The Ghost of Famagusta A Refugee Returns to Northern Cyprus After 47 Years

At the age of 15, Tasoula Hadjitofi had to flee her home in Cyprus. Forty-seven years after the war, Turkey has finally allowed her to visit the Greek quarter in Famagusta for the first time. What is left of her childhood home?
Refugee Tasoula Hadjitofi in Famagusta

Refugee Tasoula Hadjitofi in Famagusta

Foto: Julian Busch / DER SPIEGEL

One day in mid-July, a woman in a brown summer dress passes through two checkpoints and reaches Famagusta, a city on the eastern coast of Cyprus. She gets out of her rental car and stands at a fence – the third and last checkpoint. The police, drinking Turkish coffee, clock the golden cross the woman wears around her neck. The woman’s eyes search the empty street behind them.

She sees the façades of buildings that have lost their colors in the sea breeze. Windows with trees growing through them.

It's been a long time since she was last in Famagusta – 47 years. This is the city where she grew up, in the district of Varosha. Until a few months ago, Varosha was a prohibited military zone guarded by Turkish soldiers. It’s a ghost town.

"I am not a ghost," the woman at the barrier says. "I want to go home at last."

Tasoula Georgiou Hadjitofi is 62 years old. She remembers the shoebox that she kept under her bed as a schoolgirl in Famagusta, where she kept her silkworms. She much preferred feeding her silkworms to going to church. The silkworms ate mulberry leaves, and their silk was turned into sheets and tablecloths, their dowry. They lived in a small house not far from the sea at 41 Esperidon Street. Tasoula’s mother sewed clothes, her father drove trucks and they wanted Tasoula to be happily married. Tasoula wanted to study abroad and travel the world.

Back in those days, the world liked to come to Famagusta. Brigitte Bardot used to swim here on one of the longest beaches in Europe. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton stayed at the Hotel Argolis on Kennedy Avenue. Paul Newman shot the "Exodus” in Famagusta. The best coffee could be found at Boccaccio, the hottest dance music at Perroquet. The city was known as the Las Vegas of the Mediterranean.

DER SPIEGEL 33/2021

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 33/2021 (August 14th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Tasoula Hadjitofi learned Greek dance in the arts center behind Café Edelweiss and borrowed books from the city library at the Church of St. Nicholas. On excursions, she would pull risarka out of the earth – a tall, coarse weed that her mother used to dye Easter eggs.

July 20, 1974, was a Saturday.

Hadjitofi can still remember the sirens at dawn and the face of the Turkish pilot in the cockpit. He flew so low over her house. He waved at her, then flew back toward the sea. The next morning, napalm bombs fell on Famagusta.

Her mother hid Tasoula and her sisters in the cellar and unscrewed an electrical socket to show them how to make it short-circuit. No Turkish soldier was to catch them alive. Tasoula was 15.

On this morning in July 2021, she hesitates for a while at the checkpoint turnstile. There is a crackle of radio sets, it’s 9 a.m. and it’s 38 degrees Celsius in the shade. She has come here because the Turks have reopened Varosha. The Turks haven’t yet said what they plan to do with this strip of land.

Hadjitofi lives in The Hague with her husband, a manager at Shell, on a 3,500-square-meter plot of land next to the Royal Palace. She will spend four days in Famagusta. During this time, she will hardly sleep, and she will spend a lot of time talking to people like herself who have returned home. She will have imaginary conversations with those she holds responsible for the unresolved Cyprus conflict: with politicians in Ankara, Athens, Nicosia and Washington. She will, in her own way, prepare for the visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He is due three days after her arrival in Famagusta.

Above all, she will try to get to her family’s home. It had just three rooms, unplastered walls and chickens in the yard. On that morning 47 years ago, on August 14, as the Turkish army sent more units to the island, the family left their cups on the kitchen table and got in her father’s car.

DAY 1

Hadjitofi walks just a few meters. The street she is standing on is freshly paved. There’s a kiosk behind the checkpoint selling coffee and chips, you can also rent bikes there. She looks at the kiosk as though it were a meteorite. Her legs are shaking.

A bus comes from the direction of her childhood home and stops at the kiosk to let people off, women in headscarves, children with inflatable swim rings. The driver is wearing a mask around his chin and says he is setting off again right away, 10 Turkish lira.

He drives too fast for her. She turns her head from side to side, opening and closing her mouth. Palm trees, acacias, bougainvillea rush past, hiding the shops and street signs. It smells of laurel and oleander. As the bus turns right at a roundabout, she claps her hands. She recognizes nine red letters: Edelweiss.

