Return to Morphou

Maria Nicolaidou addresses the Refugee voices seminar. She fled as a refugee from Morphou while Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 © Lobby for Cyprus

At the Lobby for Cyprus Refugee voices event, Maria Nicolaidou, who is a refugee from Morphou gave an account of her emotional return, as a visitor, to her home town in the occupied north of Cyprus.

quote-marks-open My name is Maria Nicolaidou and I was born in Morphou. Morphou is located in the north west part of Cyprus and was first inhabited by the Spartans. It is one of the richest and fertile areas of Cyprus and the valley of Morphou was developed quickly due to its fertility and abundance of underground waters. Because of this, the inhabitants planted vegetables and grains. Ultimately they cultivated citrus fruit, especially oranges and grapefruit, and 51 per cent of Cyprus citrus fruit was grown during 1974 in Morphou and the surrounding villages.

Before the Turkish invasion, Morphou had a population of about 12,000 people and a handful of these were Turkish Cypriots families. There were two co-educational high schools, an economics school and an agricultural school. A teachers college existed until 1959 and was the predecessor of the modern day teachers academy. There were many important intellectual institutions and athletic organisations, a basketball team and two football teams.

An only child, I grew up and was educated in London during the 1950s and 60s and spent a lot of my summer holidays in Cyprus. I longed to return to Morphou and live there along with my many cousins, aunts and uncles. My parents had a house built for me in Morphou in 1968, working and saving hard to achieve this over the 15 years that they lived in London.

They sent my grandfather money to plant citrus trees on some of their land so that they could have an income from the sale of the fruit once they were retired. My parents’ next goal was to work a few more years and build a house for themselves in Morphou so that they too could return and live there once I had moved back and settled.

Occupied Morphou: The church of St Mamas, the Patron Saint of Morphou is now illegally used as an icon museum © Lobby for Cyprus

In 1969 I moved out to Cyprus, but my parents remained in London planning to move to Cyprus in the near future. I met my husband, married, had my daughter in 1972 and lived a wonderful life until the dreadful summer of 1974 when my life and the lives of the Cypriot people were shattered, firstly with the coup and the attempted assassination of President Makarios and then with the Turkish invasion. My husband, along with all the young men of Cyprus was mobilised and I was left to look after my 2-year-old daughter. I did not know where he was stationed or what had become of him once the fighting had started. The Turkish army had landed on the Kyrenia coast not many miles from Morphou. It seemed far away, as though it was in another country as we had not seen or heard any of the fighting, just what we heard on the radio or saw on the TV. But then the planes came – dropping their bombs. We would run and hide under the stairs, as we were told that was the safest place. My grandparents, my daughter and I crouched under the stairs until the planes had finished their bombardment.

Every time we heard a plane we would run and hide. For many years after, the sound of a plane overhead made me very nervous.

‘Soon people fleeing from the Kyrenia area began to arrive in Morphou and word spread of what they had witnessed. We heard that civilians had been killed and women raped’

Soon people fleeing from the Kyrenia area began to arrive in Morphou and word spread of what they had witnessed. We heard that civilians had been killed and women raped. People were anxious for their daughters and their children, and new born babies were hastily baptised. The refugees from Kyrenia needed clothes, bedding and food and we gave them whatever we could. We were in a good position, we were still in our homes, I had never realised how fortunate we were until we became refugees ourselves.

During the brief ceasefire my husband came home and told me that he wanted me out of Cyprus, away from the danger, and bought my daughter and me a ticket to London. Many Brits were being airlifted out via the British bases but, although I had a British passport, I did not come out that way. So I packed a suitcase with some clothes for my daughter and me, locked the house and left. I boarded the last ship out of Famagusta to Piraeus and then caught a flight from Athens to London, back to the safety of the UK and my parents’ house.

A few hours out of Famagusta, while we were sleeping in our cabin, we hit very stormy seas, unusual for that time of year, and I managed to make my way up to the deck with my daughter in my arms, up into the fresh air.

The ship was being thrown about by the huge waves and I was beginning to feel seasick and worried that I would not be able to care for my daughter. Whilst sitting on the deck I heard the bombers again coming in for their second attack after negotiations had broken down and the ceasefire had ended – this time with Famagusta and Morphou in their sights. The planes were so low I could see the pilots and I thought that, any minute now, we would be bombed, but they flew past us and made their way to Cyprus to finish off what they had started. I sat in a chair with a two-year-old on my lap for two days until we got to Piraeus, with people all around us crying and being ill, including my daughter and myself, not knowing what was happening in Cyprus, whether our loved ones were dead or alive.

