeling inside me.”