The bus turns into St. Andrew’s Street, speeds up on Kennedy Avenue and circles around a Turkish barracks. It comes to a halt in front of a kiosk with a view of the sea. At the last stop, there are plastic chairs, Turkish coffee and a policeman wearing sunglasses.

"Where are the streets?" asks Hadjitofi. It’s not clear whom she is asking. There used to be streets leading off Kennedy Avenue, Famagusta’s promenade. But Hadjitofi can only see trees and barricades.

Behind the plastic chair where the policeman is sitting is the beginning of a path – it’s overgrown, but passable. "How high up are we?" she asks the policeman. "My house is in Esperidon Street."

The policeman shrugs.

"Please," she says, "I have to go down here, just 100 meters, then turn right."

The policeman points to the red warning sign in the hibiscus bush: "Beware: It is dangerous to leave the marked paths."

The district is officially open, but in reality, most of it is still a military zone. The policeman tells her about snakes and roofs that might collapse.

"Behind you there used to be an ice-cream parlor," she says.

"Go to the beach," he says.

She turns away and looks toward the sea. She keeps an eye on the policeman. At some point, he stands up and goes behind the kiosk to stretch his legs.

Famagusta, or Ammochostos in ancient Greek, means "hidden in the sand." In the 7th century, Greek fishermen hid from Arabian robbers here. The Ottoman army landed here in the 16th century. Turkish settlers expelled the Greeks from Famagusta and allocated a strip of land south of the city walls to them, calling it Varosha. It means suburb, or ghetto.

Over the centuries, Varosha developed into the liveliest quarter in Famagusta. It’s where the most fruit trees grew, where the best potters lived and the richest merchants resided.

When Hadjitofi was born here, on Feb. 23, 1959, Cyprus was on the brink of civil war. It was a British colony increasingly controlled by Greek and Turkish militias.

Four days before Hadjitofi’s birth, an agreement was signed in London, under which the British accorded Cyprus independence. "A terrible agreement," Hadjitofi says: At that time, 30 percent of the seats in parliament were occupied by Turks, even though Turks accounted for less than 19 percent of the population.

Greek Cypriot nationalists wanted the island to be annexed to Greece. In 1975, they overthrew their own president. Turkey sent its army. In a matter of weeks, it seized control of almost 40 percent of the island. On the day that Hadjitofi’s family fled the Turkish army, a Greek militia killed 126 Turks in the villages around Famagusta. The youngest victim was 16 days old, the oldest was 95.

Hadjitofi walks less than 10 meters from the kiosk on Kennedy Avenue before the policeman calls her back. "Please," he says. "Soon, everything will be open here. Then I will come to your house and we’ll have coffee, OK?"

"Come with me now," she says.

He points to the roof of the Hotel la Paloma. "Cameras everywhere."

Turkish teenagers are swimming at the beach. Hadjitofi read in the newspaper that President Erdoğan had promised "good news" before his visit.

What could be good news for Famagusta?

A political football in a bigger competition

After 1974, Turkey brought tens of thousands of settlers from Anatolia to Cyprus and gave them property and houses in the north. Varosha, the most elegant spot on the island, was fenced in by barbed wire.

Six square kilometers, 105 hotels, 4,649 homes, 21 banks, 14 theaters, 10 cinemas, 14 churches, 380 construction sites.

The homes of 36,000 people now lay right by the UN buffer zone.

Varosha became a political football in a bigger competition: Turkey was planning its own state in northern Cyprus. If the world powers recognized this state, then Turkey was allegedly willing to return Varosha to its residents.

Hadjitofi remembers the rumors back then – that, at the latest, they would be able to go back in one or perhaps two years. They lived in accommodations in Limassol, a town on the southern coast.

The UN Security Council grappled with Cyprus. After Resolution 353 came Resolution 354, followed by Resolutions 355, 357, 358, 359, 360, 361, 364, 365, 367, 370, 383, 391, 401, 410, 414, 422, 430, 440, 443, 451, 458, 472, 482, 486, 495, 510, 526, and 534. In November 1983, Hadjitofi’s home in Famagusta had stood empty for almost 10 years, when Turkey proclaimed the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. No government apart from Turkey’s recognized the state. The barbed wire around Varosha remained in place.

Limousines draw up in front of the kiosk and men with ties get out and head to the beach.

"Are you from Turkey?" Hadjitofi asks.

"No," says one of the men, lighting a cigarette. "We are a delegation from Azerbaijan."

"I come from Famagusta. Five minutes from here."

