NICOSIA (Reuters) - Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders may soon erase the most potent symbol of the island's division, by reopening a bullet-pocked crossing between the two sides closed for nearly half a century.
Hopes of ending decades of estrangement were revived after last month's election of Cyprus President Demetris Christofias, who has pledged to relaunch reunification talks.
Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat have said they will discuss the reopening of the crossing on Ledra Street, a thoroughfare running through Nicosia's old Venetian citadel, after they hold their first meeting on March 21.
"This is the most evocative induction to life in Cyprus and opening the street would be a symbolic step towards reuniting the city and its people," said a western diplomat.
Cyprus was split in two by a 1974 Turkish invasion triggered by a coup inspired by Athens. But the seeds of division go back a good deal earlier, to ethnic strife towards the end of British colonial rule, and a power-sharing government which crumbled in 1963, prompting the dispatch of a U.N. peacekeeping force.
Ledra Street was first divided in 1958, when a Turkish Cypriot group erected barriers to stop members of the community shopping at Greek Cypriot stores.
The barriers were dismantled in 1960, only to be thrown up again by the Turkish Cypriot side after intercommunal conflict in late 1963. They briefly came down in 1968, but were quickly re-erected and have remained in place ever since.
Ledra Street now runs across a corridor of abandoned buildings that snakes across Nicosia. The corridor still divides the city, although five other crossing points across the ceasefire line have been opened since 2003.
Nearly fifty years of separation have taken their toll on the part of Ledra Street in no-man's land. Vegetation pierces the masonry of graceful mansions and shops, many of which are on the verge of collapse.
If the checkpoint opens, one of the first tasks will be to shore up buildings in its immediate vicinity. The United Nations will also have to do a sweep for unexploded bombs left during past fighting.
The island's long partition has created a two-speed economy. The breakaway Turkish Cypriot north has been under restrictions preventing direct trade with the outside world for decades, while the Greek south is now in the euro zone.
The Greek Cypriot end of Ledra Street is a busy commercial hub, boasting upmarket Chinese restaurants, Starbucks, McDonalds and British retail chains.
"We want a solution, and we hope that opening this street will be a step towards that," said Greek Cypriot shoe shop owner Andreas Yiasemi, 50. "But we want a healthy settlement, not one that will lead us into arguments five years down the road."
Bustling activity abruptly ends about 500 metres down the street, giving way to an eerily quiet strip of land guarded by Greek and Turkish soldiers on both sides, and patrolled by the U.N. in the middle. Then life picks up again, albeit at a much slower pace, on the Turkish Cypriot side.
"It used to be so crowded here, we were shoulder to shoulder," said Turkish Cypriot Huseyin Sonya, 75, a former trader, as he stood in the shadow of buildings pockmarked by bullets fired decades ago. "If there is will on the part of our politicians, we can live together again, but it will take time."
The Turkish part is reminiscent of a bygone era, with few stores shops and eateries. The laughter of toddlers playing in the street echoes off long-abandoned buildings.
"God willing, the crossing will open soon and things will be better for traders here, better for us," Mehmetali Sinaoglu, 50, told Reuters as he sat on a battered chair outside his restaurant, sipping strong Turkish coffee. "At least it will be the end of this silence. It's dead around here now."
On the Greek side, some have already rushed to open shops in anticipation of the border opening. Sinaoglu's closest Greek Cypriot neighbor, about 80 metres down a road obstructed by screens erected by the military, is Elvira's Gallery.
Wedged just behind the Greek Cypriot checkpoint, it hopes to entice locals to spend hundreds of euros on artworks.
"This is one of the last points left unopened. It has to open," said Maria Anaxagorou, 32, a gallery partner. "It will mean more people coming to the area."
Writing by Michele Kambas; editing by Andrew Roche