Fellow Adam Hirsch in front of a Cyprus Airways Trident Jet that has been abandoned since 1974.
Last week the staff of PPI – Cyprus had the unique opportunity to visit the old Nicosia International Airport for a meeting with the United Nations Peacekeeping Force, Civil Affairs Head. The airport, which has been shut down and closed to visitors since 1974, is now the headquarters for the UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus.
The empty terminal is surrounded by barbed wire.
Cyprus has been separated since 1974 as a result of the war, causing movement of populations, many missing people and much more destruction. Since that time, the island has been divided by a 112 mile long UN controlled buffer zone. The buffer zone is like a “no man’s land” surrounded by barbed wire and full of empty fields, mines and abandoned buildings. Yet, in the middle of this nothingness, sits the old Nicosia International Airport just as it was 37 years ago.
The airport used to be the principal airport for Cyprus beginning after its initial construction in the 1930s. During the conflict of 1974 the airport was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting between Greek-Cypriot and Turkish forces, which led the UN Security Council to declare it a Protected Area during the conflict. After a ceasefire was signed, Nicosia Airport became part of the buffer zone separating the two communities on the island and has remained inoperable ever since.
Nicosia used to be the main airport for all of Cyprus.
Because of its significance and location, the old airport has been the sight of many interactions between the two communities since the war. The abandoned tarmac was chosen as the site where the remains of the dead of both sides were exchanged as part of a long term project of research, location and identification by Bicommunal Committee for Missing People, many of which were found in mass graves. Some of PPI-CY’s own coaches have sad memories of having to identify lost loved ones. For me, walking around the giant airport was a surreal experience. A sign instructing people to “please not tip the porters” still stood in the terminal, and barbed wire weaved around fallen debris like vines overtaking an ancient ruin. In the center still stood a Cyprus Airways Trident Airliner slowly disintegrating like a ghost ship from the past.
The airport in Nicosia houses forgotten planes from the conflict during 1970s.
After wandering around the site, we got ready for our meeting with the UN. For a long time one of our goals has been to locate an area of the buffer zone where we could hold bicommunal basketball tournaments. Having our events in the buffer zone allows participating children to come and play without having to pass any borders, show their IDs, or potentially get harassed by border patrols. However, playing in the buffer zone is more than just practical; it is also a symbol for PPI-CY’s mission in Cyprus. Children from two communities, divided for generations by stereotypes and fears, would be able to come together on the very ground that used to separate them to put old hatreds behind them and begin to play for peace.
The remnants of the airport resembles a ghost town.
The morning was definitely one I would never forget. To stand in a place full of so many bad memories was overwhelming. Yet, we were there planning for a better future; a future where children from all backgrounds could play without having to remember the horrors of the past. Our meeting with the UN went very well, and many possible opportunities to play basketball in the buffer zone were discussed. We now need to work to make these hopes a reality. And I eagerly await writing about our first basketball tournament in the buffer zone.