Refugee voices: seminar report

Memories of life before and during the Turkish invasion of 1974: A teenage refugee from Ayios Amvrosios in Kyrenia fled with few belongings such as these family photos and her diary, in which she documented a day-by-day account of her escape with her family. Her brother, also shown above, was listed as missing. His remains were recently found and identified. His hands were bound, and the injuries inflicted on him suggest he was taken prisoner and murdered by Turkish troops. © Lobby for Cyprus

In the summer of 1974 Turkey invaded and ethnically cleansed the northern areas of Cyprus, in violation of international law and ethical principles of civilised conduct. To mark 42 years since the Turkish invasion and continued unlawful occupation of one third of the Republic of Cyprus, Lobby for Cyprus held an evening of presentations that focused on those often overlooked during political negotiations: the refugees.

Speakers told the personal stories of refugees – their memories of life in their towns and villages, the crimes committed by invading Turkish forces, their experiences of fleeing from their homes – and the 42 year dream of returning to their lands, free from occupation. Refugees and second generation Cypriots gave their impressions of occupied Cyprus today. They described their experiences when visiting their family homes and ancestral towns and villages, some of them for the first time since the Turkish occupation. Their personal stories illustrate the importance of continuing the fight for justice, to end Turkey’s impunity and to ensure respect for human rights and the rule of law.

The seminar opened with introductions by Theo Theodorou, coordinator of Lobby for Cyprus; and Dr Theodora Christou, human rights lawyer and academic, who chaired the event. Nikos Savvides gave a moving rendition of songs he has written in commemoration of his beloved Cyprus and the home he has lost.

Liza Matsangou was the first of the speakers to give her story. Born and raised in the UK, Liza happened to be in Cyprus when checkpoints to the occupied territory were opened up to Cypriots in 2003. With her family, she travelled to Ayios Amvrosios to finally see the village that she had grown up hearing about. Colonists, who were brought over by Turkey to distort the island’s population ratio, denied them entry to her grandparents’ house. They were however received into her aunt’s house by a Turkish Cypriot couple, only to be told lies about the family heirlooms that were on display right before their eyes. Liza told the story of the traumatic experience of returning as visitors to their own homes and land. She illustrated how a person doesn’t have to be born in occupied Cyprus to regard it as their home. As a child of a refugee, her occupied village is in her heart, despite not growing up there.

With her family, Lisa travelled to Ayios Amvrosios to finally see the village that she had grown up hearing about. Colonists, who were brought over by Turkey to distort the island’s population ratio, denied them entry to her grandparents’ house

Savvas Pavlides then gave an account in Greek, speaking of the anguish that had stopped him and his family from visiting their homes for years, since crossing points to the occupied area were opened. His was the story of a refugee who was born and raised in the now occupied village of Lapithos and who fought in 1974 but has not found the heart to return. Family members who have returned regretted it, wishing they remembered their homes only by their good memories of the past. He stated that he will return only if his human rights are respected. The Cypriot diaspora are not outside of Cyprus out of choice. He demanded that Cypriots of the diaspora be treated in same way as a Cypriots residing in Cyprus, when it came to voting on the future of Cyprus in a referendum.

Savvas Pavlides, who lived through the Cyprus conflict of 1974, addresses the Refugee voices seminar. He made the case that people should be permitted to return to their homes in the occupied area of Cyprus; that Cypriot refugees are not in the diaspora out of choice and that in a settlement referendum, they should be treated in the same way as the displaced Cypriots who reside in Cyprus.

Helen Anastasi, another second generation Cypriot, told a captivated audience about first hearing the news of the 1974 invasion while at school in London, and the distress that soon followed as they tried to communicate with family members in Kyrenia. Some three years ago, Helen decided to travel to the occupied area with her mother, to see the place where she had spent so many wonderful summers. Helen observed mines scarring the base of the Pentadactylos mountains, construction sites where trees once stood and the traditional stone built houses she remembered so well, now derelict and in ruins. Hers was the story of how the Cyprus issue has consumed her daily life from the first invasion to the present. She spoke of the lack of freedom of movement and the importance of land to Cypriots as well as their resilience.

