Forbidden Zone

Carolyn Kraus


One hazy summer afternoon on the island of Cyprus, I gazed over a 9-foot-high chain-link fence surrounding the abandoned city of Varosha. There must have been a hundred gutted hulks of high-rise buildings looming up from the beach–a mile-long vista of fallen walls and scattered bricks and heaved-up concrete. The landscape was strangely familiar. It was as if my hometown of Detroit—with its depleted neighborhoods, boarded-up storefronts, and sagging mansions—had alighted upon the virgin sand of this Mediterranean coastline.

Wired to the fence at eye level was a black-stenciled image of a soldier shouldering a rifle above the warning, “Forbidden Zone. No Entry” in four languages.  At the foot of the fence, half obscured by an acacia bush, was an apparently well-traveled ditch tunneled under the fence. The opening was maybe two feet deep and just wide enough to accommodate a smallish intruder. My gaze fastened on the opening, then slid down the waterfront to where, some fifty yards away outside the fence, an unmanned machine gun tower rose on stilts above the shore.

My hesitation was brief. During two decades as a Detroit reporter living in a boarded-up city, I’d grown used to ducking under yellow tape and “keep out” signs to snoop through abandoned theaters, houses, and factories. Glancing back down the beach at the deserted gun tower, I crouched down on my hands and knees, flattened myself out like a prowling cat, and crept through the narrow passage into Varosha–snagging my blue jeans on a fence barb, skinning both knees and an elbow.

Dusting myself off and retrieving my fallen sunglasses, I approached a nearby building surrounded by a waist-high line of oil-drum barricades and erupted sandbags. My eyes scanned up fifteen stories, then down to a splintered sign posted on its porch: “Strictly Private for Twiga Tower Residents Only.” One wall had been sliced away, exposing the skeleton of an elevator shaft, its car dangling off to one side like a hooked sea bass. Among the initials and Turkish phrases in arrow-pierced hearts covering an outer wall was a single line, neatly printed in English: “I love you Ahmet Magusal, until . . .”

I turned down a broad street behind the beachfront ruins and sought out identifying markers, but beyond its graffiti-smeared façade, Varosha felt anonymous. With their faded walls and empty window frames, the high-rises lining the streets looked like giant white honeycombs baking in the sun. While snooping through Detroit in my heyday as an eighties journalist, I’d grown intrigued with abandoned places. Each had its individual character, its suggestive details, its glimpses of former inhabitants. I’d spot a wake of rubble forming a shrine with religious passages painted on trash cans and the arms of storefront mannequins reaching upward, as if in prayer. Or I would come upon a former schoolroom where piles of moldy books chronicled the city’s former life like geological records. But Varosha was nearly picked clean. The scale was numbing. The heat was relentless. It was as if the sun had bleached out the human story, leaving only a sense of suspended animation, less like the slow, sucking desertion of Detroit and more like the ruins at Pompeii.

As I’d learn later on as I pieced together this place’s history, Varosha’s end had, indeed, been almost volcanic. One day the place had been a bustling vacation spot. The following day, it had become an unpeopled ghost town. Varosha had been a Greek Cypriot resort and the island’s top tourist destination, known in the Sixties and early Seventies as a playground for the international rich and famous. Brigitte Bardot had basked on its beaches. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had frequented the gourmet restaurants, nightclubs, and five-star hotels that glittered along JFK Avenue, earning Varosha the title, “French Riviera of Cyprus.” Then, suddenly, one summer morning in 1974, in the space of a few hours, Varosha’s 20,000 residents had vanished, leaving behind meals set out on tables, clothes hanging on lines, high-end merchandise gleaming in shop windows, new Seventies model Chryslers and Plymouths parked on the streets and stocked in automobile showrooms. Now, decades later, still ignorant of that past, I made out, in the distance, only the skeletons of two unidentifiable vehicles sagging on dead tires. Even the street signs were blown out and now framed patches of a cloudless blue sky.

