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Cypriot rebuilds home in native village decades after exodus
Larnaca tis Lapithos, Cyprus
NIKOLAS Skourides was one of tens of thousands of Greek Cypriots who fled the north of the island after the 1974 Turkish invasion - but has now become the first to rebuild his old home.
Mr Skourides, 79, has since last month been living back in the village of his birth, today known by its Turkish name of Kozankoy but called Larnaca tis Lapithos in Greek. He has brought an end to 45 years of displacement, and a long battle with bureaucracy.
"I wanted to spend the last part of my life in the same place I spent the first," Mr Skourides told AFP at his home, gently looking out from behind thick glasses.
Mr Skourides sees himself as living proof that empathy and dialogue between individuals can help overcome the division that has beset the island since 1974. It was in that year that Turkey invaded the northern third of the island, saying it wanted to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority following a Greek Cypriot coup aimed at unification with Greece.
The Greek Cypriot-run Republic of Cyprus controls the southern two-thirds of the Mediterranean island which joined the EU in 2004. The breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is recognised only by Ankara.
It was on Aug 15, 1974, less than a month after the launch of the invasion, that Mr Skourides fled his village together with the rest of its almost 900 Greek Cypriot inhabitants back when he 34. Since then he has dreamed of the day he would be able to return.
In 2003, crossing points opened along the UN-patrolled "Green Line" which had until then hermetically divided the island in two. Mr Skourides was able that year to return for the first time to his village northwest of the capital Nicosia in the foothills of the Kyrenia mountain range - only to find that his old house wasn't there any more.
But he says he harbours no bitterness towards the village's new inhabitants and has built up friendships over repeated visits.
"Starting from 2003, I've eaten, drunk and laughed with Turkish Cypriots," he told AFP. "I understood that they too had been through the same things as me, they had to abandon their houses in the south, we were in the same situation," he said. "I could understand what they were feeling, what it's like when you're forced to leave your home and everything you own to go elsewhere."
"For me, we're all human beings, regardless of your religion, language or nationality." Mr Skourides learnt that even if the house where he grew up was no longer standing, the land that it stood on had not been given away. He applied to the Immovable Property Commission (TMK), a body set up by the TRNC in 2005 in compliance with a European Court of Human Rights ruling, tasked with settling property claims from 1974. The decision finally came in September 2017: Mr Skourides won the right to rebuild his home.
He set about building a new house, precisely where the old one had stood. After 11 months of building works, it was ready in September 2019. He said that despite construction being delayed by legal wrangling and the opposition of some villagers, his determination had never wavered. "I'm so happy to be able to spend this time in my home," he said.
After so long separated from his home by the Green Line, Mr Skourides says he chose not to erect any barriers around his property. "I didn't want. . . any barbed wire between my house and my neighbours. I don't want people to be divided, to shut themselves off behind walls," he said.
"So long as politicians don't get involved, normal people don't have any problems with each other." Several rounds of UN-brokered talks between Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot leaders aimed at reunification have collapsed but Mr Skourides still holds out hope. "In Cyprus we've all made mistakes. We need to learn from them," he said. AFP