For almost forty years, the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean has been bisected by a ribbon of land, patrolled and administered by the United Nations, which seeks to spatially separate the militaries of the Republic of Cyprus and the self-styled Turkish Republic of North Cyprus.
Created in 1974 as a physical means of “preserving international peace and security” (under UN Security Council resolution 186), the Buffer Zone stretches more than 110 miles – from the western village of Kato Pyrgos to the ‘ghost city’ of Famagusta on the east coast – and occupies more than 130 square miles of land, more than 3.5% of the island’s surface.
Since its formation the Buffer Zone has become the subject of considerable international interest, even fascination – fuelled by academic, journalistic, popular (touristic) curiosity in witnessing and documenting the Zone’s mix of dereliction and preservation. Magazine and newspaper headlines speak variously of a “Land Frozen in Time”, while images of urban abandonment and absence proliferate and abound.
And yet, the Buffer Zone is neither a uniform space nor a straightforward geopolitical structure. It exists within, but mostly beyond, the urban environment of Nicosia. It varies considerably in its width – from about 3 metres at its narrowest point (within the Old City of Nicosia) to about 4.5 miles at its widest, rising and falling with the changing topography of the Island. In the west of Cyprus, the Buffer Zone contours between the peaks and ridges that herald the rise of the Troodos mountains, before spreading into the fertile plains that dominate the centre of the island. As the Buffer Zone encounters the city of Nicosia, it narrows considerably and takes on a distinctly urban character, consonant with that of the medieval city. Further to the east, the Buffer Zone dips south and expands to its widest extent before abruptly ending as it collides with the British Sovereign Base Area of Dhekelia. A final section of Buffer Zone separates Cypriot and Turkish forces to the south of the coastal city of Famagusta (see Figure 1).
During our fieldwork on Cyprus we walked, cycled and drove along the entire length of the Buffer Zone, tracing its varying contours and observing its changing complexions on both sides of the north-south divide. As we travelled from west to east, it became clear to us that the Buffer Zone does not straightforwardly function as a depopulated “No Man’s Land”, preserved in a kind of ruinous aspic. Instead, the Buffer Zone operates at different intensities along its length and across its width – and sustains human activity on a surprising scale.
Throughout the central plains, for example, Cypriot farmers continue to cultivate long-established family landholdings under the UN’s strictly controlled permit scheme. To the east of Nicosia, the villages of Athienou and the bi-communal (i.e. Cypriot and Turkish) community of Pyla have been continuously occupied since 1974 despite their location within the dotted lines that signify the outer limits of the Buffer Zone (see Figure 1). In certain areas within and beyond Nicosia, the UN have designated parts of the Buffer Zone as “Areas of Civilian Use”, allowing the construction of roads and commercial premises within the Buffer Zone’s southern margins. On the other hand, access to—and across—the Buffer Zone within Nicosia’s Old City walls remains much more strictly managed, such is the proximity of the opposing sides. No permits are granted here to Cypriot families eager to return to their former homes and businesses.
So where is Cyprus’s No Man’s Land, or perhaps we should ask, does it exist at all? Notwithstanding journalistic representations, the Buffer Zone is neither devoid of life nor human activity. A powerful example of this ‘occupation’ can be found just beyond the moat encircling the Old City of Nicosia where NGOs including The Home for Cooperation (H4C), the Association for Historical Dialogue & Research (AHDR) and cultural/educational institutions such as the Goethe Institute and Fulbright Commission occupy the Buffer Zone in a material attempt to bridge the north-south divide and facilitate bi-communal dialogue and understanding (see Figure 2). Villages within the Buffer Zone, as we have seen, remain open and inhabited. Even the A-list celebrity of the Buffer Zone, Nicosia International Airport, shows signs of life, surrounded, as it is, on three sides by agricultural land that is farmed under UN permit.
In looking for No Man’s Land we suggest that it is necessary to think critically about the spatial concepts of abandonment and enclosure. But our work in Cyprus has equally highlighted the importance of walking, tracing and interacting with the lived complexities of space and the ‘everyday’ geographies of a No Man’s Land that exists, variously, within, between, and beyond the dotted lines of the Buffer Zone. In resisting the lure of celebrity abandonment and the ‘barbed wire aesthetic” so common within the popular media, we may begin to note others layers of absence, exclusion, enclosure and abandonment – layers that will be investigated in forthcoming posts.