Maria Nicolaidou, a refugee from Morphou, was next up to speak. She started with her harrowing experience of the invasion and shared her memories of hiding when hearing bomb blasts nearing. During a brief ceasefire, Maria managed to catch a boat to Athens with her two-year-old daughter. Fleeing was a terrifying experience. Woken by a storm, she remembers seeing explosions along the coast, fighter jets flying so low she could see the pilots’ faces and fearing for her daughter’s life. Maria went back and visited Morphou 42 years after that day, but so much had changed. Beautiful orchards, the chitchat of women in the shade, the sounds of children playing – the very life and soul of her village – were no more. Having described the emotional exodus, an overriding theme of pride came through Maria’s story. The pride with which the legitimate inhabitants of Morphou had previously maintained their village and breathed life and soul into it. She contrasted this with the nationalistic flying of Turkish occupation red flags everywhere, of decaying villages and the disrespect shown to the dead with the shattered tombs and crosses in desecrated Christian sites. She also highlighted the visible clash of cultures between the Turkish colonists and the Turkish Cypriots.

Having described the emotional exodus, an overriding theme of pride came through Maria’s story. The pride with which the legitimate inhabitants of Morphou had previously maintained their village and breathed life and soul into it

Nick Yiannoullou told the audience about his last visit to his village of Eptakomi in 1973 as a 15-year-old. When crossing points opened in 2003 and he was permitted to cross into the occupied north, he was quick to take up the opportunity in case the checkpoints were closed. In Eptakomi, when he asked Turkish colonists why they did not maintain the village, their response was “it’s not ours”. They expressed the desire to return to their homes in Turkey, saying “when they [Turkey and the occupation regime] tell us to go, we will go”. His family house was hundreds of years old and all that remains are two walls, as the colonists had destroyed it for firewood. Nick also described an educational visit with a delegation of UK MPs to the occupied area. They visited the premises of the Committee of Missing Persons and saw the town of Varosi that has been left to decay. They visited Eptakomi, Komi Kebir and witnessed the condition of desecrated Greek cemeteries compared to well-maintained Turkish cemeteries. In Rizokarpasso, they saw how life there is for the dwindling number of Greek Cypriots who remain. The visit was followed by a debate in the UK House of Commons. He highlighted the importance of Cypriots educating UK MPs and other officials, and asked “if we don’t, then who will?”

Aliki Paris then read out the story of Christoper Toumazou. After sadly losing his mother Niki Toumazou last year, Christopher longed to visit Ayios Amvrosios so that he could take a piece of his mother’s home back with him and to London and scatter some earth on her grave. Travelling through the village, he relived the memories that his mother had shared with him during their first visit years before. Visiting the village cemetery, it took Christopher some time to find his grandparents’ graves, so wrecked and damaged was the entire site. Despite the distance he felt between himself and those now inhabiting Ayios Amvrosios, Christopher shared his determination to go back and always remember his mother’s home. His story sums up the bitter sweet experience of return and how it is not only about the living but also the dead. He vows to continue the campaign to return without restrictions.

With the speeches concluded, Dr Christou finished with an update on the Cyprus settlement referendum Right to vote campaign. The initiative seeks to enable Cypriots of the diaspora to legally acquire the right to vote in a referendum on a proposed settlement to end the Turkish occupation in Cyprus. Refugees and others with eligibility to hold Cypriot citizenship are currently excluded as the law requires that individuals are resident for six months. Dr Christou explained that we are seeing global trends across the world which are removing residency as a requirement for elections. The campaign seeks only the right to vote in a settlement referendum as the gravity and permanence of the outcome merits a broader voting pool. What began as a Lobby for Cyprus initiative has dramatically expanded, first with the support of refugee associations in the UK and then of diaspora associations in Australia, South Africa and the USA. Cypriot associations have made the campaign their own, meeting with MPs in Cyprus and the UK and giving interviews on Cypriot television and radio. The Cyprus government will not act on its own, so we in the diaspora need to show our support by signing the online petition. The event closed with a question and answer session on the Right to Vote campaign.

The event was dedicated to the memory of Kyriacos Christodoulou, founder of Lobby for Cyprus. He was a refugee, who fled from Ayios Amvrosios in Kyrenia during the Turkish invasion of 1974.

Family photo of a Greek festival in the years before the Turkish invasion, occupation and ethnic cleansing of the northern area of the Republic of Cyprus
Memories of life before the invasion and occupation of Ayios Amvrosios, Kyrenia, by Turkey

Lobby for Cyprus is a non-party-political human rights organisation that campaigns for a Cyprus free from Turkish occupation and a unitary Cypriot state without segregation along ethnic and religious lines.