"Good, good."

"It’s not good at all. I am not allowed to see my house."

"It is now all our country," the man says. "It is my home too, we are part of the big Turkish world. Be grateful that you have been allowed in here."

Hadjitofi goes back to the kiosk, where a man in green shorts is standing in front of the policeman and pointing to his legs.

"Can you see this, goose bumps?"

"I still can’t do it," says the policeman.

Brigitte Bardot on vacation in Cyprus in 1965: The world liked to come to Famagusta.

Brigitte Bardot on vacation in Cyprus in 1965: The world liked to come to Famagusta.

Foto: Sam Levin / CAMERA PRESS / laif

"Just 30 meters from here, 18a Efesou Street, please, just behind the tree."

"I will lose my job."

"Just a photo, please. My grandfather wasn’t allowed to go there, he is dead. My father wasn’t allowed to go there, he is dead. I am 55."

The policeman looks at the ground. Hadjitofi and the man exchange numbers. His name is Dimitris and he works as a clerk on a British military base in Cyprus. He bought an apartment in the neighboring village so that he can see Famagusta from his balcony.

The cross Hadjitofi wears around her neck belonged to her father. When she left Cyprus, he gave her a five-shilling note at the airport. He had written on it: "Safe journey, my tomboy – 14th of November 1976 – Never shame the family."

Eight years ago, she summoned the courage to make the journey to Famagusta because her father wanted to see the city again.

The checkpoint with the turnstile was not yet in place, but you could get close on the sea front. They walked across the beach on the Turkish side and came to the fence with the guard. She went into the water, up to her waist, until she heard the shouts of the Turkish soldiers.

In July 2021 she walks alone on this beach and says, "I buried a refugee." Her father died four years ago.

At the fence, she speaks to two men in wet swimsuits. They say they’re construction workers from Eastern Anatolia. "And what are you doing here?" asks one. "Holiday?"

"Sort of," she answers.

The workers recommend a beach further north where the sand is finer.

On the terrace of the Devran Beach Restaurant, a man with thick eyebrows is eating fish.

"Stavros?" Hadjitofi calls out. The man is well-known on the island. He was a minister in Nicosia and a candidate in the last presidential election in the Greek south, where he won 44 percent of the vote. "Stavros, Erdoğan is coming, how can you sit here with the Turks and eat fish?"

"What is unpatriotic about that, Tasoula?"

DAY 2

Hadjitofi was often in the newspapers in the 1990s. The president of Cyprus was godfather to her son at his christening in Rotterdam, and the archbishop christened her daughter. She was the girl from Famagusta who went to Europe to study computer science and founded the right company at the right time. She trained the employees of international corporations to use computers. Her first customer was Royal Dutch Shell and she earned her first million at the age of 29. Soon she was dining with Queen Beatrix and wearing designer clothes. But she never forgot her island.

After 1974, hundreds of churches were plundered in Northern Cyprus. Hadjitofi decided to track down icons and mosaics on the black market and bring them back to Cyprus. She dealt with art thieves in the Netherlands, briefed police in Germany, paid lawyers in Japan. She wrote a book about it, "The Icon Hunter." She called her NGO Walk of Truth.

No more than 1 percent of the stolen treasures have returned to Cyprus, she says. Only Greek Cypriots care, she says, and the Turkish state will never be prosecuted for the biggest art theft in the history of the island. Turkey has the second-biggest army in NATO.

The European Union and the UN have funded a cultural heritage committee in Cyprus, in which Greeks and Turks work together to renovate churches, mosques and aqueducts. They have also been working for many years on the Apostolos Andreas monastery in the northeast. St. Andrew is very important to Hadjitofi – her brother and her son are named Andreas, and her mother said in 1974 that St. Andrew saved her from the Turkish bombs.

Today Hadjitofi says: "Why restore the Andreas monastery if I am not allowed to pray there without their permission?"

Another Greek-Turkish committee on Cyprus opens mass graves from the time of the civil war. Since 2006, 722 Greeks and 284 Turks have been identified; 788 Greeks and 208 Turks are still missing.

"All the Turks who came after 1974 are illegal immigrants," Hadjitofi says.

On this day, her second day in the ghost town, she is wearing a white silk dress with a floral pattern. She meets Dimitris, the man from Efesou Street 18a, opposite Élysée, a perfume shop. They want to try again – perhaps there is a different policeman on duty at their crossroads today.

In front of Barclays Bank in Democracy Street, a Turkish guard sits in a wooden hut. Hadjitofi speaks to him.

"Where are you from?"

