It was only a rusting wire mesh fence with pop cans threaded through it at random points and I peered over it, slightly puzzled by a suspiciously unimaginative sign at the side of the track, labelled, ‘Pop can fence’.
A few minutes later the relevance of the sign became clear.
Last week we visited the land of barbed wire and barriers that is Nicosia’s ‘green line’. Walking with UN soldiers on patrol down the dividing line between the north and south of the city, we passed Turkish soldiers keeping a watchful eye on members of the Cypriot National Guard across a narrow strip of no-man’s land barely a few yards wide at points.
‘Pop Can Fence’, we discovered was an important sign, marking the area around the last minefield to be cleared along the line. Our UN guide told us it was 99 per cent clear. Hence the fence, the pop cans and the sign – no-one wanted to be testing out for that one per cent chance of a mine.
The Turkish look out post we had seen beyond the fence and an abandoned one around the corner had been the scene of one of the many spats between Cypriot and Turkish soldiers over the years. A Cypriot national guard soldier had been shot after creeping out and stealing the Turkish flag one night and then waving it at the soldiers in their tower, while he also dropped his trousers to make them really mad. His reward was a fatal bullet, sometime later.
The track we were walking down was lined with tumbled down buildings draped in barbed wire and littered with sandbags. We were following one of the most fought over and highly disputed pieces of land in the world, which runs through the heart of the capital of Cyprus. There was an immense sadness about the road and even the debris, shoes, footballs and rusting cocoa cola signs seemed to say they were tired of all the fighting too – it was so worn out.
Bullet holes and bomb damage on buildings lining the road told their own story of the battles over the years which culminated in the Turkish invasion of 1974. There was Annie’s house – the home of Annie, a Cypriot woman who had refused to leave her house when the invasion happened. She stayed living there – her front door opening out onto the green line and no-man’s land. Every time she wanted to go shopping she had to be escorted by UN soldiers and taken back again. This woman ignored the divide and made no distinction as she handed out cups of tea to soldiers on both sides. When she died a few years ago, both Turkish and Greek Cypriots attended her funeral. Unfortunately, this sign of unity wasn’t the beginning of peace.
Further down the line, a hole in the wall was pointed out to us by one of the soldiers who explained that it was a machine gun position mounted to deter UN soldiers from using a Cypriot café, which had an entrance onto no-man’s land.
And around another corner there was a line of open tea chests forming a wall. The Cypriots had complained about them being filled with rubble to strengthen the wall on the Turkish side. When the Turkish soldiers were asked to turn them around to show they were empty, they eventually agreed. They then proceeded to turn one box around every month, to the frustration of the other side, so it took over a year for them to comply with the request.
Towards the end of the patrol we came to what was the Knightsbridge of Nicosia, but where most of the high-end merchandise has largely been ransacked and carried away. There was one large block that has stock remaining and inside we could see dusty display cabinets, ancient leather suitcases and shoes and slippers still in their boxes. It was like stepping back into the 1950s or into a desert museum filed with memorabilia and bottles and posters. Further down the road was a former car showroom, with cars that were once shiny new speed machines and were now coated in inches of dust and grime. Inside you could peel back a layer of plastic covering the leather seats, but their engines had long since seized up. One car formed an unsightly coffin for the parched body of a dead cat, which was draped over the engine. It seemed to sum up the atmosphere – death and decay had been preserved in this place and the evidence is still there, 40 years on.
After a couple of hours we turned our back on the green line, emerging from one of the guarded entrances; we stepped back into the sun soaked streets of Nicosia.
On my future border crossings between north and south of the city, I won’t be able to forget the desolation of the road that lies between and soldiers who continue to walk the borderlands each day – trying to maintain a form of peace that looks like it will be a long time coming.