As the world commemorates 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the bullet-riddled sandstone walls of abandoned, crumbling homes and concrete machine-gun nests dotting Cyprus’ no man’s land serve as a jarring reminder of another divided capital — the world’s last — on Europe’s southeastern frontier.
The United Nations-controlled buffer zone that slices across the bustling, medieval center of Nicosia is the most visible scar of this Mediterranean island nation’s 45-year ethnic division, brought about in 1974 when Turkey intervened in the wake of a coup mounted by supporters of union with Greece.
Although Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, only its southern part enjoys full membership benefits.
The buffer zone mostly traverses mountains and farmland along its 180-kilometer (120 mile) length, but it’s at its narrowest along the tight, winding streets of Nicosia where it separates opposing soldiers by only a few meters at some points.
Inside the city, the dividing line isn’t so much a single wall in Berlin’s mold, but rather a patchwork of concrete-filled oil barrels, barbed wire-topped fences and a network of sentry posts built up over decades.
The closest point between the two sides was for 25 years a stretch of road that United Nations peacekeepers had dubbed “Spear Alley.” Only about three meters (10 feet) of road separated armed soldiers crouched behind the sandbagged windows of what were once-stately mansions built at the turn of the previous century.
It was that proximity that gave the spot its name, as opposing soldiers at times when tensions still ran high would attach their bayonets to sticks and jab at each other, or hurl objects ranging from Molotov cocktails to urine-filled bottles. Soldiers’ deaths resulted in a 1989 deal for a mutual pullback from the spot.
What’s most striking within the buffer zone is the stillness of the place and the range of wildlife that can be encountered, such as a rare species of barn owl that has been allowed to multiply unmolested by human habitation. That stillness is juxtaposed with the bustle of daily life literally a stone’s throw away.
“Our military peacekeepers play a vital role in liaising on a daily basis with the opposing forces to prevent tensions from arising and becoming international security insurgencies,” said Aleem Siddique, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force.
For decades, there was virtually no physical contact between north and south. That ended in 2003 when a political thaw between the sides resulted in the opening of the first of nine crossing points across the buffer zone, and there are efforts to open even more.
The crossings underscore the gravity of this ongoing conflict, but at the same time throw into question the dividing line’s reason for being.
The political complexities of Cyprus’ division have defied the efforts of five U.N. Secretaries-General and a slew of his special advisers in mediating a reunification agreement.
The latest failed bid occurred in 2017 during high-level talks at a Swiss resort that also brought together the diplomats of Cyprus’ ‘guarantors’ — Greece, Turkey and Britain.
Officials have been trying to pick up the pieces from that effort and get the two sides talking again. U.N. Chief Antonio Guterres will hold talks with the island’s Greek Cypriot president and the Turkish Cypriot President later this month to scope out changes for a resumption of peace talks. That meeting will take place in — where else? — Berlin.