In the dead zone, a hope for peace

Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots have been foes for almost 30 years. But some of the islanders ha

At all hours they stand there, in the heart of Nicosia, atop the Venetian walls that separate Orthodox Greek from Muslim Turk in this, the world's last divided capital. To their left lies the United Nations-patrolled "dead zone" - the rotting, rusting ceasefire line that partitions Cyprus. To their right, the modern high-rises, the gaudy billboards, the glitzy Greek-owned cars of the unmistakably cosmopolitan and untouchable world beyond.

From their own lonely, time-warped world, the Turks longingly take in the view. This, they tell you, is the world that beckons, the world that calls with the island's possible accession to the European Union in 2003. And it is here on the Venetian walls, behind the barbed wire, in the tortuous midday heat, that they measure hope.

"There is not a moment in the day when we don't think about leaving this country," says Vedat Burcu, peering through the meshed wire. "Only Turkey recognises us. Why would we want to stay?"

Few places are as frequently disconsolate and despairing as the internationally isolated Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Few places are as angry. And no place is as gripped by a sense of impending doom at the prospect of missing out on membership to the EU.

Vedat Burcu's dilemma is not an easy one. The tantalising world that drifts before him might as well be as far away as the moon.

Even if he had the means, the shortest possible way for Burcu to cross the ceasefire line into the cosmopolitan world below would entail him going to Turkey, boarding a plane for Athens and then flying to Larnaca in the Greek-controlled Republic of Cyprus, a journey of approximately 1,000 miles. It is difficult to miss the air of fear that hovers over northern Cyprus. People feel harassed; they say their telephones are tapped; they do not look you in the eye.

But now, a blend of downright determination, exasperation and despair has motivated the former crown colony's two ancient communities to reach out across the ethnic divide.

Tired with the tortuous pace of peace negotiations - 27 years after a Greek-engineered coup prompted Turkey to invade and seize the island's northern third - unprecedented numbers are engaging in grass-roots diplomacy to breach the barrier in their own bid for reunification.

Civic diplomacy is a brave man's business. It comes at a price: while Greek Cypriots have been attacked as "traitors" and "spies", Turkish Cypriots pursuing cross-ethnic contacts risk death threats, bomb blasts and social ostracism.

In 1997, in response to the Greek Cypriots' application to join the EU, Rauf Denktash, the septuagenarian president of the breakaway north, started to enforce a severe crackdown on all bicommunal events. "What's the point of such contacts?" Denktash retorted when I put the question to him in his colonial-era sandstone office. "I've heard the only thing people do at these meetings is have sex."

Denktash is now widely seen as the man who could hold up the entire EU enlargement process. If he continues to resist reunification talks and a divided Cyprus is rejected by the EU, Athens has promised to veto the access of the other candidates: Poland, Malta, Hungary and Estonia. But there are hints that the Turkish Cypriot leader, who is supported by Anatolian immigrants, is finding his own people increasingly hard to control.

Cyprus is now the most heavily militarised slice of land on the face of the earth. It is the west's longest-running diplomatic dispute; it has elicited more UN security resolutions than most trouble spots put together. In the new Europe of border-free openness, it looks and feels distinctly antique.

A month of innovative bicommunal events in the UN-controlled "dead zone" peaked on 30 September with "Cyprus Peace Day" - the island's first ever mutually acknowledged anniversary. Held in a dusty park on the edge of no man's land, it drew thousands of Greek and Turkish Cypriots, armed only with the desire to heal the septic gash that divides them.

"In the 21st century, the only way really to secure a peaceful future is through active, face-to-face conflict resolution," says Dimitris Tsaousis, an 18-year-old Greek Cypriot. "The internet has been great, our strongest means of breaking down the barrier. We organise all our events through it."

But while the communications revolution has abetted contact, dispelling the myths spread by propaganda is quite another thing. Decades of intercommunal strife prior to the partitioning of the island in 1974, when about 200,000 Greek Cypriots were turned into refugees overnight, have proved the perfect breeding ground for the hate-mongers. Greek pupils who are taken to gawp at the "terrible Turk" across the "green line" are still invariably taught that "the good Turk is the dead Turk".

"In Cyprus, we are dealing with two ethnic groups who, up to a point, shared the same time and space, and yet nowadays come up with inherently opposed 'memories' of what that common past entailed," explains Yiannis Papadakis, the island's leading anthropologist. On the Greek side, the past is remembered as one of "intermingling and peaceful coexistence"; on the Turkish side, it is recalled as one of "separation, animosity and conflict". "Both," Papadakis says, "insult the memory of the other."

Through the development of personal friendships and the acknowledgement of each other's pain - last month, the activists publicly aired the taboo issue of atrocities for the first time - the peaceniks are now trying to dismantle decades of mutual suspicion. Previously, the two communities had been connected by little more than a common sewage system - for many, the most successful bicommunal arrangement to date.

"People here remember to forget," says Tina Kallis, a Greek Cypriot born and bred in London. "They remember to forget that it was a Turkish Cypriot who designed the Cypriot flag, and a Turk who wrote the poem that has become our unofficial national anthem. They forget that we, as the majority population, gave the Turkish Cypriots a very rough time before the invasion."

The reconciliation has undoubtedly been helped by recent rapprochement between Greece and Turkey, the island's two feuding mothers. Both sides are acutely aware that time is now of the essence.

"Every day counts, because if Cyprus is let into the EU without a settlement, Turkey will integrate us further, even more Turkish settlers will come and for everyone involved it will be a bad thing," says Mustafa Akinci, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus's main opposition leader and deputy prime minister until last May.

The great irony of the Cyprus tragedy is that a peace accord was more or less agreed years ago. Aside from the thorny issues of land compensation and what form the power-sharing would take, only the details remain. But the devil is in the details.

Nobody pretends that the peaceniks have yet acquired the power to break the political deadlock. "At some point, however, the friendships we are making will become too politically costly to ignore," says Nicos Athanasiou, a schoolteacher. "All over the world grass-roots movements have affected 'high' politics, and soon in Cyprus, too, citizen diplomacy will bring down the wall."

Behind their barbed wire, the watchers on Nicosia's Venetian defences would like to come down with it.

Helena Smith is the Guardian's Athens correspondent