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Wall turns Cyprus’ capital into Europe’s last divided city

April 26, 2017 GMT
In this July 24, 1974 file photo, Turkish soldiers advance during the fighting that followed the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. (AP Photo, File)
In this July 24, 1974 file photo, Turkish soldiers advance during the fighting that followed the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. (AP Photo, File)

Cyprus’ ‘wall’ that divides this tiny island stretches 180 kilometers (120 miles) from coast to coast. For the most part, it’s hardly a wall at all. It’s mostly a United Nations-controlled buffer zone several kilometers at its widest that is dotted by military sentry posts separating the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north from the internationally recognized south.

The island’s division is at its most vivid within the capital, Nicosia, where a physical wall slices across the city’s medieval center. At its narrowest, just a few meters (yards) separate Greek Cypriot national guardsmen from Turkish and Turkish Cypriot troops manning guard posts on opposite sides of what was once, the thriving, bustling commercial heart of the capital.

Decrepit, crumbling buildings inhabiting this no-man’s land stand in stark contrast to the trendy bars and coffee shops that have sprouted on either side of it amid the city center’s recent commercial and social renaissance.

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Cyprus’ division came in 1974, when Turkey invaded following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. The seeds of the wall predate the island’s split by a decade, when British peacekeepers laid barbed wire between the city’s Greek and Turkish sectors amid an outbreak of communal fighting.

The physical construction of the barrier within Nicosia began immediately after the invasion. The structure is made up of an assortment of cement walls, barbed wire, boarded-up houses, rows of sandbags and dirt-filled barrels between guard posts.

For nearly three decades, Greek and Turkish Cypriots had virtually no contact. Then, in 2003, Turkish Cypriots moved to relax restrictions, resulting in the opening of several checkpoints permitting crossings from either side. However, ID cards or passports are still needed between the two sides. The latest checkpoint to open was at Ledra Street _ once Nicosia’s busiest shopping thoroughfare. Plans to open another checkpoint _ the eighth _ are in full swing but it’s unclear when it will happen.

Talks to reunify the island have repeatedly faltered over the years. Regardless of the checkpoint openings, the wall of Nicosia _ Europe’s last divided city _ remains a symbol of the island’s division.

_Menalaos Hadjicostas in Nicosia.