Varosha’s abandonment was part of an island-wide conflict that erupted into war after years of violence between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Following an attempted annexation of Cyprus by Greece’s military junta in 1974, the Turkish army had invaded and established a military occupation on the northern third of the island.  Fifty thousand ethnic Turkish Cypriots living in the south fled north. One hundred and fifty thousand ethnic Greek Cypriots living in the north retreated south, a number that included the entire population of Varosha. That same day, the Turkish army marched into the deserted resort. Within days the place had been fenced off, and soon after, surrounded with the machine gun nests that still loomed along the beach. As part of a ceasefire agreement, Varosha had been designated as a United Nations buffer zone, but the Turkish army refused to hand over control. They hoped to use the resort as a bargaining chip when negotiations for a permanent reconciliation got underway, negotiations that have now dragged on for forty years.

Officially, no one has since entered Varosha except for Turkish military and UN personnel. Of course, this claim was belied by the well-traveled hole I’d just crawled through and graffiti suggesting that Varosha now served as a bleak lovers’ lane.  Yet I encountered no one, and no fresh signs of other intruders, as I crept along the walls and ducked into buildings, keeping myself out of sight of the surveillance towers on the beach outside the fence.

In coming to Cyprus, Varosha had not been on my itinerary. I was here on the northern side of the island to attend an academic conference at the University of Northern Cyprus, but flying into the Northern side of the island posed complications. Direct flights here could come only from Turkey, since Turkey alone recognizes the existence of a separate Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It seemed simpler to fly to the more accessible southern, Greek side of the island, which is internationally recognized as The Republic of Cyprus. After spending a few days cruising the tourist-thronged shops and manicured gardens of the Greek Republic’s capital, Nicosia, I had hoisted my backpack and set out on foot to cross to the Turkish side, through a United Nations-patrolled buffer zone called “The Green Line.”

Approaching the green canopies of the border, I had come upon the Ledra Palace, a war-scarred edifice of yellow brick whose upper stories served as border patrol barracks. Above me, the balcony was draped with white undershirts and boxer shorts, while below on the ground, a young soldier, whose uniform and beret bore the blue and white UN insignia, stood leaning against the palace wall, hypnotically pitching stones into a tangle of barbed wire that lay on the ground beyond the courtyard.

Interrupting the soldier’s game, I had inquired about border regulations, which I’d heard were opaque and subject to change.  Although the border had been opened in 2003, movement between the two Cypruses came with restrictions imposed by the Greek Cypriot government aimed at pressuring the impoverished north into negotiations. I could cross over to the Turkish side now, the soldier told me, provided I made no purchases, hired no transportation, and returned by 5 pm that evening. I thanked the soldier. My conference would span several days, and, though I’d been aware that crossing the border would entail restrictions, I had made reservations for a week at the Palm Beach Hotel on the Turkish side of the island.

Before me the line of Greek Cypriot and Turkish checkpoints snaked along for a quarter mile into the distance.

Suspecting I might need a clearer strategy to remain in the North for the duration of my conference, I knocked on the front door of the Ledra Palace. A young man in Levis led me through a courtyard into a sweltering inner office, nearly filled by a polished oak table. An official, formally dressed in a dark suit and crisp white shirt and apparently unfazed by the heat, welcomed me heartily and introduced himself as Mr. Hambis. We sat down beneath the room’s sole adornment, a framed print of Edward Hicks’ 19th century painting, “The Peaceable Kingdom,” with its placid images of lion, ox, and lamb.  Hambis explained that the 5 PM curfew was not in his power to override.  “But,” he added, then paused, shrugged, and smiled. A seasoned rule-breaker, I thought I caught his meaning.

But perhaps not. Hambis himself had never crossed the border, which began mere yards from his office, he told me. Though he’d fought in 1974 on the Greek Cypriot side of what he called “The Turkish Invasion,” he would never go back while the island remained divided.  “I don’t want to show my passport in my own country,” he explained.

