NICOSIA, Cyprus – When the barriers carving Cyprus in half were finally breached 10 years ago this week, Turkish Cypriot Fethi Akinci forged what some might consider the unlikeliest of friendships with Yiannis Maratheftis — the Greek Cypriot he almost killed in battle with a gunshot to the head.
The shooting took place on a July morning in 1974, as invading Turkish forces pushed forward in the wake a failed coup by supporters of uniting the island with Greece. The friendship took root once the two men, now in their 60s, met in 2009, an encounter made possible by the checkpoint openings. Akinci had discovered from a book Maratheftis wrote that the soldier he'd shot was alive — and sought out his onetime enemy.
The story of Maratheftis and Akinci was one of the many signs of reconciliation that emerged after the barriers were opened, allowing crossings after three decades of complete separation. The number of crossings has now reached into the millions. But these flickers of hope for reunification are at risk of being snuffed out as the island confronts what could be its worst economic crisis, making prospects for reconciliation appear dimmer than ever.
With its once-robust banking sector decimated and unemployment soaring amid harsh EU-imposed austerity, Greek Cypriots seem to have little appetite for any radical and potentially expensive change that would add to their overwhelming sense of uncertainty about their future. The island joined the European Union in 2004, but membership benefits only extend to residents in the south. The Turkish Cypriots, on the other hand, have had a close-up look at the financial chaos that EU membership can bring, and may be in no hurry to join the club.
"It worsened the prospect for settlement," says Hubert Faustmann, political science professor at the University of Nicosia. "A solution is costly, and there is less money now or hardly any money if any money left to finance that."
There's been no 10th anniversary commemoration this week. That early euphoria amid scenes of a crush people eager to cross over and see homes and properties that belonged to families for generations — then left hastily left behind — is now a faded memory.
Turkish Cypriots were first to rebel in the early 2000s against their isolation, angry at seeing their future drying up amid a collapsing economy. That compelled Turkish Cypriot authorities to loosen restrictions on crossings and to open checkpoints, putting an end to the Turkish Cypriots' nearly complete isolation on a sliver of territory recognized by no other country than Turkey.
"The opening of the gates, had opened a big door for ... the Turkish Cypriots because we were in a sort of enclave" said Turkish Cypriot Hassan Cirakli, sitting with his former Greek Cypriot schoolmate and close friend, Andreas Paralikis, in the shadow of a 12th-century cathedral converted into a mosque in the northern part of Nicosia. "We didn't have any relations with the outside world."
But the lack of a deal after so many failed attempts has sapped all optimism that reunification is possible, says Ahmet Sozen, chair of the political science department at Eastern Mediterranean University in the north.
Sozen said without real political progress, all the crossing points appeared to do was to bestow a kind of strange "normality" to the status quo.
"Unfortunately the crossing openings failed to make a huge positive difference as to how people on both sides of the divided perceive each other," says Sozen. "People in their subconscious have been reconciled with the idea that this is perhaps the best arrangement."
That pessimism doesn't faze Maratheftis or Akinci.
"Now we're fighting for peace in the same trench," said Akinci.
Maratheftis still has the bullet fragments embedded in his skull but bears no grudges. These days, the two men recount their story to schoolchildren on both sides of the divide, part of a personal quest to erase the mistrust that the barriers sustained.