"From Mersin on the southern coast of Turkey."

"When did you come here?"

Married actors Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman on Cyprus in 1960: The Las Vegas of the Mediterranean

Married actors Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman on Cyprus in 1960: The Las Vegas of the Mediterranean

Foto: Fedeli / Hecht Photo Features / CAMERA PRESS / laif

"1975. Our whole village came."

"But why did you come?"

"How should I know? I was eight."

The guard tells her about his work: His shift lasts 24 hours, he brings his food with him, he is not allowed to sleep at night. He has been sitting at this crossroads for 19 years.

"Are you not afraid of ghosts?" she asks him.

"Until 10 years ago, we didn’t have any electricity, only candles. Seven years ago, a colleague disappeared, and we found him three days later. He had collapsed in the house by the open-air cinema."

Tasoula and Dimitris walk toward the sea and remember voices from 1974: the sweetcorn seller in front of the Hadjihambi Cinema, the chestnut vendor in the school park, the Anorthosis Famagusta football fans. She recounts to him how she collected snails in the reeds at the edge of the road.

At the Hotel Golden Mariana, the wind blows a window shut, then open again. In Miaouli Street, which runs parallel to Esperidon Street, Hadjitofi looks back at the Turkish barracks again, and then lifts her dress to climb over the cordon.

She ducks and begins to run. Her sandals get entangled in the grass, she climbs over branches, stones, remnants of fence, dodges a lizard and leaps aside when an owl shoots out of the undergrowth. She runs past two signs with arrows pointing to the Angus Steakhouse from opposite directions. Where she believes her house to be, there is a wall of reeds.

She stands on tiptoe, tears in her eyes, in the bush behind her there is a door. A three-story house.

Turkish soldiers have immortalized themselves in the stairwell. Cengis from Lüleburgaz, April 1975, Ejder from Burdur, January 1980. Hadjitofi holds the hem of her dress in both hands and walks through the rooms on the first floor. Remains of parquet flooring, children’s shoes, a basin with no taps. No furniture, no television. She climbs up to the roof terrace. And smiles.

From here, you can see the tower of the Holy Cross. It’s her church, at the end of Esperidon Street.

The door is nailed shut. Hadjitofi sticks her head through a hole where there was once a windowpane. She sees the bench where she sat as a child and the iconostasis she used to pray in front of. The icons are missing from the iconostasis. Hadjitofi rattles the door. Then she freezes.

She hears the engine of an approaching car, the driver shifts up a gear. She throws herself down on the flagstones of the church and lies there, her face in her hands. The car leaves a cloud of dust.

Hadjitofi smooths down her dress and goes home, 41 Esperidon Street. She counts the houses: No. 13, No. 15, 17. At No. 27, she hears another car. This time, she doesn’t hide.

The driver is a young soldier in sweat-soaked khaki.

"I had to pee," Hadjitofi says. "How come you don’t have any toilets on Kennedy Avenue?"

The soldier blushes. He calls his commander.

DAY 3

Just before Hadjitofi’s birth, her father got into a bar brawl in Famagusta. A pomegranate farmer came to his aid. He became her godfather. The man lives in a Greek village neighboring Famagusta and he has prayed for Hadjitofi for 62 years. Today, his whole family has come together.

Erdoğan has landed on the island. The Turkish president, who calls the Mediterranean a "Turkish lake," opened the beach at Famagusta last autumn and immediately set the tone with a picnic in front of the Argolis Hotel. Today, he wants to reveal his plans for Famagusta.

Hadjitofi brings two cameramen to her godfather’s this afternoon. They are making a documentary about her. She sits on the sofa in front of the television.

Greek Cypriot television is showing a repeat of the talk show "Happy Hour." Turkish television is showing a program on how to dismember a cow. Tomorrow is Eid Al-Adha, which this year coincides with the anniversary of the 1974 invasion. In Turkey, the day of the invasion is called "Festival of Peace and Freedom."

Hadjitofi tells her godfather about the young soldier who arrested her on Esperidon Street. He took her to the checkpoint and said, by way of farewell, that he only had six months left on the island. The Turkish policeman who searched her bag warned her not to do anything stupid again. Then he said he was sorry for her, he understood her – he, too, was a refugee. He had driven to Limassol five times already and he couldn’t stop himself from going to look at the wasteland where his parents’ house stood in 1974.

There is a smell of resin and olive leaves this afternoon as Hadjitofi’s godfather gives her an icon. St. Andrew. She sets it in front of the bowl of incense.

