Findings and impressions from HCRI Cyprus fieldwork

by | May 23, 2014 | Staff blogs | 0 comments

Since 1974 the small Mediterranean island of Cyprus has been divided in two. Officially the whole island is considered part of the European Union, however aquis communitaire, the European Unions legislation, is suspended in the North, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which has formed its own state but is only recognised by Turkey. While the conflict is not yet resolved, a new round of peace negotiations are currently taking place, for which citizens remain cautiously optimistic.

In April 2014 a small group of students travelled to Cyprus as part of the MA in Peacebuilding fieldwork. In the following lines we would like to share some of the aspects we found most interesting of our own research topics. Each of us focused on a different aspect regarding peacebuilding: the UN Buffer Zone as a space for peace activism, the conceptualisation of refugees in Cyprus and, last, a new UNDP programme aiming civil society contribution to local peacebuilding.

The purpose of our field trip to Cyprus was to learn about the interplay of different actors in a (post)conflict environment and to conduct interviews according to our individual research questions. In order to do this, we met with a variety of individuals from scholars, to activists, to UN and EU officials, and civil society members. As well as group meetings, we also had time to organise and conduct our own, independent interviews to get first hand experience in peace research. In this regard, we have to thank our brilliant gatekeeper Birte Vogel, who not only proved to be essential in our research endeavours but also helped us to navigate the cultural peculiarities of Cyprus.

The UN Buffer Zone is the most visible scar of the conflict in Cyprus. It divides the whole island in two, including its capital, Nicosia. The reality in which this broken Mediterranean capital is immersed always shocks the outsider. In the middle of the city, is the dividing line, the Dead Zone, today an improvised time machine, perfect showcase of life in the seventies. Nicosians have internalised this division through the passing of time, normalising and invisiblising the physical division represented by the wall and everything that lies behind it.

It is interesting to see how space can be transformed. In Nicosia, the UN Buffer Zone at the crossing point of Ledra Palace has emerged as the new home for bi-communal activities, transforming itself from a space of division into a bridging space for both communities, a new space for dialogue. Originally, in the 1990s, this peculiar emplacement was used by bi-communal activists as a form of bypassing the closed borders although, today, ten years after the opening of the borders, it has more to do with the convenience of the emplacement linked to the reluctance to crossing expressed by many Cypriots.

It seems that the civil society organisations working in the UN Buffer Zone, interconnected with each other for the common purpose of peace, operate in an artificial, neutral, safe and isolated environment that although enhancing dialogue, isolates them from society. We must not forget the importance of working directly with both communities in their natural environment to enhance interpersonal contact, as it is the essential catalyst for creating new modes of intercommunal communication based on mutual understanding and trust and transcending the poisonous traditional nationalist framework based on blaming and demonising the “other”.

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One element that was initially confusing was the definition of refugee used by Cypriots, both in the North and South. Refugees are, as defined by UNHCR, seeking a safe refuge from a conflict in their country of origin outside their boarder. When interviewees were asked about humanitarian assistance received by refugees in Cyprus, their response was, without fail, related to Greek Cypriots internally displaced in 1974, the year Cyprus was divided. In Northern Cyprus, Turkish Cypriots displaced due to the events of 1974 are not considered refugees. An interesting effect that this has had is to create a culture of victimhood surrounding the conflict that continues to this day. The differences between the North and South in this case can also have consequences for increasing the impact of the bi-communal movement and current peace process.

This idea that the only refugees in Cyprus are those Greek Cypriots from 1974 has serious implications for those seeking sanctuary in Cyprus following conflict in the Middle East and North Africa region. Benefits that would normally fit those considered as refugees by those outside Cyprus are not allocated, and they are left in a limbo system.

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We certainly arrived at an interesting time for local peacebuilding in Cyprus. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) had just begun a new initiative to explore options for an inter-communal dialogue platform. Such a platform would create the space necessary for open dialogue and enable its participants to establish common understandings on issues relevant to the peace process. However, when in a meeting with a larger group of 40 other students that were on the Island at the same time, it was more challenging to ask our own research questions as it was more of a formal presentation focusing broadly on how the UNDP supports peacebuilding initiatives in Cyprus. Fortunately, we managed to get another meeting which took place in much more intimate setting. We were able to ask more in-depth questions about UNDPs new initiative and our interview partners were much more open and willing to share information. It was particularly intriguing to hear how they went about initiating this programme. From a methodological perspective, it was remarkable to experience how the setting of an interview, in terms of group size and location, can impact on research results.

Interestingly, in another meeting with a civil society member we also realised the immense difficulties UNDP actually faces when trying to engage a broad enough range of civil society organisations in its initiatives. We learned how competitive the Cypriot civil society is and how many organisations are a part of the political party system.

We feel like the momentum provided by a combination of the economic crisis, recent events in Turkey and the discovery of hydro carbons have the potential to at least improve relations between the various actors, if not provide a solution. We remain cautiously optimistic.

Written by Isabel Skrine, Eirene de Prada and Janine Graf


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