At the Lobby for Cyprus Refugee voices event, Liza Matsangou, the daughter of Cypriot refugees, gave an account of her family’s brief return to their occupied village of Ayios Amvrosios, in the Kyrenia district of Cyprus.
In April 2003, my mother, my aunt and me were in Cyprus to celebrate Easter with my grandparents. I was 17 at the time.
I remember being in the kitchen while the news was on, as it always is at my family’s house. In a special announcement, it was revealed that the Turkish occupation authorities had eased restrictions of the so-called ‘border’ between the free areas of Republic of Cyprus and the militarily-occupied north – they had done so that very morning, and I happened to be there.
I remember the shock, the panic, the hysteria. This was huge. It was the first time my family would get to see their village Ayios Amvrosios in three decades. Ayios Amvrosios is a place that I had heard so much about growing up; it was a part of my life too – strange considering I was never allowed to visit before that day.
And so we went. Then and there we got in the car and set off for Lefkosia, excited, anxious, angry. We queued in the car for six hours; we were obviously not the only ones with the immediate urge to visit our homes.
We could not get through on that first day, so we tried again the next – but again there were queues of cars for miles and miles. Despite not wanting to pay for a taxi in the occupied area, so desperate was everyone to go, that we abandoned the car on the side of the road and went across by foot. We had to show our passports, something that galled us all.
Once through, we got a taxi to Ayios Amvrosios, or ‘Esentepe’ as the village has been named by the area’s occupiers – a standard practice in colonisation as seen throughout history. We travelled through the mountains of Pentadactylos, and stopped. Even though I had never been before, it was a view that I was very, very familiar with. Looking down I saw a village with but 1,000 houses in a concentrated, circular formation, surrounded by dense dark green forest that ended abruptly with the blue of the Mediterranean sea. It was as beautiful as everyone had always told me it was, but also incredibly different in reality than it had appeared in old photographs.
‘My grandparents knocked on their front door – which was an unpleasant experience – to ask permission to enter one’s own home is enraging’
Walking through the village, the dissimilarity between maintained homes and their crumbling counterparts was so peculiar. My mum and grandparents named the people whose houses they recognised; fears about the state of their own mounted with each narrow street we navigated. Along the way, they commented on the litter that was strewn everywhere, another strange sight for a village that they knew to always be spotless.
Then we reached the houses. My grandfather, being a builder by trade, had built his house – literally with his own two hands – with only the help of my grandmother. When his aunt was due to marry, he did the same for her, building a house for her and my uncle right next door. The difference between the two was again shocking. Surrounding my grandparent’s house were piles of rubbish, piles taller than ourselves in fact. My aunt’s house on the other had was clearly well maintained and clean – it had even had an extension we were later told.
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- ‘The invasion in all its reality’
My grandparents knocked on their front door – which was an unpleasant experience – to ask permission to enter one’s own home is enraging.As expected by the condition of the house, it was epikei who opened – colonists brought over from Turkey to distort the population ratio in Cyprus and as a mechanism for ethnic cleansing. It appeared that they did not understand Greek or English – either way, they were not letting us in. My grandmother peered inside as the door was opened – all her furniture was still there and used by the occupants. Chairs, the sink, she even caught a glimpse of her bed.
Not being allowed in was very hard for my grandparents – they had gone through a lot to build that house and they were denied entry by the very people illegally squatting in it.
We moved onto my aunt’s house, a Turkish Cypriot couple answered the door that spoke very good English – they were teachers in Kyrenia, I remember them saying. We sat down, and they offered us tea. In Greek my grandmother whispered to me that she spotted something that her grandmother had passed down to her and she had given to my aunt on the mantelpiece – a randistiri, an ornate vase used to sprinkle holy water in the Christian Orthodox faith. I asked the couple in English what they had found in the house when they arrived – saying that it would mean a great deal if there was anything. They said there was nothing, that the house was completely empty. It was a bald-faced lie.
After walking out of the house, slightly shocked, we went to the village church, which had been converted into a mosque. We walked around the outside of it as my mum told stories of meeting up with her friends there and the Easter celebrations that took place. It was bitter sweet.
‘After walking out of the house, slightly shocked, we went to the village church, which had been converted into a mosque. We walked around the outside of it as my mum told stories of meeting up with her friends there and the Easter celebrations that took place.
I remember looking out to the sea and spotting a rock with a Turkish flag on it. My mum said that they used to swim out to the rock, which they had nicknamed katsoshiros – hedgehog in the Cypriot dialect of Greek. I became very angry at that point. There was a Turkish flag on everything, everywhere you turned, on practically every building, even on a rock in the ocean – placed it would seem to purposefully antagonise and infuriate. And it did.
We left that day with heavy hearts. As we walked over to the free side of Cyprus, my grandmother could not contain her frustration and emotions. She began shouting that she would not leave until she spoke to a reporter. And she did, she appeared on the news that night, speaking of the pain deep inside her – the pain she felt after seeing her home and the village that she so loved and then having to walk away, of requesting access to her own property and being denied, of stepping back to relive memories full of anguish and suffering.
My grandparents have since been back to Ayios Amvrosios several times, although it hurts them greatly every time, they cannot help themselves but return – that’s all they have ever wanted.
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.