I handed the customs officer my passport. Mere formality, I was told. “You can’t go through,” she says in a heavily accented English. I was standing at the pedestrian checkpoint at Lokmacı, Lefkoşa(Northern Nicosia), hoping to cross to the south side of the Cyprus, the Greek side. What? I’d never been denied entry anywhere and was obviously quite taken aback. I immediately switch to Turkish. “Niye?” Why? “Because you came through Ercan airport. They won’t let you through,” they being the Greek Cypriots.
Ercan Airport is found on the occupied side of the island, in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus(TRNC) as the Turks call in but to the world, it’s no man’s land. The 1974 military coup d’état in Cyprus, in an attempt to annex the island to the Greek, led to the invasion of the Turkish military from the north and the division of the island along the Green Line – the line drawn (in green on the map) across Nicosia, the capital, and the rest of the island by the UN during ethnic conflicts after independence from British rule in 1960. This resulted in the eviction of Greek Cypriots from the north, the evacuation of Turkish Cypriots from the south and the occupation of 37% of the island.
Although TRNC has been independent from Turkey since 1983, its lack of recognition means that it’s still dependent on Turkey politically and economically. The presence of the Turkish Army is also quite prominent on the occupied part of the island – I myself was quite surprised in Famagusta when I was visiting. I come from a country with no standing army and seeing so many soldiers in one place will never cease to be a novelty to me. While everyone was all smiley and friendly, it still made me quite uncomfortable.
To the Republic of Cyprus – and the rest of the world –, TRNC is considered a part of the country itself which is why it maintains no immigration procedure at said checkpoints but merely identifications (so technically I still don’t see why I wouldn’t have been let through). However, there are immigration checkpoints on the Turkish side which under normal circumstances would stamp visa slips instead of your passport but for some reason, they stamped mine – I really have no explanation for that one as well. And yes, I make it eventually. Through another checkpoint, ha!
I was really quite disappointed when I was told I couldn’t go through at the first checkpoint but I decided to not think much about it. When I had first thought about going to Cyprus, I obviously knew about the political conflict but I was really not sure what to expect. I had been told that border controls had been eased a lot in the recent years but right then it didn’t look much like that. I had been warned by the woman at the tourist office that I might not be let through because I did not hold an EU, British or American passport although the Commonwealth status of my country might help. Burn.
As we were walking back trying to think of something to do as it was still quite early – we considered going to a Turkish bath – we reached another checkpoint: Ledra Palace, actually the first pedestrian one to be opened and also home to large UN contingent. We breezed through the whole process: I handed my passport, he stamped it and we were done. No questions asked.
“Greek” Nicosia definitely had a European feel to it, completely different to the laid back atmosphere of the North. I definitely did not expect such a change in scenery. It was definitely more developed and quick-paced than its Turkish counterpart. I did not like it one bit. It had been pouring on and off that day so that didn’t help either. We walked around without any proper itinerary and in my head I was noting all the differences between the north and south. International brands such as McDonalds, Next, Debennhams, Cafe Nero, Starbucks and others could be seen everywhere whilst they’re non-existent in Northern Cyprus.
I would definitely recommend going to the Ledra Observatory for a bird’s eye view of the whole Nicosia and you can definitely note the difference between North Nicosia, lost in time, and the South, yet another European city. However, as you come closer to the Green Line, you clearly a glimpse of that painful past, even on the Greek side with abandoned buildings once home to Cypriots, Greek or Turkish.