Erdogan plans 'picnic' in symbolic Cyprus ghost town

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VAROSHA (Cyprus) (AFP)

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is planning a controversial "picnic" Sunday in a once-famed Cyprus resort that has been left to rot since its Greek Cypriot inhabitants fled advancing Turkish troops in 1974.

His visit, just weeks after he helped a nationalist ally win election as Turkish Cypriot leader, is painful for the island's Greek Cypriot majority, who have never given up their demand for the displaced to be allowed to return to their former homes.

"We can have a picnic at Varosha," Erdogan announced proudly last month after talks in Ankara with newly-elected Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar.

An idyllic vacation spot that was dubbed a "Jewel of the Mediterranean", Varosha had been sealed off for decades ever since Turkish troops seized the seafront suburb of Famagusta in one of the last actions of their invasion.

Then, without warning, Turkish troops partially reopened Varosha's fenced-off beach on October 8, stirring international criticism and potentially helping the right-wing Tatar win 10 days later against the moderate incumbent president Mustafa Akinci who had crossed swords with Erdogan.

Now, Erdogan intends to visit the politically-charged seaside resort, cementing his authority over northern Cyprus whose nation status is recognised only by Ankara.

Sixty-two Greek Cypriot and Turkish organisations across the divided island have signed a joint petition calling for Varosha's "unilateral" reopening to halt, and for Erdogan to stay out.

"The festive nature of the reopening, built on the memories and suffering of its past inhabitants, hurts our conscience," the petition reads.

- 'Sinking feeling' -

"No interference! Freedom for all!" hundreds of Turkish Cypriot protesters chanted in northern Nicosia on Tuesday to denounce Erdogan's planned visit.

"You can't run northern Cyprus from Ankara," said Gulsen Ercin, a spokesman for the protest group.

While the more prosperous south of the island has been a full-fledged member of the European Union since 2004, the north remains entirely dependent on Turkey, which funds its budget and has deployed more than 30,000 troops.

And despite the protests, preparations for Erdogan's visit are in full swing, with workers paving roads, planting trees and putting on new licks of paint.

But Pavlos Iacovou, a Greek Cypriot, still shudders at the memory of the bulldozers that last month tore down the barbed wire fences and reopened the seaside section of Varosha for the first time in 46 years.

"When you see something like that, you realise nothing will ever be the same again," the 65-year-old, who was forced to flee Varosha with his family when he was 19, told AFP.

Iacovou now lives in Paralimni, in the south, on the other side of a UN-patrolled buffer zone.

But he returned to watch the Turkish forces demolish Varosha's fences, reclaiming a seaside section that had stood frozen in time.

"I had always hoped Varosha would one day be given back to its old inhabitants, or at least placed under UN control," Iacovou said.

His parents used to run the town's once bustling Florida Hotel, now just another of Varosha's many dilapidated buildings, worn down by decades of neglect.

"But I no longer believe we will return. And realising this, you get this sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach."

- 'It is dead' -

Despite Erdogan's promise to respect the property rights of the Greek Cypriots who were forced out, Iacovou remains unconvinced.

Turkish Cypriot authorities have set up a special commission to review applications for compensation payments.

But Iacovou said his request for restitution and indemnity appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

"It was our family business, our future," he said of the hotel. "But they confiscated it, together with our memories," he said.

"Varosha will never regain its golden era. It is dead."

Yet, despite it all, Iacovou still dreams of seeing the island reunified -- something Tatar, with Erdogan's blessing, campaigned against.

"I want to see the Greek and Turkish Cypriots live as one," said Iacovou. "But I fear that chauvinists on both sides will never let that happen."