Walking through the Dead Zone

After spending five weeks amid Palestine’s daily despair, the divisions here in Nicosia seem almost quaint by comparison. The forty year-old conflict between the Turkish North and Greek South has lost all of its heat and momentum, but entrenched feelings of betrayal and distrust keep it going. There is some talk in the newspapers about 2009 being the year the island is finally reunited, but nobody I’ve talked to believes it. I will be here for about three weeks and in that time I want to get a sense of what the divided city means to people today, especially those young enough to have never known a united Nicosia.

The walled Old City is divided neatly in half by the Green Line and a narrow buffer zone that is off-limits to everyone but military personnel. In the south, the area near the buffer zone is a fascinating collection of abandoned homes and decades-old barricades. I am constantly drawn to this line. No matter where I am headed in the city, I make sure I take the route closest to the Dead Zone.

In the Dead Zone, second-floor windows are glassless and piled with sandbags to provide cover for riflemen who haven’t been there for decades. Paint flakes off the walls. I found an abandoned shop filled with trash – broken shelves, empty gas canisters, an old moped frame. The dust dyes it all the same grayish brown. Only an empty soda bottle, tossed in recently, adds any colour. Against the gray it shines like an emerald.

The barricades that block the street are crumbling. The sand bags leak. Old wooden bunkers sag. The rows of sand-filled metal barrels bleed rust. Some of these have become unwitting planters for weeds that grow into yellow flowers. Some barrels are painted in alternating blue and white, in honour of the Greek flag, and remind me of the cheery formica-and-vinyl of 50s diners. And everywhere, of course, is the barbed wire that snags the occasional plastic bag that blows past.

Young soldiers stand next to some of these barricades in a strange juxtaposition of youth and dereliction. How bored they must be, soldiers in a war that is over. All they have to do is wave away the tourists who come with their cameras. There is no photography allowed. Stern signs in three languages warn people like me to ‘Keep Away!’ as if there is real danger here. Meanwhile, the rain and wind and weeds continue their march. Trampling the barriers into the ground. Sucking history into archaeology.