When I met Maria Hadjipavlou – a pioneering activist and well-known expert on conflict resolution and gender issues – one Wednesday around the end of February, we met in the buffer zone and the negotiations between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots just had been stalled – again. I had attended her lecture on gender in conflict and peace-building at the Eastern Mediterranean University in Gazimağusa, Northern Cyprus, two days earlier. After a discussion following her lecture, she agreed to meet me for an interview later that week. The Home for Cooperation in the buffer zone, where we met, had long served as a meeting point in between the fronts, even and especially while the border was still closed. It’s a surprisingly warm and welcoming place in midst of a military zone, where a wide variety of groups and people pass through and meet.
However, the Green Line checkpoints were only opened in 2003 after a twenty-nine year long division of the island. During this period of separation, a tradition of politics of fear on both sides produced different politically biased portrayals of the events, two competing histories and two selective national narratives. The heroes of one side became the monsters of the other. Political manipulation through the media and political propaganda was and still is an issue in the conflict. It created two different historical narratives, as well as two different educational systems. The reasons for the outbreak of violent conflict date back to the 1950 referendum, in which the Greek Cypriot community – still under British colonial rule – voted to unite with “motherland” Greece. Thus, the Turkish Cypriot community voted for partition and to unite with “motherland” Turkey. This overruled the opinions of minorities living on the island, such as the Maronites, the Armenians, and the Latins. During what turned into a civil war with massive casualties, mass rape and missing persons on both sides, several international parties got involved. The violent conflict stopped after Turkey violently intervened on behalf of the Turkish Cypriot community in reaction to the coup d’état in 1974 carried out by Greece, and established the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) in 1983, which has since only been recognized by Turkey. The trauma and the fear of the ‘other’ is, however, still deeply rooted in Cypriot society and has been enforced by politics of fear on both sides.
“I think in every conflict there is usually a dichotomy, which simplifies the different levels that are involved in the conflict. And this dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’ takes different reference points of historical events. So, which historical event each side of the conflict chooses defines the kind of narrative that will be produced,” explains Hadjipavlou. “What is the underlying principle of these narratives? It’s to show the victimhood of my community and, also, that I have someone to blame. And the perpetrator is the other. So, as to blame the other, I have to depict the other in a very negative and demonizing way. This over-simplification, each side does it.”
As an activist, Hadjipavlou has promoted peace across the divide in Cyprus for the last twenty-five years. She is a founding member of the first international and bicommunal Cypriot women’s NGO “Hands Across the Divide” (HAD) and she organized a variety of campaigns and projects across the divide long before the border reopened.
“What we really do as peace activists and scholars who want to broaden the discussion: we try to include what is being left out. […] When we listen, we find that we have shared pain and suffering. We have shared exclusions and a shared responsibility to change this.”
Just how much of a pioneer in both her work as a peace activist and as an academic she is can be seen in the reactions and repressions she went through. She explains, “I was very badly attacked as an activist many times, often on the front page of right-wing newspapers. I was called a traitor. I took these papers to court and it went on for years and years. Also, when I was teaching at the University of Cyprus, there were radio programs which demonized me saying that I was trying to change the ‘Greekness’ and the identity of the people. The mothers and parents called me to tell me that they will ask the administration to dismiss me. They’d say that they would all withdraw their children from the university.”
Although she was not dismissed from her teaching position, this nationalistic and repressive reaction to her work affected her family, as she recounts, “It was very difficult, especially when my children would come home and tell me: ‘Mama, what did you do? They say you’re a traitor! The bus driver told us.’ So, you take a risk.”
Today Hadjipavlou is hopeful that things are gradually changing. Even though the stereotypes of the ‘other’ are still strong, especially in some sectors of the society, “[the stereotypes] are being used mostly for nationalistic goals like keeping the people separate, or to instigate the fear of losing your “Greekness” or Turkishness”, of losing your identity,” as she explains. “There are the fanatics, there are the extremists on both sides, which are always there to destabilize. But there are resistances now. It’s not like before, you know, when nationalism was the predominant factor in keeping us separate. Now, you can test these assumptions about the other.”
In the light of the recent rise in politics of fear and alt-right ideology, there’s a risk that the situation in Cyprus might be affected by it. “It’s a global issue, not a regional one, but most importantly, I think it’s an issue of democracy,” suggests Hadjipavlou. “We have to revisit democracy, democratic rights and human rights.” Because in this rise of alt-right politics, “we frighten the societies and the societies are turned into vehicles of racism and xenophobia. And, of course, this delays a lot of the European values, values on which Europe was built.”