Grenzen | Borders Reportage

The sad closure of Nicosia’s pedestrian border crossing

For a couple of weeks I had the pleasure to live right next to a unique border crossing: Nicosia’s Ledra Street crossing. It is the only border crossing in the world located entirely inside a pedestrian area downtown. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, and the border was shut.

On Friday evening, the 28 March 2020, the Cypriot President Anastasiades announced the closure of four Green Line crossings, effective by Saturday morning, 6 am. Reason: Containment of the coronavirus. The infection count at that time was 0 cases in the Republic of Cyprus and 0 cases in the non-recognized Turkish Republic of North Cyprus. Three other border crossings remained open.

That Friday evening, I did a quick and last hop across the Ledra Street crossing, one of those affected by the closure. On my way back, a health officer with a face mask awaited me at the checkpoint and inquired about my recent travels. Which luckily just included both parts of Cyprus.

P1100435 Ledra street crossing the next morning: The partially open fence did not look too intimidating.

Anastasiades’ move was entirely unexpected, as it came way ahead of all the other border closures in Europe. It was a perfectly diplomatic decision, which upset all of Cyprus: Unionists on both side of the Green Line called the measure political, disproportionate even, and demanded an immediate re-opening. Southern right-wingers demanded the closure of the remaining three crossings. And the Northern government asked for consultations and a common approach to the coronavirus challenge. All of Cyprus was angry.

The Unionists clearly had a point in saying that if virus containment was the goal, closing four out of seven border crossings made no sense – not to speak of two further crossings under British control. Either all or none. The government explained that there was not enough health staff to carry out medical checks at all crossings, hence the closures. I tried out other crossings and there were indeed cursory checks – once or twice they measured my temperature, other times not even that. Clearly not a measure to prevent the spread of coronavirus – especially since at that time, British, German and Italian tourists were still arriving unchecked at the country’s two airports.

ZypernState of play of Cyprus‘ Green Line crossings in the first half of March 2020. This map is now outdated, I had originally planned blog entry about which crossings are still open.

The Ledra Street crossing had a highly symbolic value. It was opened only in 2008, later than other border crossings. It was the first and only border crossing in the old town to open, and in a way it reunited Nicosia, the world’s last divided capital. Particularly on the Northern side, the old town quarters revived with the much easier access for tourists. New bars and restaurants sprung up, the once sleepy area became crowded on weekends. It brought a sense of belonging together to the two separated parts of the old town, which had been absent for more than 30 years.

DSC_0686 The deserted checkpoint on the Turkish Cypriot side of Ledra street, called Lokmacı. No barricades or fences here.

No surprise its closure sparked angry reactions. In the days after the closure, several Unionist demonstrations took place. In one instance, crowds from both sides of the closed border crossing tried to force its reopening. From the Turkish Cypriot side, the crossing technically remained open. The protesters could cross the UN buffer zone and reached the freshly installed border fence on the Greek Cypriot side, which they proceeded to attack together with Greek Cypriot protesters. Skirmishes with the police ensued, and several Southern protesters managed to run across border. Then the UN soldiers from the buffer zone stepped in to calm down the situation and brought the protesters back to the Turkish side. This led to a little territorial conflict, as the UN soldiers stepped into an area which is assigned to be under Turkish Cypriot control. That area is the 25 meters covered with a wooden roof between the two border checkpoints – a truly minuscule infliction of territorial rights!

DSC_0574 Protesters of the right-wing ELAM party demanding the closure of all Green Line crossings

The football fans of APOEL Nicosia and the members of the right-wing ELAM party, meanwhile, demanded the closure of all the remaining borders. Their demonstrations were more peaceful, as they were unlikely to attack the border barricades. But they were loud, and I did not like the slogans they chanted:

“Κλείστε τώρα τα οδοφράγματα” (Close the border crossings now!)

 “Η Κύπρος είναι ελληνική” (Cyprus is Greek!)

As a result of the demonstrations, the barricade at the Ledra Street crossing was reinforced. The day I left Cyprus, there were already four fences blocking the way to the North.

DSC_0701 Barricade: Ledra Street crossing on the day I left Cyprus

As a result of the now escalating coronavirus pandemic, more border crossings were closed – this time from the Turkish Cypriot side. Meanwhile, all but the most essential travel across the Green Line has stopped. North and South Cyprus are now truly divided again.

As a further result of the escalating coronavirus pandemic, I had to leave Cyprus. I returned to my native Rhine Valley, to find it divided as well: The border between Switzerland and Austria is now closed to all but the most essential travel.

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