Where is no-man’s land?

Ghostly images of crumbling grand building, dust-covered vehicles frozen for 40 years, and the striking array of fortified blockades comprising a mixture of sandbags, razor wire and tall metal gates. Nicosia’s Buffer Zone is commonly featured through these tropes of dereliction, dilapidation and abandonment. The images are striking, but do little to expose the extreme complexities of this space.

A few conversations with those who live on both parts of city reveals ambiguity even in the very terms used to refer to it: “Green Line”, “Dead Zone”, “Forbidden Zone”, “Zone of Control” “Ermou Street” or the common shorthand, “The Zone”. This terminological multiplicity is indicative of a deeper spatial and political complexity. Rather than a single space, this zone contains at least three distinct “layers”, each with its particular governing structures, restrictions and challenges.

Perhaps the most recognized is the UN-controlled Buffer Zone. For the Greek-Cypriot authorities, this strip of land stretching across the island was intentionally ceded in the aftermath of the 1974 conflict to enable the UN forces to monitor the armistice lines and prevent changes to the fragile status quo. Much less attention is given to the fact that the Turkish forces in the north supplemented the Buffer Zone with an additional “layer”, the Forbidden Zone. This closed, highly fortified military zone parallels the Buffer Zone from the north, but is under the sole control of Turkish military forces. UN peacekeepers, for example, are barred from entering the Forbidden Zone.

The distinctions between the Buffer Zone and the Forbidden Zone are not administrative minutia. Asylum seekers often try to cross from the Turkish-controlled north into the Republic of Cyprus, an EU member state. In parts, especially inside Nicosia’s old city, one can run across these two lines in less than 30 seconds. The zone of absolute danger, for these asylum seekers is not, however, in the Buffer Zone. If caught by UN forces, they will be handed over to Cypriot police and will be dealt with under EU laws (though extensive violations of these laws have been recorded). However, while crossing the Forbidden Zone, one is completely exposed to Turkish military forces that may detain, imprison and in extreme cases also open fire at anyone transgressing this zone.

In other words, the Forbidden Zone is a space of absolute vulnerability, while the Buffer Zone functions as a sort of sanctuary (as discussed at length by my colleague Jen Bagelman.

This layering of geopolitical forces and degrees of exposure sheds new light on the search for no-man’s lands on the 21st century. In an upcoming article Alasdair Pinkerton and I set out the conditions that constitute no-man’s land, and specifically note abandonment and enclosure as two forces that combine to create the unique quality of no-man’s land. By abandonment, we mean the extreme conditions of exposure and vulnerability; enclosure refers to the myriad of physical and political mechanisms used to fortify and isolate these spaces.

So, where is no-man’s land? If enclosure and abandonment are conditions that must exist, then the answer is likely to point at the Turkish-controlled Forbidden Zone. This dissection of a space usually seen as monolithic and static is exactly what motivates this project. The attempt to reassert the political, historical and spatial specificity is intellectually valuable, but also critical for deeper understandings of regimes of control, mobility and geopolitics.

For those seeking asylum in Cyprus, this may also be an urgent task.

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