A Cypriot Christmas Tree by Victoria Hislop
A fascinating, informative account of recent Cypriot history from bestselling author Victoria Hislop that begins with a Christmas tree...
I was first alerted to a significant aspect of recent Cyprus history by a Christmas tree. It was about five years ago, and I saw a little pine tree that led me to write a short story and eventually a novel (my latest), The Sunrise.
It was incongruous enough to see a Christmas tree on the corner of a street in Nicosia, the capital, where December temperatures were well into the 20s. Even more unexpected was what hung from its branches. Instead of traditional bright glass baubles and tinsel, this tree was adorned with photographs attached by ribbons to its branches. It was an arresting sight. When I took a closer look, I saw that the photographs were all very faded. On a sign nearby it explained that these were pictures of men, women and children who had disappeared during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in the summer of 1974.
Known as the "agnooumeni" (the "disappeared"), many of these people were taken across to mainland Turkey; others are now known to have been killed in Cyprus itself. Most of the ‘disappeared’ in these photos are still unaccounted for. I was very shocked to realise that the short war, which has left Cyprus divided into two zones – the north (where there remains a sizeable occupying Turkish force forty-one years later) and the south – still had this huge matter unresolved.
One of the things that delayed me writing a novel about Cyprus was wondering if there was ‘another side to the story’. Most of my Cypriot friends were Greek Cypriot, so I only knew about the war in Cyprus from their point of view. I then met some Turkish Cypriots and realised that many of them had suffered too. One of them took me to a memorial for Turkish Cypriot women and children who had been massacred during the same summer, and that day I learned that there were also Turkish Cypriots still unaccounted for.
The Commission on Missing Persons in Cyprus, established in 1981 under the auspices of the United Nations and staffed by members of both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, works tirelessly to identify the remains that are found on the island. It is a symbol of reconciliation. There were over two thousand ‘disappeared’ when they began their task. One thousand four hundred people are still to be found.
So far I have not been telling a very seasonal story here. So let me turn this back to Christmas trees. In my novel, I focus on a particular city, Famagusta, which was one of the most fashionable resorts in the Mediterranean with its beautiful azure sea and pale sand. When the Turks invaded, the forty thousand predominantly Greek Cypriot inhabitants fled in fear. After the Turkish army arrived, the whole city was cordoned off with a barbed wire fence, and this is how it remains today. None of the owners of the hotels, houses, shops or restaurants have been able to return to reclaim their property or anything inside it.
One thing that encourages me, given the slow pace towards reunification, is that there are Greek and Turkish Cypriots who are firm friends and, as these photographs show, Christmas can be a time for reconciliation. The tree pictured is on the beach at Famagusta, in front of the barbed wire that cuts the city off from the world. Christmas may not be a festival that Turkish Cypriots celebrate, but the symbolic value of a Christmas tree (so different from the one that I came across that day in Nicosia) with members of both communities gathered round, gives encouragement for the future and for a resolution of the Cyprus situation.
Happy Christmas to Waterstones readers and staff.
And to everyone in Cyprus, on both sides of the line that divides it.