I arrived in London and the first thing I saw on TV on the news was the Turkish army just walking into Morphou facing no resistance at all. Thankfully all my family had escaped into the mountains, sleeping wherever they could – in barns, tents, under trees and in cars.

Once the fighting had ended my husband was demobilised and remained in Cyprus as he was working in local government. In the meantime I was living in London with my parents and, as we had no home to go back to, my husband joined us, taking a few months leave from his work in the hope that we would soon return to our homes.

42 years later and we are still here. When the so-called ‘border’ in 2003 was opened we didn’t want to go – why should we show passports to go to our own town and why should we knock on our own front door and ask to be allowed in? My cousins would try their best to persuade us, but we refused. It was not until three years later that we gave in and crossed over so that we could see for ourselves and eventually take my daughter to see her birthplace. My mother had gone in the first few months of opening and she visited my house and saw the people who occupied it. They told her that if we wanted to go then we should telephone them so that they could be prepared. We did just that.

‘I arrived in London and the first thing I saw on TV on the news was the Turkish army just walking into Morphou facing no resistance at all’

A few days later my cousin drove us via Kyrenia. We drove across the Pentadactylos mountains and into Kyrenia, stopping by the harbour. In case we forgot that it was under occupation there was not a single building or boat that was not flying the red flag! Groups of young men loitered, looking suspiciously at us (they were Turkish soldiers in plain clothes we were later told). It felt as if we were in another country. I felt no joy, but fear and oppression. I couldn’t breathe.

We then drove along the coast with the beautiful views of the coastline. There were half-built houses, ruined houses and beautiful villas. Everywhere was the red flag as a reminder. We drove through Kaputi where a new university has been built, and onto the road leading into Morphou, past our orchards that my grandfather lovingly created for us. New houses had been built along the road and there was a large dirty shanty town that had been erected – probably by Turkish settlers. We drove into the town through empty streets towards my house. Why did the roads and the houses seem so small? There was no life, where was everybody? My house was in view – I could see rusty railings, peeling paint and crumbling plaster on the walls, window shutters hanging off and in need of painting. The beautiful orchard across the street was no more, instead it was a dumping ground for old tractors, rubbish and stray dogs – the trees had died long ago.

Where were the three old ladies that sat in the shade and gossiped about everyone and anyone? Where were the women laughing and joking with each other from their windows – cleaning until everything shone – the smell of their cooking wafting through the house and into the air? And, once their work was done, sitting on each others verandas having their afternoon coffee and cake, showing off their latest embroideries and discussing their best recipes while their children laughed and played?

‘Why should we show passports to go to our own town and why should we knock on our own front door and ask to be allowed in?’

My ‘tenant’ opened the door and showed us into my house. We were offered coffee and a glyko (sweet preserve) and then asked if we wanted to go around the house and see it. The rooms were the same, even the paint on the walls was the same colour, but there was none of my furniture, except for a corner unit in the study and the lampshade in the hallway. The kitchen and the bathrooms had not changed at all. The family were the second to occupy the house so they found nothing except for some old photographs and a set of encyclopaedias which we were given on leaving. The family that lived there were from Paphos and they too desperately wanted to return to their home. They hated living there as all their neighbours were Turkish settlers who they did not get on with. He was a teacher who actually trained at the teacher college in Morphou in the 1950s and spoke Greek. He told us that they had done nothing to the house since they moved in as there was a possibility that Morphou would be returned.

We drove quickly through the empty streets towards the commercial area, which was always buzzing pre-1974, to the outskirts of the town where new buildings had been erected, hotels, casinos, bars and clubs. A car park was built over the cemetery – the bones of my ancestors weighed down by concrete and cars, instead of crosses and flowers.

As soon as we left Morphou and crossed over the border I felt as if a heavy weight had been lifted off me and I could breathe again. But I wanted to go back and walk through the streets – not drive through. I wanted to walk to my grandparents’ house and to my aunts’ and cousins’ houses. I wanted to walk to the shops and to the churches, just as I did when I lived there.

After the ‘no’ vote (in the Annan plan referendum of 2004) we visited Morphou again but this time the house was unrecognisable. It was newly painted, new shutters had replaced the old broken ones and it looked clean and loved. Was this because they knew they were staying?

I have been back three times and walked the routes that I had taken many times during the happy years. I went again with my daughter and her husband, who, seeing Morphou as it has become, could not understand what it was that made me love the town so much. But she did not know the Morphou I knew – the people, the family, the warmth, the laughter, the community. She will probably never get to experience what I experienced in the short time I lived in Morphou. Let’s hope that one day we will all return to the land of our ancestors and rebuild again. quote-marks-close

icon-camera-13 The looted and gutted churches of St Nicholas and Arghaki in Turkish-occupied Morphou (click photos to enlarge)

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.