Nicosia Stories: Berlin it isn't - but signs of division abound at Checkpoint Cyprus

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The Independent Online

Café Berlin No 2 has an outside counter, plastic tables and chairs, blue umbrellas and a small inside space with battered cooking pots, a grill and a toasted-sandwich maker. It would be like every other modest snackery in Nicosia, but for one thing. It abuts a high, tiered wall in brick and concrete, festooned with circles of barbed wire at each level; soldiers patrol at the top and ground levels, cradling their automatics almost casually.

Café Berlin No 2 has an outside counter, plastic tables and chairs, blue umbrellas and a small inside space with battered cooking pots, a grill and a toasted-sandwich maker. It would be like every other modest snackery in Nicosia, but for one thing. It abuts a high, tiered wall in brick and concrete, festooned with circles of barbed wire at each level; soldiers patrol at the top and ground levels, cradling their automatics almost casually.

The name of the place is not in vain. A tall, lugubrious man, perhaps in his 60s, is mopping the kitchen floor. How long has the café been here? Fourteen years, he says. Is it open? No, he growls - you can see it isn't. Except that the menu board is out and the door is open, so it is not quite such a stupid question as all that. Why is it called Café Berlin? The first owner. She was German, came from Berlin. That's why. I just took it over two years ago. She went back.

There was, of course, another - more immediately obvious - reason for the name: the wall, the wire, the patrols, and the mocking banner proclaiming "Checkpoint Charly", spelt just like that, above the café's awning. The new owner, though, seems almost too used to the paraphernalia of division to notice. Not everyone is so sanguine. A scant 50 yards away, a notice proclaims: "The last divided capital". "Nothing is gained without sacrifice or freedom without blood," warns another. The wall, such as it is, consists for the most part of derelict houses, the dead core of a once-bustling city centre. Nicosia has been divided since Turkish troops occupied northern Cyprus in 1974. Three decades on, the southern, Greek, part of the city seems simply to have turned itself around and spread out to the south. It comes as a surprise to follow busy shopping streets that end in dereliction and signs that say "Stop - no photography. UN authorised personnel and vehicles only."

Nicosia, though, is no Cold War Berlin. It looks and feels benign. There is more sense of inconvenience than menace, and some rather leisurely Mediterranean bureaucracy at the crossing points. Turkish Cypriot workers stream back north in late afternoon, showing ID cards the size of credit cards. It is hard to believe that the border was effectively sealed until two years ago. Today, there is a certain flexibility, shall we say, about the border that would have shocked even the least fastidious East German border guard. "Can you take us through no-man's land up to the checkpoint?," we ask the taxi-driver. Not really, but ... He rolls down the window, exchanges a few words with the guard and is waved on. "I just told him that you have broken your leg and would find it difficult to walk."

Once upon a time, the Ledra Palace was among those noble hotels that supplied food, drink and convivial R&R to journalists covering, and recovering from, wars. It now stands decaying in the buffer zone, its once-grand interior reduced to the state of a very second-rate British boarding school.

In recent years, it has served as a barracks for the British and others serving with the UN in Cyprus: the laundry depot in the hall is scattered with plastic bags containing deposited uniforms; the cleaned and pressed fatigues hang from the ceiling; outside, white UN vans vie with giant rubbish bins for parking space. An assorted collection of well-intentioned groups, including the US Fulbright Foundation and a Norwegian organisation studying conflict resolution, have offices there. It is a venue for seminars that try to bring Greek and Turkish Cypriots together, such as the one I was taking part in. The surroundings, presumably, are supposed to concentrate minds.

Now, the building has been surveyed for the umpteenth time and declared structurally unsafe, even for the troops. The UN is requesting extra money to transfer to new quarters. Five years ago, a similar survey pronounced parts of the building off-limits. The race must now be on to see which will come first - new housing for the troops or the reunification of the island which might render their presence unnecessary and allow the Ledra Palace to be restored to its former glory? I wouldn't bet on either happening very soon.

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