At the Lobby for Cyprus Refugee voices event of July 2016. Helen Anastasi gave an account of her visit to her family village of Ayios Amvrosios in occupied Kyrenia.
My name is Helen Anastasi and I am a second generation Greek Cypriot. I was born in London to parents who had come to the UK in the 50s. Like so many other Cypriots, they left an impoverished Cyprus to find work and to help their families back home.
My mum is from Ayios Amvrosios, Kyrenia and my dad from Pano Kivides Limassol.
In 1974, I was still at school. I remember the day of the invasion. That day changed the lives of my mum’s family forever. From that day, words such as invasion, refugees and United Nations Resolutions were part of my everyday vocabulary. From that first day of the invasion and to what we came to call the second invasion, nothing was ever the same for my family.
The initial disbelief and shock very soon turned to fear for the lives of my grandmother, my aunt and uncle and my cousins, as there was no news for about five days after the second invasion. Finally, a telegram arrived with three words: είμαστε όλοι καλά – we are all okay. We knew we were the lucky ones. But nobody then thought, 42 years later, that we would still be talking about illegal invasions, refugees and human rights etc.
So, the first time I ‘returned’ was three years ago and again this year, both times with my mum and other family members. Both times, it was to fulfil a longing, trying to recapture something lost, and for me to see the village I had grown to love as a child on those long summer holidays.
The first stab in the heart is at the crossing. This is the invasion in its reality. The denial of free movement in your own country, another state saying “this is ours, but we are giving you permission to visit”. And I can understand why there are many who will never go, who will never accede. But we swallow hard and accept what we have to do to go to the village one more time.
We drive through Nicosia, head towards Pentadactylos mountain. I know what this mountain means to my family. I grew up hearing that Pentadactylos means home. Just on the other side of that mountain, they would say, is the village.
As we drive nearer the mountain, we see that the base is scarred with enormous craters. They are mining and destroying it. All the way towards the village, there are new houses where there were once just pine trees.
We eventually get to the village and stop outside the school. My mum gets out of the car and shouts “this is my school”, loud enough for people to come out of the offices. She is crying now and a man is leading her into the school office, asking if she wants any water, a coffee, anything to stop her wailing. He is kind and listens to her stories. He tells her he has also lost his home. He was from Paphos.
She eventually comes out, calmer and ready to continue. We walk slowly, my mum pointing to this house and that house, and the names of the families who own them. The modern houses were intact and looked lived in, but the old traditional stone built houses, were derelict and in ruins.
When we reached my grandmother’s house, the house my mum grew up in, she went straight into the front yard and the gardens, pointing out all the changes, the missing trees here, the new outbuildings there. This was still her house, and she was reclaiming it. I looked around, seeing a familiar house and trying to remember where it was that me and my cousins played. It was the same house, but not the same. I wanted to reconnect to my 13-year-old self, to see my grandmother and aunt, going in and out of the house, watering the plants, picking vegetables in the garden and plucking a chicken for our soup. Instead, I was standing in an empty courtyard. The people who gave life to this house were no longer here.
‘The first stab in the heart is at the crossing… the invasion in its reality. The denial of free movement in your own country, another state saying “this is ours, but we are giving you permission to visit”’
I walked around to see the rest of the houses in the neighbourhood. I knew the names of each family. Their doors were always open to me and my cousins. They fed us, kept an eye on us while we played, and we felt safe and loved.
We walked a little longer around the village, but we saw no one. Not on the street or outside the houses. It felt like a ghost town and I wanted to leave.
We drove out of the village and headed towards the orchards and fields. This trip had a specific purpose. My mum wanted to go to every orchard and every field, to show us what belonged to her and therefore what belonged to us. This went on for what felt like hours. We stopped in the middle of fields with names such as Ayia and Yerolanda and orchards named Thoxameni and Kaloiros. We took endless photographs of my mum in fields, pointing into the distance.
There was a particular field named Vourkari, where my grand father had built a two room hut which has long since disappeared. I was told stories about this place by my aunts and my mum. This was the place my mum and her sister would spend weeks in, during the harvest season, on their own, without their parents, from when they were very young – my mother from 13 years and my aunt from 15-years-old. They picked olives, carobs and water melon. This was their life and the lives of so many of her generation. I am amazed at what they achieved for themselves and how different their children’s lives are. My mum said her dream, when she was 14-years-old, was to go to England, learn to drive and own a business. Well, that 14-year-old girl did just that.
‘1974 and everything that followed taught me about injustice, via my family and what they went through. It wasn’t something I just read about. It got me involved in campaigning and it taught me about politics’
Her generation and my grandparent’s generation had very little and worked very hard. But they had their own homes and land to make a living from. They had dreams and aspirations for their children. Their homes and their fields meant more to them than monetary value. In a way, it defined them, gave them their place in their society. So that’s what is destroyed when someone loses their home. It’s not just the four walls or the land. Its the lost community, the loss of heritage.
As a second generation Cypriot, 1974 and everything that followed taught me about injustice, via my family and what they went through. It wasn’t something I just read about. It got me involved in campaigning and it taught me about politics.
I’ve worked and made friends with like-minded people and with them I will do all I can to campaign for a just solution for Cyprus.
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.