As I would soon learn, accounts of the conflict came in two opposing versions, depending on who was doing the talking.  In the standard Turkish Cypriot story, the conflict stemmed from Greek Cypriot attempts to change the constitution, changes that would tilt the balance of power and eventually lead to a union with Greece. Turkish Cypriots describe a decade of ruthless genocidal attacks against the island’s ethnic Turks, leading up to the 1974 Turkish invasion–which they describe as a “Peace Operation”–to halt the extermination of Turkish Cypriots.

In Mr. Hambis’ telling—the Greek Cypriot version–the Turkish army had invaded an essentially Hellenistic island and committed what amounted to an act of genocide, killing and raping and torturing Greek Cypriots, hundreds of whom remain missing to this day. I had earlier visited a police station in Nicosia on the Greek side that straddled a cobblestone street mobbed with shoppers. A hundred or more photos of those who had gone missing around the time of the 1974 invasion were thumbtacked to boards on the station’s walls, along with handwritten notes. “What is a missing person?” someone had written in English. “A voice not heard but always there. A memory refusing to go away.” Beyond the police station, the street’s cobblestones advanced into the former combat zone, a desolation of tumbled bricks and torn-away shops stuffed with dirt-filled barrels and sandbags. In the distance, I had spotted the Turkish flag and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus flag flying side by side and beyond these, the slim minaret of a mosque.

As Mr. Hambis set forth the Greek Cypriot perspective on divided Cyprus, he emphasized one point above all—a point that I would hear on both sides of the border: “We want one country, not this occupation,” he repeated, stabbing the air with an index finger. “It’s not a problem between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. It’s a problem with the Turkish government.

Departing the Ledra palace for the green border canopies, I nodded to the young UN soldier, who had resumed his stone-throwing game. I surrendered my passport to the scrutiny of a series of checkpoint guards, signed one document declaring my intent to make no purchases in the north and another pledging to return by 5 that evening. One guard recorded my information on a computer. A second guard returned my passport. A third waved me on.

Ahead was No-Man’s Land: a machine-gun tower flying UN colors flanked by three squat palm trees and surrounded by a vast, weedy ravine, the realm of rabbits, partridges, and stalking cats.  Beyond was the same panorama of devastation I’d viewed from the Nicosia police station earlier that week: bales of barbed wire and walls of leaking sandbags surrounding the silent ruins of homes trapped in the combat zone back in 1974.

Once in the North, committing the first of many checkpoint violations, I hailed a cab for Famagusta, Northern Cyprus’s principal city.  Its commercial district sprawled out to a smear of brown hills where, beneath a Turkish flag, a sign spelled out words in both Turkish and English: “How Happy It Is To Be a Turk!” As the taxi lurched and bobbed along the rutted streets, its dusty windows framed image after image of poverty and neglect, of life keeping on amid derelict shops and half-collapsed houses that barely outclassed the combat-zone ruins. A billboard proclaimed: “Northern Cyprus: A Corner of Earth Touched by Heaven.”

British writer Colin Thubron passed through Famagusta in 1972, just two years before the war that divided Cyprus, and reported his thoughts in his Journey through Cyprus. Ancient Famagusta had been known as “the prince of walled cities,” Thubron wrote. As the Christian city closest to the Holy Land, it had once featured 365 churches, one for each day of the year. By the Fourteenth Century, Famagusta had become a central crossroad of commerce between East and West. Its people were said to be the wealthiest in the world.

As my cab passed the husks of churches that might date back to Famagusta’s heyday–their roofs blown off and makeshift shelters leaning against ancient walls– the grey-bearded driver introduced himself as Osman and, in excellent English, related some of his personal history. Osman was a Turkish Cypriot, he told me, a lifelong resident of Famagusta, where he had been an elementary school teacher, now retired. “No pension,” he explained with a helpless shrug. Now he supported his wife and aged parents by driving this rented cab that predated the island’s division.Osman had little hope that his fortunes would change. He was disgusted with the foreign governments backing both sides of the island, he said, but especially with the meddling Greeks. Since the border had opened for day trips, he’d occasionally picked up Greek Cypriot visitors whose families had long ago fled Famagusta to escape the Turkish army. Now they could only gaze at former homes that had long ago been redistributed to Turkish Cypriots. “I am sad for these people who lost their homes,” Osman said. He made a sweeping gesture toward no man’s land and added fervently that he and his fellow Turkish Cypriots would be much better off in a united Cyprus.

