Inside the United Nations Buffer Zone
United Nations Buffer Zone. In the wake of recent reunification talks between the Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders, Dervis Eroglu and Nikos Anastasiades, we take a peek inside the United Nations buffer zone that divides the island and has served as HQ to one of the longest-running peace-keeping missions in the world.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the historical conflict in Cyprus. A Greek-inspired military coup sparking Turkish intervention in 1974 led to thousands of Turkish and Greek Cypriots fleeing their homes, north, and south respectively. A ceasefire was quickly declared but the island was left politically and practically divided, with continued Turkish-occupation in the north to date. For 40 long years, UN troops have successfully enforced a buffer zone between the Turkish north and the Greek south.
Despite the intensity of the conflict at the time, today most Cypriots from either side go about their daily lives barely aware of the buffer zone that remains closely guarded by the UN. Moreover, the accession of the Republic of Cyprus to the European Union in 2004 led to a significant relaxation of border restrictions along the UN controlled line, leaving EU citizens completely free to cross the border at designated checkpoints.
In the island’s capital, the Ledra Street pedestrianized crossing point is located on the second biggest shopping street in the city. Yet just a few paces away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Nicosia, hidden away behind brightly-printed building wraps that camouflage this well-guarded section of the buffer zone is an eerie reminder of what happened in 1974. The walls of abandoned apartments heavily pock-marked with machine gun fire, inside scattered with personal possessions left behind in haste, are a testament to the ferocity of the fighting that left the island so bitterly divided.
From the sky the yawning divide is more obvious. A bird’s eye view over the capital reveals a green snaking strip of overgrown trees and derelict buildings cutting right through the heart of the city. Further out, just five miles west of the capital, on the runway of Nicosia International airport visibly sits an abandoned airplane. Hurriedly evacuated back in 1974, the Trident aircraft has been rendered useless by rust and decay. The heavily bombed airport site is now mainly used as the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force, but otherwise, it is frozen in time, where only pigeons check in to the once state-of-the-art passenger terminal.
The buffer zone, or green line as it is commonly known, stretches from east to west across the island for more than one hundred miles. It is a no mans land, a place in which time has stopped, save for the presence of UN personnel that constantly patrol the area. Yet bizarre though this secret world of the buffer zone may seem, the UN has maintained the peace on this island where political leaders have tried and failed for four decades.
However, for the first time in long time reunification talks have a fighting chance at making some political headway into this somewhat bizarre status quo. Whilst politically there has been little by way of progress to date, there may finally be a solution to healing Europe’s last great divide. The region as a whole is on the brink of tapping into potential wealth from vast natural gas reserves located in the eastern Mediterranean. Notwithstanding a series of previous failed attempts at reunification, the two sides are now coming together with an eye on sharing the windfall from these energy reserves, particularly in the aftermath of the Eurozone debt crisis that exposed the south to a badly failing Greek economy.
The pursuit of profit could, at last, pave the way for unprecedented regional cooperation and the two presidents have recently set out a roadmap for negotiations. In the meantime, the UN peacekeeping troops, and no doubt the pigeons will continue to silently patrol the buffer zone until the island is reunited.