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Cynthia Cockburn has been spending time in Cyprus working with a women's bi-communal project...

Enough is enough! Demonstrating for peace in Cyprus

A small group of Cypriot women, calling themselves “Hands Across the Divide”, has started actively campaigning for peace in Cyprus. They have to communicate by email, because face to face meetings between people living in north and south Cyprus are so difficult to achieve.

Since 1974, the island of Cyprus has been divided by a barbed-wire fence, which runs from coast to coast and through the heart of the principal city of Nicosia. This UN partition line was set up during a period of ethnic violence, compounded by meddling on the part of other nations with an interest in the region. Ever since, the Turkish Cypriot population of the north of the country has lived in complete separation from the mainly Greek

Cypriot population of the south. There's only one checkpoint in the “Green Line”, and a Cypriot can't cross it without permission. Recently, such permissions are rarely given.

Women organising

Hands Across the Divide was formed in March 2001, and one of its immediate aims was to press for more freedom of contact and communication right away between the two parts of Cyprus, and for early progress towards a solution to “the Cyprus problem”.

As a group they want the right to organise freely together. At a personal level they want to be able to visit friends as and when they like, roam in every part of the island, and in general stop living under intimidation from a continual threat of renewed violence. Turkish Cypriots are also very fed up with the isolation and poverty of northern Cyprus.

A ray of sunshine?

Decisions are going to be taken very soon about the pace and terms of Cyprus's accession to the European Union. This has concentrated the minds of some politicians - Cypriot, and Turkish in particular, but also the US, Britain and EU member states have had to refocus on their responsibilities. And the result is: “peace talks”

In early December, Glavkos Clerides and Rauf Denktash, respectively the leaders of the two parts of Cyprus, startled Cypriots by announcing that they would meet, for the first time in four years. First, in December, the two veteran politicians non-committally entertained each other to dinner. Now, from 16 January, serious sustained peace negotiations have begun. While war breaks out or continues in a lot of other places in the world, in this corner of the Eastern Mediterranean there's a ray of sunshine.

Pressing for action

The women of Hands Across the Divide have been quick to seize the moment. They are determined not to let the government of the south of Cyprus take Greek Cypriots into the EU without getting a constitutional agreement first that will bring Turkish Cypriots into “Europe” simultaneously. They wrote a letter for UN officials to deliver to the two men during their first meeting.

Turkish Cypriot women have been out on the streets from the start of the process. Drivers in the early morning rush hour traffic have been faced with placards reading: “Enough! Agree - Solve it - Sign up - And Into the European Union!”.

Dinner date...

When Clerides crossed to the northern part of the island to have dinner with Denktash, women in the northern part with candles flew white doves and white balloons and carried a placard in Turkish and Greek saying, “Peace: Let's go for a shared country!”

When Denktash crossed to the southern part for dinner with Clerides, this time women from the southern part did the same, carried the same placard and flew doves, expressing their desire for peace. Women from the north were at the check-point at the same time in the north, lighting candles and singing Cypriot songs in Turkish and Greek. When Denktash and Clerides met on 16 January the women carried even tougher messages: “Sign or resign” and “Reunite the island or we will do it!”.

Involving civil society

In the north the activity of Hands Across the Divide is framed within an alliance of women's organisations called the Women's Civic Initiative for Peace who in turn act in concert with a much larger alliance of progressive groups called “The 41 Organisations”.

In the south the women of Hands

Across the Divide are on the streets alongside other bi-communal groups in what hopefully will become a wide mobilisation of civil society organisations.

Women in peace negotiations

Hands Across the Divide want women to be enabled to make an input to negotiations about a future Cyprus - scarcely a controversial demand since a landmark UN Security Council Resolution of Oct 2000 called for the inclusion of women and a gender perspective in all peace-making processes and peace-keeping operations. This is the very first public political intervention by a bi-communal women's group in Cyprus. More action is planned. We'll keep you informed.

Hands Across the Divide welcome correspondence to handsacrossthedivide-owner@yahoogroups.com

Cynthia Cockburn is carrying out a research project on women's perspectives on the conflict situation and current peace process in Cyprus that involves her supporting and spending time with the "Hands Across the Divide" bi-communal women's group during 2001 and 2002.

Topics: War and peace | Women