- Image 1 of 2
- Image 2 of 2
KOZANKOY, Cyprus – Perched halfway up a cragged mountain range, limestone outcrops frame the small village of mostly single-story homes where Nicholas Skourides was born, and where he says he simply wants to live out the rest of his days.
Skourides is the first Greek Cypriot on ethnically divided Cyprus to start building a home in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north after a very rare decision by authorities there to allow him to reclaim the land he and his family fled 44 years ago.
But the 78-year-old's plans have stirred up unease among Turkish Cypriots over what would happen if more Greek Cypriots are given back their land without a peace deal sorting out the complex property issue.
Some Turkish Cypriots have hailed Skourides' decision as helping to undergird peace; others don't want Greek Cypriots returning at all. Many worry about what this could mean to Greek Cypriot-owned property they've been living in for decades.
Skourides' family was among some 160,000 Greek Cypriots who left homes and property behind in the summer of 1974 when Turkey invaded in response to a coup aiming at union with Greece. The invasion split the island in two, and an agreement between the two sides a year later saw more than 40,000 Turkish Cypriots relocate to the Turkish-controlled north.
Turkish Cypriots subsequently declared an independent state that is recognized only by Turkey. For nearly three decades, the heavily guarded, 180 kilometer (120-mile) United Nations-controlled buffer zone was sealed, allowing virtually no contact between ordinary people in the breakaway north and the internationally recognized south.
That changed in April 2003 when a political thaw saw the opening of the first crossing points that enabled Greek and Turkish Cypriots alike to visit their homes and property on the other side of the divide. Many homes in the north, where most privately owned property belongs to Greek Cypriots, had been given to Turks from the mainland who settled there after the invasion.
Turkish properties in the south are managed by a Cypriot government agency. Some homes are lived in by Greek Cypriot displaced, although there have been instances where they were forced to leave once Turkish Cypriots asked for their land back.
Skourides' distress during those first visits to Larnaca Lapithou — which Turkish Cypriots had renamed Kozankoy — gradually gave way to bonds of friendship with Turkish Cypriot villagers. As his trips became more frequent, Skourides decided to make a bid to reclaim his family's property.
"I was yearning to go to my village to build a home that I can live in," Skourides told The Associated Press, adding that he wouldn't have pursued the matter had Turkish Cypriots been living on his property.
In 2011, he applied to the Turkish Cypriot Immoveable Property Commission, a body set up in 2006 and endorsed by the European Court of Human Rights to arbitrate such claims. Six years later and according to Skourides after much prodding, the commission gave him back 349 sq. meters (3,757 sq. feet) of land — only the eighth time it has done so from the 1,114 cases it decided on over 12 years. More than 5,000 cases are still pending.
Skourides hired a Turkish Cypriot contractor, who earlier this month started work by marking out the property.
And that's when the trouble started.
The neighbors in the adjacent plot complained that Skourides built a larger house than originally planned, breaking a promise that it wouldn't block access to their own home. In protest, they took apart the contractor's wooden planks used as markers.
Had Skourides kept his promise, none of this would've happened, said Aydan Akarsulu, the English-born neighbor.
"He did this on purpose so there can be trouble and so he can come and say that the Turks don't want us," Akarsulu said.
Skourides insists he meant no harm and that he only opted for a bigger house to accommodate his three children whenever they visited. Moreover, he says his neighbors are welcome to pass through his property to get to their own home.
Amid the fuss, municipal authorities ordered a halt to construction, and final building permits have yet to be issued.
But the feud has touched a raw nerve among many. Angry villagers now say Skourides is no longer welcome to build, according to former Kozankoy community leader Hatice Besiktepeli, whose own family hails from the southern village of Terra and had moved to Kozankoy after the war.
"Our children who want to build their own home aren't given land to build on and they're leaving the village," Besktepeli said. "But they (Greek Cypriots) have land?"
Giving property back to Greek Cypriots makes sense only after a peace deal, said Akarsulu. Her father-in-law said his family could even face a backlash from villagers for letting a Greek Cypriot build beside them.
Ahead of last weekend's local elections in the north, politicians seized on the issue. Left-wingers backed the return of Skourides' property and urged Turkish Cypriots to show tolerance. Those on the hard-right voiced opposition to a mass return of Greek Cypriots to the north and criticized the Immoveable Property Commission for ruling in the absence of a deal reunifying the island as a federation.
Rejecting the criticism, Commission president Ayfer Said Erkmen said there was no reason not to give Skourides his property back since no public buildings were built on it, and it wasn't situated in a restricted military zone.
"In the Skourides case, there was no impediment, there was no barrier, nothing, there was no problem so we've given that," Erkmen told The Associated Press.
Erkmen said Turkish Cypriots are split down the middle between those who don't mind Greek Cypriots reclaiming property in the north and those who oppose it — including tens of thousands of mainland Turks who were given Greek Cypriot homes and property.
But he said numerous rounds of peace talks indicate that a future federated Cyprus can't have homogenous populations on either side. He said an envisioned deal foresees Turkish Cypriots being the majority population in the north and Greek Cypriots in the south, but they will be mixed.
Besides, Erkmen estimates that only 1 percent of Greek Cypriots applying to the Commission will be given their land back. He said the vast majority of applicants are looking for monetary compensation. The breakaway Turkish Cypriot government that's financially backed by Turkey has so far doled out 316 million euros ($366 million) in compensation.
Skourides said he's pretty sure the matter will blow over after the bluster and hard-line rhetoric bandied about ahead of the elections dies down.
"I know Turkish Cypriots... Just like we have our bad people, so do they. We don't have any differences. I think we'll get past all this."