Land dispute casts new shadow over north Cyprus

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The Independent Online

Linda Orams looked up in surprise at the earnest man who stood in the garden of her holiday home and introduced himself as the owner of her land. Meletis Apostolides had made his way quietly down the gravel path, pausing occasionally to stare at the lemon and olive groves behind. "She told me she was the owner of the villa," he remembers. "And I said, 'Yes, but I am the owner of the land.'"

It was more than two years ago in the northern Cypriot village of Lapta that this conversation took place, sparking a lengthy legal battle over the ownership of the land and house. But still, no common ground has been found between Linda and David Orams, a retired British couple who came to the island to build their dream home at a bargain price, and Mr Apostolides, who lived on the land until he was forced to flee the invading Turkish army in 1974.

He, like many other Greek Cypriots, claims that the land he owned has been stolen from him - and that the thousands of Britons, lured by the low prices and Mediterranean sunshine, are contributing to the illegal occupation of his land. But, finally, after years of legal wrangling which has stirred so many of the tensions that still divide Cyprus 32 years after the invasion, the case is to be settled. Yesterday, the Orams, defended by Cherie Booth QC, were in the High Court in London to begin a hearing which will determine whether their dream of a holiday getaway has been shattered for ever.

This case is about much more than just a holiday home. For the Turkish Cypriots who live in northern Cyprus, the ruling could spell disaster.

Money has flowed into northern Cyprus on an unprecendented scale over the past few years, largely due to an estimated 6,000 Britons buying properties at rock-bottom prices. Throughout the territory, grey concrete shells are springing up in clusters; previously small villages are being overrun by identikit holiday homes. The locals generally welcome the foreigners because their investments are vital to the tiny economy - and if the High Court were to rule against Mr and Mrs Orams it would be a huge blow. The construction boom aside, there is little else to fall back on.

The Turkish Cypriot government has assured potential buyers they have nothing to fear. But foreigners living there are scared, and many estate agents are, privately, reporting a slump in the numbers of people looking to buy.

While life for Greek Cypriots is looking up thanks to EU membership, cross the United Nations-patrolled Green Line, a barrier that runs like a scar from one side of the island to the other, and it is a very different story. Here, where minarets dot the skyline and military barracks take up swaths of the arid countryside, life is harder and poorer. Ask people to sum up their existence, and "struggle" is often the only answer they have.

The Turkish Cypriots are Europe's forgotten people. Thirty two years after the Turkish army, responding to a Greek-engineered coup, invaded Cyprus and forced 167,000 Greek Cypriots to flee to the south, the inhabitants of the unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus still live in a legal and political vacuum. In 2004, when Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, announced a referendum on a settlement, the north voted overwhelmingly in favour, while the south voted against. Days later, the Republic of Cyprus joined the EU, while its unrecognised neighbour was left to languish in its shadow.

After Northern Cyprus voted in favour of the settlement, there was widespread acknowledgment that the international community could be more sympathetic to its plight. But little has changed. There are no direct flights to or from anywhere except Turkey; the north's once-bustling ports can now trade directly with Turkey only.

The continued isolation after the Annan plan has caused great resentment among Turkish Cypriots. "If the isolation were lifted our economy would grow. We would reach EU standards. Young people would be able to find a job in their own country," says the Prime Minister, Ferdi Soyer. "We want a chance to say to the world: here are the people of the north; they are not invisible, they are not men from Mars or the Moon."

But this may be some time coming. Hidayet Gül, the manager of Latifoglu, a family-run shipping agency in Famagusta, has been campaigning for years for the embargo to be lifted. "You try really hard, you struggle, and still nothing changes. I am not angry, but it is just not fair," she says. "They might say they don't recognise Turkish Cyprus, but we are the proof of our existence. We exist, we live here, no matter what they say. You can deny it all you like but it is true."

Greek Cypriots are sensitive to accusations that they are indifferent to the situation in the north. "It is not that we are the rich, arrogant, superior ones who don't want a solution," explains Constantia Zachariadou, a journalist in Nicosia. "We are just scared. We worked so hard to gain these standards, this economic strength, and we are scared it will be taken away from us."

There are also, of course, harrowing memories. "I was brought up not to call them my enemies but our friends, our brothers," Constantia says of the Turkish Cypriots. "But my uncle died in 1974. He was called Constantinos. I cannot let this go. It is part of my history."

A strangely similar sentiment comes from many in the north. "I used to think we Cypriots have the same hearts, the same minds," says Ahmet Bardak. "But now I start to change my mind. I voted 'yes' at the last referendum but if it happened again I would say 'no.' No chance."