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Varosha: The ghost town that acts as a poignant reminder of the Cypriot partition

ITV News presenter Alastair Stewart travelled to Varosha, a Cypriot resort abandoned in 1974 when Turkish military action divided the island.

The largely Greek Cypriot inhabitants fled, leaving the stylish beach resort abandoned and untouched to this day.

Forty years on, the ghost town is a poignant reminder of the pain of the Cypriot partition.

The ghost town of Varosha. Credit: On Assignment

Pretty well everyone knows there was a Wall dividing Berlin from the 1960s until November 1989.

Its tearing down was a symbol of a new, global era bringing freedom and unification to a bitterly divided nation and two sub-nations who had long wanted to live together, again. I was there in 1989. It was a joyful time.

I knew the divided Cyprus, I had visited with my family in the 1980s when it was still divided.

But either I didn't know, or, perhaps, had simply forgotten the stark and brutal nature of that division. More shockingly, it persists, some 40 years after it was first enforced.

Turkey did it in 1974 to protect its minority Turkish Cypriot allies who, to be fair, had had a pretty torrid time at the hands of the Greek Cypriot majority.

A young family fleeing the area in 1974. Credit: On Assignment

But a short-sharp and pretty bloody 'intervention' took root and, to this day, scars this beautiful island with an enforced border stretching across its width, observed by UN forces, with armed Greeks and Turks, north and south of it.

There are brutal, barbed-wire fences - there is a frontier. It is real and those enforcing it mean it.

Alastair looks over the fencing that blocks off the town. Credit: On Assignment

To the north-east of the island sits the stunning port city of Famagusta. I was enthralled by its beauty and the pre-invasion edifice of a C13th century Christian cathedral that had become a C16th mosque. It is Gothic Roman with Muslim minarets.

Awesome in its beauty, symbolic of a time of peaceful coexistence. A sort of 'detente' of the middle ages.

Famagusta was a popular resort in the 1960s. Credit: On Assignment

But 40 years ago, the flags of Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus were broken out on its frontage and there they have flown for four decades.

Only Turkey recognises its client state and the two flags must always be flown together, as a menacing symbol of the duality of sovereignty.

Adjacent to Famagusta lies the once beautiful play-ground resort of Varosha - a sort of Cypriot Nice, or Cannes, or Beirut - before that also a 'once beautiful' town that was also torn apart by decades of civil war and cross-border conflict.

Varosha was enclosed, cleansed and moth-balled. It is a frightening ghost town.

The red posters on its tattered fences show a Turkish soldier symbolising the determination to keep it that way.

Where gaps yawn, tattered black plastic sheeting does its best to obscure the view, even of our discrete camera-man.Filming, as much as visiting, forbidden.

The town is now abandoned. Credit: On Assignment

George and Dinos,father and son, breathe the memory of Varosha. Dinos made a fortune there - snatched from him when George was a child. They fled south, started again, and are rich again.

But it is the poverty of happy memories enforced upon them that is so striking. An elderly Dinos, who I so enjoyed chatting with, seemed more likely to shrug the shoulders of a rich, old man, but he still hankers, not for what was his, but just for what 'was'.

Dinos still hankers for what 'was' in Varosha. Credit: On Assignment

George, with friends aplenty among the Turkish Cypriot community, has his 'political shoulder to the wheel' to try to bring that about.

We saw the airport, where the rich and famous, and plain families, flew in to milk northern Cyprus for its beauty. All that remains is the carcass of an airliner and a cobwebby terminal Miss Havisham, of 'Great Expectations' wouldn't have felt out of place in.

The Turkish Cypriot Mayor of Famagusta welcomed us to his parlour and spoke, diplomatically, of his hopes - of the burden on 'the international community', and the belief that, one day, it could be sorted.

The Turkish Cypriot Mayor of Famagusta hopes the situation can be sorted. Credit: On Assignment

From the roof of his offices we saw the scale of the physical challenge and the symbols of what had been done by his allies to this place. Grand hotels, their roofs blown out; a street of once bustling night-clubs and bars looking, now, like a dust-bowl littered with tumble-weed - perhaps the 'OK Coral' was just out of sight.

I left thinking peace was also out of sight. I don't want to belittle their optimism but it is a place the world's forgotten and one that appears small on a geopolitical radar-screen, speckled with the big blobs that are Syria, Gaza, Iraq - ironically, all much closer to Cyprus that my own United Kingdom.

We give voice, in our film to their hopes and dreams; but I conclude with the thought that the best they can really hope for is something just a little better.

The scope for something even 'a little better' is pretty enormous.

  • Alastair Stewart's film on Varosha can be seen On Assignment, tonight at 10.40pm on ITV