On the outskirts of the city, we drove along a stony waterfront, deserted except for cats sunning themselves among the rocks, and pulled up to the Palm Beach Hotel where my conference was being held. I admired the hotel’s freshly whitewashed walls and the potted red and white geraniums lining its driveway–among the few signs of prosperity I’d seen since leaving Nicosia. That’s when I caught my first glimpse of Varosha, a mere dozen yards south of the Palm Beach Hotel, rising up like a mirage and disappearing along the curving shoreline. The cab driver saw me squinting into the distance. “They should give that place back to the Greeks,” he said. “The Greeks would do something with it.”

Inside the hotel lobby were several dozen conference delegates, most of whom had flown here from Turkey, the only direct route to Northern Cyprus. Wearing plastic-covered nametags, they clustered around coffee tables discussing the Neoliberal Discourse on Gender Identity and Habermas’ Theory of Defective Rationality–intriguing subjects in their own right, perhaps, but not while the “Forbidden Zone” beckoned.  Without checking into my room, I stashed my suitcase at the front desk and headed down the beach, slipping through the rabbit hole under the fence and into the looking-glass world of Varosha.

During his journey through Cyprus in 1972, Colin Thubron described Varosha as a “rather snobby” town of tinseled glamour and five-star hotels. That past was unimaginable to me as I clambered over rusted oil-drum barricades, ducked under twisted porch railings, and wound around heaps of fallen masonry and tumbled shutters. A few leggy geraniums still held on in pots along the verandas.

Peering into building after building along the deserted streets, I spotted the same paint-flaked walls, the piles of faded rags—curtains or clothes—mixed with sand, shattered sinks and toilet bowls, mangled strips of rusted metal. Each grand hotel and crumbling villa had been ransacked.  Sand had wafted through fallen doors and pane-less windows and buried the stories of life in Varosha.

As I wandered aimlessly through the ruins, lines from Shelly’s Ozymandias looped in my head: “‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:/Look on my works, ye mighty and despair!’/Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.’”

In the silence and sameness and stillness of the place, it seemed as if even the ghosts had abandoned Varosha.  But as I turned and headed back toward the tunnel beneath the fence, ducking along walls and through doorways, my eyes zeroed in on images I’d ignored while casting around for the human story. Palm trees rose up among six-foot-high grasses along the street. Shaggy eucalypti burst through roofs. Behind one twelve-story skeleton, scrub bushes and cacti had transformed a swimming pool into a giant, kidney-shaped terrarium. Acacias and flame trees rose from the rooftops and poked through the windows of derelict restaurants and villas, reaching for light. On residential side streets, a few thinning gardens still struggled in back yards. Nature had repainted Varosha’s faded buildings with scarlet geraniums and gleaming green philodendra that poured down from the crumbling roofs. Seeds had invaded every crack in the streets. Roots burrowed into walls, papering them with odd snakelike patterns. Stretches of pavement had disappeared beneath cascades of pink and white cyclamen and oleander.  Peering down a side street, I spotted an entire house that had nearly disappeared beneath a purple-green jungle of bougainvillea.

A bird came swooping down from the beach. Its flutterings set in motion a frieze of grey lizards formerly camouflaged against a gray wall. As the lizards flitted away, I made out the soft cooing of pigeons, their nests tucked atop ceiling beams inside one of the high-rises. Drifted sand covering the floorboards was marked with the thin trails of snakes and mottled with paw-prints left by the island’s ubiquitous cats. As the human story receded beneath the “lone and level sands,” nature had moved in to fill the gaps.

If Varosha was the image of impasse and death, it was also a place of insistent life. I clutched that small, hopeful fancy, along with a sprig of purple bougainvillea, as I wriggled back under the fence, observing that even Varosha’s chain-link prison was a tortured jumble of barbed wire and cactus.

