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AHIF Student Foreign Policy Trip Participants Describe their Personal Experiences (Alexander Velis)

By on January 2, 2019

The American Hellenic Institute Foundation (AHIF) Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus completed its landmark 10th year as ten students from across the United States participated in the 17-day program held June 29 to July 6, 2018. The students’ insightful essays describe their personal experiences from the trip to Greece and Cyprus. Throughout the program, the students received firsthand experience regarding the foreign policy issues affecting Greece and Cyprus, their relations with the United States, and the interests of the U.S. in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Briefings and meetings were held with American embassies, officials from various foreign ministries, members of parliament, the armed forces, prominent think-tanks, and members of academia and the private sector of both countries. The principal events of the trip included a visit to the Turkish-occupied area in Cyprus and a day-trip to Naval Support Activity (NSA) Souda Bay, Crete, where the students toured the NATO Missile Firing Installation (NAMFI) and received numerous briefings. The 2019 Application can be found at https://www.ahiworld.org/students/policy-trip/


A Day in Occupied Cyprus

by Alexander Velis

Alexander Velis

Alexander Velis

The aftermath of the 1974 Turkish invasion of the Republic of Cyprus, still unresolved after four decades, has proven to be one of the longest unsolved international disputes to date. The Turkish government forced thousands to evacuate their homes. The search for over 1,100 Cypriots still missing continues in a country that only houses 1.17 million citizens. By contrast, America, which has a population of 330 million, has 1,251 American soldiers missing in action (MIA) from the Vietnam War.

Today, Turkey occupies 37% of the island with 40,000 Turkish troops. Despite this fact Cyprus has grown to become a beacon of stability in one of the most volatile regions of the world; only a small body of water separates it from Syria, Israel, and Lebanon. Cyprus has strived to form synergies with its neighbors in the Arab World in addition to allies in Europe. The Republic, a member of the European Union and Eurozone, recently has held summits with Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. With this unique and important position, Cyprus has served as a bridge of communication between Europe and the Middle East. Nevertheless, there has been a lack of substantive international pressure on Turkey to withdraw from Cyprus and demilitarize the island.

The most impactful moment I had during my trip to Cyprus was when we visited the occupied region. We had been told that you cannot fully understand the issue until you see it for yourself. I found that statement to be true.

I was a bit startled when I first saw the occupied territory. It appeared to be a lot more rural and underdeveloped compared to the free area. I was also surprised by the plethora of Turkish flags distributed and displayed throughout the region. While the Republic of Cyprus symbolized a country stepped in Greek culture but fully sovereign from Greece, the occupied territory seemed nothing more than a satellite state. The Turkish flag was also frequently paired with the Turkish Cypriot flag; a banner that is essentially the Turkish flag with the opposite coloring. The two most imposing flags on the island are the Turkish flag and Turkish Cypriot flag that face south on the Kyrenia Mountains. Overlooking the occupied area and visible from a substantial portion of the free area, the phrase “Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene” which translates to “How happy is the one who calls himself a Turk” is engraved in the mountain. This is a provocation to residents of the free area who are reminded of the occupation every time they face north.

The students and AHI's President Nick Larigakis at a Greek Air Force base

The students and AHI’s President Nick Larigakis at a Greek Air Force base

One of the most visible developments in the occupied area has been the proliferation of contemporary mosques. They were clearly the most grandiose buildings in the region and were marked by tall flag poles which flew the Turkish and “Turkish Cypriot” flags. It is important to note that the Cypriots were always a very secular people on both ends. Greek and Turkish communities have traditionally coexisted in relative peace. Nowadays, magnificent mosques are often juxtaposed to desecrated Orthodox Churches in the occupied region. Most of the roughly five-hundred Orthodox Churches in the Turkish Cypriot side have been looted and destroyed since the invasion over forty years ago. One of the most disheartening moments of the trip was visiting a ransacked church that resembled an empty shell more than a house of worship. Vile graffiti covered the walls, every window was shattered, and birds flew about the interior of the dome. Near the church were two adjacent cemeteries; one Orthodox and the other Islamic. Every single tombstone of the Orthodox cemetery was ravaged Crosses were split in half and scattered between each burial place. The adjacent Islamic cemetery was in pristine condition. I had never seen such explicit contempt for another person’s faith.

I was also left in shock after visiting the abandoned city of Famagusta. Before the invasion of 1974, the city was one of the world’s most popular touristic hotspots and developed places on the entire island. Today, scores of multi-story buildings are abandoned and enclosed by a tall fence with barbed wire. Only Turkish soldiers are allowed inside the city. At the time of the invasion, my grandfather was stationed in Cyprus as a soldier of the Greek Army. My mother, her sister, and grandmother were staying in Famagusta and endured three days of the conflict before being evacuated. It was surreal to see myself at the place where my mother hid in a hotel basement for days while Turkish planes repeatedly bombed the city at night. Walking on the beach of the city stirred up a feeling of irony in me. Children were laughing and playing in the sand while right behind them Turkish machine guns oversaw a beach right next to a bombarded city frozen in time.

If Turkey’s stranglehold in Cyprus’ northern region endures, the occupied area will continue to drift from the rest of the Republic of Cyprus. This is an outcome Turkey desires, as shown by the mass influxes of illegal settlers into the occupied area. Despite the divide, we can hope that a solution will be reached on day and Cyprus will be reunified for the sake of its own people.

Alexander Velis is a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Gies College of Business studying Finance and International Business. On campus, he is an active member of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship, Hellenic American Student Organization, and Professional Business Fraternity Phi Chi Theta. He also co-hosts Take It Away, a weekly radio talk show on WPGU 107.1 FM.

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