CYPRUS: Belfast students aim to unite divided Nicosia

A dozen sixth year postgraduate students from Queen's University Belfast' school of planning, architecture and civil engineering are designing 'gluing schemes' aimed at bringing together the Greek and Turkish communities in the Cyprus capital of Nicosia.

Belfast, a divided city across religious lines, sends a message of reunification and peaceful co-existence to Nicosia, a divided city along national lines. The two cities have a lot in common and the Belfast students hope that by using their own experiences they will be able to cement together the Cypriot capital and the two communities.

Cyprus has been divided in a Turkish-Cypriot northern region and a Greek-Cypriot southern region since 1974 when Turkey invaded the island. The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus is responsible for the area that separates the two sides, the Buffer Zone or so-called Green Line.

The Green Line is a stretch of land some 180 kilometres long bisecting the island from one end to the other. In Nicosia, the line is no more than a few meters wide and sometimes divides one garden from another or houses back to back, although across the rest of the island it is wider.

In Nicosia, the two communities glare at each other eyeball to eyeball. Remnants of the old city such as shops, churches, mosques and other buildings are scattered here and there throughout the zone, ineluctable reminders of its old pre-invasion life and dynamism.

Out in the country, large areas of the Green Line are largely untouched by human activity, a haven for flora and fauna where a large variety of animals and plants thrive in the near absence of hunters and most other human interference.

Searching for a project, the Belfast students came across the guidelines of the Nicosia master plan and decided to respond with suggestions on how to rehabilitate and revitalise the buffer zone in the heart of the walled city, as well as projects to bring the two communities together.

Dr Karim Hadjri, studio coordinator at the school of planning, told University World News: "Nicosia was selected because of its ongoing physical divisions and similarities with Belfast. It is called the last divided city in Europe and we felt that our students, due to their background and experience of division in Northern Ireland, would relate to the local issues and offer bi-communal integrated solutions through architecture."

The students visited Nicosia twice to gain first-hand experience of the city and their design schemes concern the restoration of a dozen abandoned buildings along with proposals for cultural, educational and healthcare projects. These include a theatre of memory, a national library and a Cypriot academy of fine arts.

Involved in the project are two academics from Cyprus itself: Dr Christos Hadjichristos, a lecturer in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Cyprus in Nicosia, and Dr Fevzi Ozersay, an assistant professor in the faculty of architecture at the Eastern Mediterranean University in Famagusta. Both visited Belfast recently for an update on the students' proposals.

Asked to assess the students' projects, Hadjichristos said Nicosia: "It is a fantastic effort and I am extremely proud to be part of it because it gives students the opportunity to come to grips with very complex subjects which in all probability they will meet in the course of their careers. It is also a very good opportunity for a wider dialogue as well as food for thought for those who decide such things."

Hadjri and his team of students are preparing to present their plans and proposals in an exhibition in Nicosia in May. They expect their efforts to receive wider publicity through a series of publications.

"We are hoping," said Hadjri, "to attract the interest of large organisations such as the United Nations for the realisation of the students' project, the cost of which so far has been born entirely by university funds".

He said the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities were excited about the involvement of students and were looking forward to seeing the fruits of their efforts.

Hadjichristos was a little cautious when asked to say what chances the students' project had to become a reality. "Don't get me wrong. It is a marvellous scheme and a wonderful first step in the right direction but my view is that before it becomes a reality, it is necessary for a lot more people, experts in their particular field, to become involved in the scheme."

If Hadjri, Hadjichristos and Ozersay are right, the May exhibition will provide the motivation for experts and politicians not only to become involved in the scheme but also to do all they can to bring it to its natural conclusion - none other than to see the beautiful Cyprus capital united once again and the two communities living and creating together.

* Despite repeated efforts, University World News was unable to contact Dr Fevzi Ozersay at the East Mediterranean University.