At the end of the week and my stay in the north, I again lugged my backpack through the United Nations checkpoint, surrendered my passport, and crossed the Green Line. No one questioned my seven-day absence in violation of the single-day 5 PM curfew. I walked past the bullet-riddled walls, blown-out windows, fallen masonry, and shattered red tile roofs that spoke of a never-ending standoff. At the Ledra Palace a United Nations soldier—probably the same one I’d seen there the previous week—was leaning sleepily against a wall.  Gazing back one last time at the dull, sealed off courtyards, I noticed spots of bright color I’d missed when I passed through last week. Un-pruned trees overladen with ripening oranges and lemons were growing there, insistently, just out of reach.

Later, back in Nicosia on the southern, Greek side of the island, I sought out people who’d fled their homes that long-ago day in July when the Turkish army swept over Northern Cyprus. Refugees from the city of Famagusta could now cross the border to cast eyes on former properties, but those who had lived in Varosha were denied even that joyless pilgrimage into the ghost city beyond the fence.

Achilius, a mustachioed seventy-year-old ethnic Greek Cypriot with a sun-grizzled face, had once worked at his family’s ice cream business in Varosha. Since fleeing south, the family had never been back. “I don’t want to go through the process. I don’t want to affirm the existence,” Achilius told me.  “We left with nothing. Now my home is behind a big wall and they maybe shoot you.” Achilius stretched out his hands, palms up in a gesture of despair.  “This is not between the Greek and Turkish people of Cyprus,” he said. “This is not Palestine. We are not suicide bombers. We are not killing each other.”

Mike, who once owned a barbershop in Varosha, now co-owned a barbershop in Greek Nicosia. His shop offered, besides haircuts, an odd assortment of merchandise, from wind-up alarm clocks to portraits of Hollywood movie stars, to blue-and-white charms for fending off the evil eye. “I went back once,” Mike told me as he leaned against a vintage cash register beneath a jowly velvet Elvis. ”Of course, I don’t see my home. I just stood at the fence of Varosha and cried. Maybe I will never see my home.” But the Turkish Cypriots of Famagusta had been sympathetic. “They were very nice,” Mike said. “We are the same. Only the Turkish government I hate.”

On my way to catch a bus for the airport and my flight back to Detroit, I stopped in a park to rest my backpack on a shaded bench. At the center of the park stood an enormous aviary consisting of ten or more twelve-foot-high cages. My eyes fixed on one of the cages where iridescent green tails of pheasants flashed among red rumps of parakeets and blue-feathered love birds, reminding me that Cyprus is the legendary birthplace of Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love. Then I noticed that the exotic birds were caged among a sea of ordinary black and white chickens, creating an incongruous yet oddly tranquil tableau.  But in Cyprus there are always cats. And sure enough, around the periphery of the aviary, among bushes lining the visitors’ walkway, dozens of feral cats prowled.

I thought of Mr. Hambis, the official at the Ledra Palace, who had sat in his oven of an office beneath the painting of “A Peaceable Kingdom” and related his view of the standoff in Cyprus. Despite their conflicting war stories and their history of fierce ethnic hatreds, most Cypriots on both sides tend not to blame their current troubles on one another. Rather, they point to the meddling outsiders, Turkey or Greece, who, like the feral cats circling the aviary, came to prey upon an essentially peaceful land.

The long standoff wears on. Yet, amid the conflicting war stories I’d heard, one theme cast a glimmer of light on the island’s nebulous future—the common desires of people on both sides of the border. Structures collapse and establishments crumble, but the human desire for peace and relationship endures. And, amidst the tumbled walls and crack-webbed streets of Varosha, nature springs up, eternal as hope.

KrausCarolyn Kraus founded the Journalism and Screen Studies Program at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She has written as “Our Far-Flung Correspondent” for The New Yorker and as an  op-ed contributor to The New York Times. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including The Partisan Review, Biography, Threepenny Review, and The Best Travel Writing 2011.