February 3, 2016 / 10:04 AM / a year ago

Love chips away at barriers in ethnically split Cyprus

7 Min Read

Greek Cypriot Larkos Larkou, 43, and Turkish Cypriot Hatice Ardost, 34, married since 2014, pose for a photo after an interview with Reuters in the Kiti village, Cyprus January 29,2016.Yiannis Kourtoglou

KITI, Cyprus (Reuters) - They met though social media, inspired by their love of music. But musicians Larkos Larkou and Hatice Ardost are no ordinary couple, and until at least a decade ago their relationship would have been unheard of in a country riven by conflict and distrust.

"It’s not really a subject of discussion in our household," Larkou, 43, says somewhat awkwardly as he sits cradling a cup of tea by the kitchen counter at the home he shares in Cyprus with Ardost, 34, his wife.

"Whether Hatice is a Turkish Cypriot and I’m a Greek Cypriot might be a subject for others, but for us, this is completely natural."

Ardost nods vigorously. "Two human beings being together is not a miracle."

Their union is emblematic of a gradual thaw in relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots in Cyprus, home to one of Europe’s most enduring conflicts.

The island has been split since a Turkish invasion in 1974 prompted by a Greek Cypriot coup. The two populations were kept almost entirely separate until rules for traveling across the dividing line were eased in 2003.

On-off peace talks over the years have repeatedly foundered over the property rights of thousands of internally displaced people, different interpretations of how close a new reunion will be, and the influence of Turkey over any reunified Cyprus.

With two moderates now at the helm of talks, diplomats are now hopeful that a deal is within reach to solve the Cyprus conundrum after years of failed initiatives.

But while politicians slog it out at the negotiation table, Cypriots on both sides of the divide have taken matters into their own hands.

Ardost and Larkou are among a small, but growing community of mixed-marriage Cypriot couples, transcending psychological and physical barriers. They married within two months of meeting in 2014, and are expecting their first child later this year.

'Brainwashed'

Growing up on an island split down its middle with reels of barbed wire and home to one of the oldest peacekeeping missions in the world, both grew up wondering what lay on the other side until checkpoint crossings were eased.

They came from what they describe as open minded households – Larkou’s mother is learning Turkish. Ardost’s family "wanted peace in Cyprus before anyone started talking about it," she said.

"When I was growing up we were brainwashed at schools, we used to think there was something bad on the other side," said Ardost, who grew up in the medieval city of Famagusta, on the island’s eastern coast.

"It was only when we grew up that we were able to understand that all Cypriots can live together."

Larkou, whose family was displaced in Turkey’s invasion in 1974, agrees. "It was exactly the same for us. That the Turks were bad. But Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots should have the chance to live together," he said.

Both prefer identifying islanders as "Greek speaking" or "Turkish speaking" Cypriots. Larkou is the founder of "Kyprogenia", a musical collective which draws on a fusion of traditional Cypriot music genres with jazz, classical, rock and improvisation. Lyrics are in the Greek or Turkish Cypriot dialects, languages which borrow heavily from the influences of various cultures which have passed through Cyprus over the ages, and which share many common words.

Greek Cypriot Larkos Larkou, 43, and Turkish Cypriot Hatice Ardost, 34, married since 2014, pose for a photo after an interview with Reuters in the Kiti village, Cyprus January 29,2016.Yiannis Kourtoglou

Acknowledging their work, Ardost and Larkou were recipients of an award last year given by Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the Greek-Cypriot founder of low-cost airline EasyJet, along with a number of other individuals, for fostering bi-communal contacts, actively supported by the leaderships of both sides.

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, the Greek Cypriot leader, has reported a "common understanding on an important number of issues" with Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, a moderate elected in early 2015.

However Anastasiades is keen to point out that the sides should avoid creating expectations that a deal is within immediate reach. In an unusual move, he is due to brief parliament on Feb. 11 on the state of play in negotiations.

"There is progress, but there is still a distance to cover," Anastasiades told Cypriot TV station Sigma in an interview aired on Tuesday. For tactical reasons, the sides have been careful to avoid saying publicly precisely which issues still divide them.

From their home close to the coastal town of Larnaca in the government controlled south, Ardost and Larkou monitor the present round of talks, held at a United Nations compound in the divided capital Nicosia, with a slight detachment.

Past Disappointments

Peace initiatives have flopped before, most spectacularly in 2004, when Greek Cypriots rejected a United Nations reunification blueprint in a referendum.

That plan was accepted by Turkish Cypriots, but with no deal a partitioned island was allowed to join the European Union, and effective membership of the bloc confined to the areas run by the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government. Northern Cyprus is a breakaway Turkish Cypriot state, recognized only by Ankara.

Larkou was among a Greek Cypriot minority who voted in favor of the 2004 plan, believing the benefits outweighed its drawbacks.

Yet today, Ardost thinks that the intervening 11 years helped cement then-budding relationships among Cypriots who were then just recovering from years of non-contact, making prospects for a deal now greater. "This time there is more of a chance," she said.

Larkou chooses his words carefully when asked if he is optimistic this time around.

"I'm hopeful (of a breakthrough) and I am positive about it. This is our chance. I would like to see all Cypriots ready for this. Because this is a big change. Personally I'm ready, and many people around me are ready."

Its all about compromise, he says. He worries however whether people are committed enough to see those compromises through, or yield at the first sign of difficulty. 

"We really have to understand that we have to make sacrifices, forgive, and realize mistakes."

But the stars on Cyprus have been in alignment before, only to be blown spectacularly apart. 

Ardost says she would not be too disappointed if a deal fell through, believing that the common bonds islanders share will bring reunification, one day.

"I will just say its not the right time," she says quietly. "Peace will happen. It has to happen."

Reporting by Michele Kambas; editing by Peter Graff

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