She no longer wants to wait for Erdoğan on television; she wants to show Katie Famagusta. Katie is her godfather’s daughter – she was eight when the family fled. Katie packs a yellow checked child’s dress with buttons on the breast panel. The dress she wore to flee.

DAY 4

Between the second and third checkpoints, Hadjitofi sees clusters of policemen. The day before, Erdoğan spoke to the Turkish parliament in Nicosia, but he didn’t say a word about Famagusta. Apparently, he wanted to save his announcement for today, the anniversary of the invasion.

She wants to speak to Erdoğan after his appearance in Famagusta and ask him whether he would pray with her in her church. If that’s not possible, she will send him a message in writing.

Turkish flags hang from the columned portico of her former art school. Hadjitofi sits on a stone and places a copy of her book, "The Icon Hunter," on her knee. On the cover is a black-and-white photograph of her, taken at a poetry competition in this school. It is the only childhood photograph she has; all the rest were left in the house on Esperidon Street.

She searches for a long time for the right words for President Erdoğan. He needs to understand what she wants.

In July 1989, a refugee from Northern Cyprus filed a complaint at the European Court of Human Rights. She demanded compensation for her house. Seven years later, the Strasbourg judges awarded her almost $1 million. The case triggered a wave of lawsuits and the court ordered all further complaints to be resolved on site in northern Cyprus.

Hadjitofi never filed suit. "It is like sending a rape victim to the rapist," she says.

Her company’s customers include Europol, Eurojust, the European Space Agency and the now-dissolved International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. "Why should I file suit in a state that no one recognizes?" She never filed suit in Strasbourg either. She says she doesn’t want money for her house – she wants to be buried in the graveyard behind her church, and she doesn’t want her children to receive a burial certificate in Turkish.

She opens her book and inscribes it with:

Dear Mr. Erdoğan,

I will pray for you to make the right decision and stop hurting us. Try to save your soul, because the ghosts of Famagusta will follow you. Our tears won’t fit in any mosque. No mosque would be big enough to save your soul. Please give me one hour of your time, anywhere on this planet. Let us speak about truth, peace and reconciliation. Warm regards, Tasoula Hadjitofi, a ghost from Famagusta.

She snaps the book shut. In the garden in front of her a fountain splashes; two days ago, it wasn’t there. A red ribbon is stretched across the entrance and next to it, a man in a suit is waiting with a pair of scissors in his hand. Hadjitofi sees limousines driving up Democracy Street. She walks after them. Behind the Church of St. Nicholas, she sees more Turkish flags.

In a courtyard behind the ruins of a wall, a small mosque is being consecrated. Hadjitofi approaches a policeman and asks: "Is Erdoğan here?"

The officer clicks his tongue – no.

She looks at the shoes at the entrance to the mosque, hears the Turkish national anthem and leaves.

She stops in front of the St. Nicholas, next to an official limousine. A loudspeaker is broadcasting Eid Al-Adha greetings as Hadjitofi kneels and clasps her icon in both hands. She prays for five minutes.

Then she goes to the checkpoint. The policeman who warned her not to do anything stupid is holding his mobile phone in front of his face. He is listening to Erdoğan.

Erdoğan is in Nicosia, 60 kilometers away from Famagusta and his speech is being transmitted live. The president recites a poem: "In the place where the Turkish people were once beaten in chains, where the Turkish people were once slaughtered, today the Turkish flags wave and we are free."

Then Erdoğan says Varosha will be completely opened. "We do not want to take anyone’s property away from them," he says, adding that he will ensure that people can enter the city without being in danger. At first, three percent of the area will be freely accessible and in the long term, Varosha will become a "symbol of peace and prosperity."

Erdoğan doesn’t say who will live here in future. Or who should govern the city. Or which three percent of the area he means.

The policeman at the checkpoint smiles and says, "everything will work out, Tasoula." She hugs him, then gives him the book that she signed for Erdoğan. "Can you make sure he gets it?"

On a hill in northern Limassol, 1-1/2 hours away by car from Famagusta, Hadjitofi’s mother sits in an armchair with her legs propped up, staring at a swimming pool. She is 92. A Filipino caregiver passes her a plate with two peeled mangoes on it.

"Did you see our house?"

"No Mama, but I went to our street with the St. Andreas icon in my hand.”

"I will pray to him to release us finally from the Turks."

Hadjitofi’s lawyer in Athens is examining whether a suit against Erdoğan personally would have a chance.

This autumn, Hadjitofi is planning a march on Famagusta. Hundreds of refugees are to dress up as ghosts and go to their houses.■

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