NICOSIA (Reuters Life!) - An eerie silence lingers over Varosha, an abandoned Greek Cypriot neighborhood left in beachfront limbo since war split the Mediterranean island.
Derelict apartment blocks and crumbling hotels riddled with bullet holes sit on empty beaches behind barbed-wire fencing after Varosha’s 15,000 residents fled in 1974, when a Turkish invasion sparked by a Greek-inspired coup split Cyprus.
Since then Varosha — the Greek Cypriot quarter of the now Turkish Cypriot-controlled city of Famagusta has been sealed off. Turkish soldiers patrol a perimeter fence, with visitors only allowed to look at Varosha from afar.
If peace talks between estranged Greek and Turkish Cypriots succeed, Varosha could be one of the first Greek Cypriot areas to be revived, one of scores of abandoned areas creating a buffer separating the island’s Turkish and Greek populations for three decades.
Town planners will face a mammoth task of restoring a town badly damaged by bullets and bombs and then left to crumble over 35 years of neglect.
“We want to take back our sleeping princess and turn her into a queen again,” said Alexis Galanos, Varosha’s municipal mayor in exile.
Varosha was once a suburb renowned for its artistic vibrancy and as a thriving business hub. What remains is reminiscent of an abandoned movie set. Snapshots taken by witnesses show furniture and upholstery still hanging from once pristine balconies that were badly damaged by the fighting.
Despite an estimated 10 billion euros ($14.97 billion) in reconstruction costs, Galanos says the economic returns of a rebuilt Varosha far outweigh the cost.
“The economic activity and momentum will easily outweigh the initial negative expenditure,” Galanos said.
Greek Cypriot town planners have been preparing for the return of Varosha for years, on paper.
“An emergency plan has been prepared which would cover the first three months of the city being returned,” said Nicos Mesarites, chairman of the semi-government council for reconstruction and resettlement.
This initial step will include a clean up operation, inspection of building safety and the reconnection of water and electricity, before anyone can return to their homes.
“People can’t go back straight away as it’s too dangerous because of the crumbling buildings,” Mesarites said.
Current estimates suggest that returning the city to normal will take six or seven years at least.
“This doesn’t sit well with those wanting to go back home,” Mesarites said.
The Turkish Cypriot leaders say they have no plans concerning Varosha, an ever-present bargaining chip in the ongoing negotiations.
“We have no plans or programs for the rehabilitation of Varosha. It’s resettlement can only happen as part of a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem,” said Ozdil Nami, a senior aide to Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat.
A U.N. blueprint in 2004 had provided for the return of Varosha to Greek Cypriot control, in a loose confederation. The plan was rejected by Greek Cypriot voters.
But local and former residents have still not given up hope, and have amassed some 30,000 signatures in a petition to return the city to its former glory.
“The Famagusta we go back to will never be the Famagusta we left,” Galanos said.
Editing by Paul Casciato