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Occupied Cyprus hosts first Greek schools in three decades

07 March 2005

RIZOKARPASO: Headmaster Savvas Xenophodos has to show his passport every time he travels to his school in this remote and beautiful part of Turkish Cypriot-controlled northern Cyprus.

However, the fact that his Greek-language school is open at all highlights a gentle easing of tensions between Cyprus' feuding Greek and Turkish camps since they split 31 years ago.

The school, which opened its doors last September, has only 10 students, aged 12 to 15, but 15 teachers to cover the full range of subjects. A Greek-language elementary school nearby also has 10 pupils and two teachers.

The schools, funded by the Greek Cypriot government, are the first in the north to teach in Greek since 1974. The village, which also boasts a mosque and a church, is known to Greek Cypriots as Rizokarpaso and to Turkish Cypriots as "Dipkarpaz".

"The opening of our school is a first step. We would like to have 200 or 300 students, not just 10," Xenophodos said.

Xenophodos and the other teachers live in the Greek Cypriot south where they also teach, driving up to the schoolhouse on the Karpaz peninsula for just one or two days each week.

Xenophodos' school was only able to function after the Turkish Cypriot authorities opened the border in 2003, but the teachers must still show their passports when they cross the Green Line which bisects the whole island.

In the past, the handful of Greek-speaking children in the area would have to travel to the south, staying with relatives or in youth hostels and returning at weekends or for holidays.

Mostly the children of local farmers and fishermen, they study among other things English, French and ancient Greek, but not Turkish despite living in a mainly Turkish environment.

Teachers said some 20,000 Greek Cypriots lived on the Karpaz peninsula until 1974, when Turkey invaded the north in response to a brief Greek Cypriot coup aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece. Ankara still keeps 30,000 troops in northern Cyprus.

Now there are only about 250 Greeks on the Karpaz, many of them elderly. Most of the local Turks are settlers who have moved to the area from Turkey since 1974, the teachers said.

"It is strange situation. My family owns land here but it was taken by the Turks when we moved south," said art teacher Panayiota Christodoulides.

"The other day, a Greek family which now rents the land from those Turks gave me a bottle of olive oil as a present, olive oil produced from the land that belongs to me," she said.

Cyprus, whose total population is barely one million, has proven one of the world's most intractable diplomatic problems.

Last year, Turkish Cypriots backed a UN plan which envisaged reuniting the island under a loose federal government with broad autonomy for the two ethnic groups. However, the much richer, more populous Greek Cypriots rejected the plan.

Shortly afterwards Cyprus, represented by the internationally recognised Greek Cypriot government, joined the European Union. The self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Turkey, remains in a legal limbo.

"We want a solution to the Cyprus problem but it is very difficult," said Xenophodos.

"We want Turkey to join the EU because things will be better for us too then. Turkey would become more European," he said.

Turkey is due to begin EU entry talks, in October, though Cyprus – or any other member state – could still veto them.

The Turkish Cypriot authorities say they are doing all they can to promote a settlement and have recently replaced the history textbooks used in Turkish Cypriot schools.

"The old textbooks used to depict the Greek side as the enemy. We decided this was not right in a country trying to join the EU," said Hasan Alicik of the Turkish Cypriot education ministry in the island's divided capital Nicosia.

"The new textbooks present a more balanced view of Cyprus' history. We need more tolerance and understanding," he said.

Alicik said the Turkish Cypriots had tried to involve their Greek Cypriot neighbours in the history book project but had so far received no reply.

He said his ministry also wanted to twin schools north and south of the Green Line and to set up teacher exchanges.

"We want to teach Greek in the north but we lack qualified teachers. If we don't speak the same language how can we hope to communicate and understand each other," he said.

"Cypriot children should not be held hostage by politics."







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Visit from: 11/10/1999