A mud-brick house in northern Cyprus that symbolizes the island nation’s decades of ethnic division is the foundation for Cumar Kamir and Michalis Georgiades’ friendship.
It’s the home Georgiades fled as a teenager more than four decades ago following the Turkish invasion that carved Cyprus along Greek and Turkish lines. Kamir, also displaced by the population shifts, has lived there almost as long.
If the two men get their way, Georgiades may soon be residing again in the modest structure his grandfather built for a dowry in 1924. The Greek and Turkish leaders of Cyprus are holding reunification talks this week in Geneva, where they hope to resolve how many Cypriots would be eligible to reclaim lost property under an envisioned federation.
“We want to come back, if there’s a solution that’s fair,” Georgiades, 60, a Greek Cypriot, says at his childhood home over sips of unfiltered coffee served by Kamir’s wife. “I have very good memories here. There’s a lot of joy whenever I visit. But at the same time, I feel sadness, as if I’m a stranger.”
Turkish Cypriot Kamir, 63, was raised in southern Cyprus, but moved in the wake of the invasion triggered by a coup aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece. When the island split into a breakaway Turkish north and a Greek south, Turkish Cypriot authorities gave abandoned Greek Cypriot homes to families like his.
Kamir says he bought Georgiades’ home from another man, but would gladly hand it back and return to his hometown, if authorities rebuild the crumbling home he has on several acres there.
“Could I tell Michalis that this is my home?” Kamir says, sitting on a couch under a wall of family portraits.
Property has been at the core of 18 months of negotiations between Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci. The verdant town where Georgiades’ grandfather once served as mayor, known by Greek Cypriots as Morphou and called Guzelyurt by Turkish Cypriots, will figure prominently at the summit.
Anastasiades has said there can be no peace accord without Morphou’s return to Greek Cypriot control in the federation’s redrawn boundaries. He insists that giving back the densely populated town would go a long way toward meeting the goal of allowing as many as 90,000 Greek Cypriots to repossess homes and property.
However, Turkish Cypriots want to minimize the number of their own who would have to relocate, many of whom — like Kamir — for the second time in their lives. Without major trade-offs, there is also reluctance to hand over Morphou’s prime agricultural real estate, located relatively close to the capital, Nicosia.
The connection between Kamir and Georgiades is curiously representative of the contradictions inherent in what for decades has been known as the “Cyprus problem.” The two men of the same generation are acutely aware of the legacy of hardship that informs the present and genuine in their desire for peace, but at pains to articulate a solution that won’t come at the other’s expense.
Between Kamir and Georgiades, though, there are no hints of animosity.
They’ve built a rapport over the numerous visits Georgiades has made to his childhood home since crossing points opened in 2003 along the United Nations-controlled buffer zone that separates northern and southern Cyprus. Nonetheless, the awkwardness of a calcified situation that has forced people to plant roots in the homes and property belonging to others lingers in their conversations.
Georgiades, who relocated to Nicosia after the invasion, says that he wants the family home in Morphou back for himself and his three children, but that any reunification deal shouldn’t recycle the injustices of the past that uprooted people by force.
“If my friend Cumar is not fairly treated in a solution, and if I’m unfairly treated, we’ll have problems again,” the film producer says.
Kamir, a carpenter by trade, says there’s no alternative to reunification for Cyprus, and he’s ready to do his part to support it — even if it means leaving his home of 41 years and experiencing some inconvenience while the home he expects to reoccupy in southern Cyprus is rebuilt.
“I would wait a week in a tent until the home is finished and until they give it to me,” he says.
But despite a wish for peace, some Turkish Cypriots are wary of giving up what they’ve built in the north over so many years.
Djelal Yousuf, who runs a coffee shop in Morphou, is among those who do not want to go back. He pulls out a bunch of yellowed deeds for property he owns in his village of Kyvides in the south.
“Why should I go back? My house is ruined,” Yousuf, 70, says in near-perfect Greek. “What am I going to do, rebuild? There’s nothing left for me there.”
Any peace accord that emerges from the Geneva summit would have to be approved by voters in both the Greek and Turkish communities. The two leaders already have agreed that a property commission would examine individual claims, but the details of how the commission would decide cases have yet to be worked out.
Property owners face multiple options and outcomes. They could get some or all of their land back, depending on whether there has been any development on it. They also could exchange their titles for other parcels or be compensated for its estimated value.
Back at the house Georgiades’ grandfather built, only a rack of hooks remains of the contents Georgiades left as a boy.
At the end of the visit, Kamir invites Georgiades to pick as many lemons as he likes from a tree in the backyard. After all, the tree was planted by Georgiades’ father more than six decades ago.