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Varosha: the ghost town of Cyprus

Our boat rocked in the wind as we sat in the middle of Famagusta Bay.

Remarkably clear, the pastel sky trailed off, bright and gleaming.

There were seven of us on-board: five tourists, the tour guide and the Captain. On my left, there was an older couple, a man and a woman around sixty. The old man was unassuming, but with a scrunched-up sort of face, as if sucking some perpetual lemon. His wife wore an over-sized floral hat, slightly too large for her head. They sat near the edge. He rested one arm on the handrail and she gazed out at the sea.

A younger couple sat further along the port side. The woman was beautiful with sun-kissed skin and silky brown hair billowing in the wind. She kept brushing her hair off of her face, tucking strands behind her ears. The man kept an arm around her. The Captain sat at the helm, wearing summer shorts and a shirt buttoned up to his chest. He didn't talk much, but just held the wheel and occasionally checked a map on the dashboard. Our guide was hairy and tanned with a wet, clinging yellow t-shirt. He stared out into the horizon, shielding his eyes from the sun.

We stopped moving, and the beating sun and turquoise sea seemed to dissolve and fade away. Someone said: “look!” And I faced a melancholy mirror. A pale reflection of Cyprus. Like Alcatraz, it sat remote on a lonely shore, about ten miles away.

I was struck by monolithic hotels and a horseshoe beach around the water’s edge. Like a resort, but uncanny. Something not right: ghostly and ineffable. What looked like fences and barbed wire dotted around the beach, covering every side. They trailed across the beach, disappearing into the sea. This picture in the distance seemed too still. It was a resort, for sure, with large hotels perched at the foot of the beach, but it was desolate, lifeless and dilapidated. The place seemed somehow new, and untouched, but wracked with decay all the same. As I stared into this bleak horizon, the guide began: “This was once the most popular resort in Cyprus.”

In the sixties, Famagusta accounted for fifty per cent of the total hotel accommodation of Cyprus.

One of the best-known tourist spots in the world, it hosted celebrities as famous as Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Brigitte Bardot. Following the post-war “Package Holiday” boom, thousands of Brits holidayed in Famagusta through the sixties and early seventies. It was Cyprus’s tourist capital.

Famagusta had nine nursery schools, seventeen primary schools, and eleven secondary schools. It was a cultural centre too, with a library, an art gallery, a rich archaeological museum and a lively municipal marketplace. In the sixties, it saw an industrial growth fifty per cent higher than the rest of the country. Famagusta was vibrant and youthful, with restaurants and cinemas, flourishing in a new environment of international tourism.

We looked out at this strange, unnerving spectre of a resort. Everything looked strangely rotten, even at that distance, a greying tint hanging over the buildings as if the city’s very existence was choking the life out of it. The old woman with the hat glibly remarked: “stunning, isn’t it Richard?”

The guide glanced over to a dark, stone guard tower perched further along the beach, closer and in full view. It was still far away, but threatening. Seemingly satisfied, he went on, keeping one eye in the distance: “In 1974, the Turkish invaded Cyprus.”

The Turkish invading force was code-named "Operation Atilla"

The Cypriot National Guard received support from the Greek government for a coup against the Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios. Looking for greater sway in Cypriot affairs, the Greek Cypriots planned a union with Greece. The Turkish Cypriots (having shared power with the Greek Cypriots since London granted the island independence in the sixties) responded to this by launching a military invasion. The Turkish invading force was code-named “Operation Atilla,” but Turkish Cypriots call it: “Kıbrıs Barış Harekâtı,” or: “Cyprus Peace Operation.” The Turkish occupied the northern third, and Famagusta took a hard shelling during the second phase. Within two days, the Turkish military fully occupied the city.

At this point, the young woman with the brown hair was leaning on the handrail next to me. She’d let her hair flop onto her face in the wind. Her eyes were hazel. I stared for a moment at the depth of this colour in the corner of her eye as she contemplated Varosha.

By August 1974, the Turkish army occupied 37 per cent of the whole island

The 39,000 or so people who lived in Famagusta (who didn’t perish in the bombing) fled into surrounding fields, believing that, after the initial violence, they could just return. But the Turkish Army had already cordoned off Varosha for the UN buffer zone.

The buffer zone, or 'Green Line,’ is a scar cutting Cyprus in half: Nicosia and Larnaca on one side, and Kyrenia and Famagusta on the other. Permanently under guard by UN peacekeepers, the buffer zone comprised three per cent of the whole island. After this, anyone caught in Varosha risked being shot on sight by the Turkish.

In the decades to come, people who made their homes in Varosha could only see the city through barbed wire. Varosha, once the ‘modern’ quarter of Famagusta, remained completely abandoned over forty years later.

On the boat, the younger man sidled up to his partner, stretching an arm across her shoulder. “Awful isn’t it,” he opined. The guide suddenly stopped what he was saying, raising a hand to his brow. He stared at the tower and, after a nod, dismounted the bow. He explained: “that’s the UN telling us to go back.” They used a spotlight signal, indicating that we had come close enough and would have to go back.

Something about Varosha was profoundly intriguing in a way that felt illicit. The fact that it had remained exactly the same, completely frozen in time… a spectre of lost civilization.

According to rumour, there’s a car dealership on Leonidas, Varosha’s leisure street, with a set of brand new 70's Toyotas put out just before the invasion, still parked exactly where they were the day of the invasion.

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Начал разбирать видео. Все, что ты видишь в кадре - закрытый город-курорт Вароша. Закрыт из-за войны. И чтоб ты понимал абсурдность ситуации - этот город закрыли в 1974г. Прикиньте как бы он выглядит за 40 лет развития? #кипр #cyprus #заброшка #северныйкипр #northcyprus #припять #чернобыль #кипрзимой #europe #европа #средиземноеморе #зиманакипре #larnaka #вароша #varosha #путешествия #traveltips #travel #travelgram #europe #руфер #innercyprus #visitcyprus #ohitscyprus #lovecyprus #cypruslife #ayianapa #зимовка #cyprus2018

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In forty years, nothing changed for Varosha

I stared for a further moment, as we headed back to Larnaka Bay. In forty years, nothing changed for Varosha. It remained an anomalous, dusty painting; a capsule floating through the winds of time.

The city faded further and further from view and I spied a tower crane hanging over the skyscrapers, seemingly mid-swing, stuck in the seventies and beyond escape. I wondered how long it would take for the iron and steel to rot away, for the foundations to collapse; how long before all those old, dying buildings began to fall like dominoes.  Perhaps then, as the city crumbled and decomposed, and nature finally and fully reclaimed it, new life would bloom in the wreckage and break the stasis. All that remained was a shell, an empty vessel, drifting through time ready for life where none could be found.

Featured image: katalinks /