This imagery is everywhere in Belfast, infamously immortalized on the sides of buildings in larger than life murals. After a while, you have to remind yourself that this is not normal for a city, reads as an overt threat for certain populations, and also that it is legitimately terrifying.
Last week, I had an amazing opportunity to visit the Buffer Zone in Nicosia on a UN-escorted tour. For an hour on a chilly morning, Michal, a peacekeeper from Slovakia, showed me the rarely-seen parts of the world’s last divided capital. Photo opportunities were limited, and I was told very seriously, “do not point your camera at the Turkish positions,” but even so, I came away with lots of fascinating stories and pictures. Here’s a sampling:
The view of the Buffer Zone from the edge of the Venetian Walls. Decrepit buildings dominate this heavily militarized strip of land, while everyday life continues no more than 50 meters away.
This building served as a high school until 1974. Now its sandstone walls are riddled with bullet holes as it falls into ruins.
The flags of Greece and Cyprus fly amidst tall grass and crumbling structures. Any changes to the Buffer Zone create military advantages and disadvantages, so it has remained largely untouched to preserve the terms of the cease-fire, if not the historic buildings.
A bathroom in shambles. Residents fled their homes when the fighting started, never to return.
UN Peacekeepers maintain a collection of footballs that have been lost to the Buffer Zone.
An elderly woman named Annie continued to live in this house long after fighting divided the city. Special arrangements and checkpoints were made to accommodate her. When she finally died, soldiers from both sides of the conflicts attended her funeral to pay their respects.
UN Peacekeepers have left their mark on the Buffer Zone, taking advantage of soft sandstone walls to carve a slogan, or the name of their lovers.
Bullet holes still mark the intensity of street-to-street fighting that took place during the Turkish invasion. The entire Buffer Zone feels as though it has been lost to time, and it is easy to imagine a sniper peering through this window as we walk past.
My informative and protective escort, Michal, pauses during the tour. He will serve in Cyprus for another year and enjoys his work, but is not especially optimistic that the Cyprus Problem will be solved anytime soon.
Our bus of Israeli and international activists was stopped en route to a demonstration in the village of Bil’in this morning at a temporary checkpoint in the West Bank. Because of police action, we were denied the right to demonstrate at the seventh anniversary of the world-famous protests against the wall in Bil’in. A police officer boarded the bus at 11:25am and collected everyone’s identification for a “routine check.” For myself and other internationals, this meant reluctantly handing over our passports. We sweated it out for about ten minutes on the bus, before being asked to disembark. An experienced international activist called the other foreigners together and discussed with us the merits of attempting to walk through the checkpoint sans passport. It could, he argued, confuse the police and force their hand, which would probably result in us getting our passports back, and possibly result in our arrest. Luckily, we didn’t have to choose because after another five minutes or so, our IDs were passed back unscathed.
However, this did not mean that our path forward had been blessed by the police. On the contrary, we had been deemed a potential security threat and were ordered to return to Jerusalem. A loud discussion in Hebrew ensued, while more officers arrived on the scene and began filming us, recording our faces for posterity. I’m not sure what, if anything, will become of this footage. There wasn’t much to see. We were just standing there. They already knew exactly who we were from our passports. I’m sure they had already updated our information in whatever huge database the Israeli police are maintaining on its population and those who enter their country. Even so, I put on sunglasses and ducked a bit.
Then, the police gave us an ultimatum: get back on the bus in five minutes, or be arrested. All of this in Hebrew. The internationals were getting spotty translations from anyone with a spare ear and the presence of mind to think bi-lingually. Then our party began to splinter apart. A few attempted to walk forward, sat down, and were arrested. I got back on the bus with a handful of others. Another man sat down and refused to move. Four officers carried him to a police car. All in all, eight activists were arrested, Israelis and internationals alike. They squeezed seven people into the police cars (over capacity, I believe), and one man, an Israeli-Palestinian, was left behind to wait for another vehicle to take him away. I don’t know what happened to him.
About ten of us remained on the bus, but our adventure with the police was far from over. They had kept the drivers’ ID, and were holding it until we were back in Jerusalem and they were satisfied that our venture in the West Bank was spoiled. We had no choice but to follow a police car for perhaps 20 minutes until they finally let us go somewhere in North Jerusalem. During the ride, I learned that the police had known of our plans (unclear how) and set up the checkpoint specifically to intercept us. We had received a very unusual military order, only valid in the West Bank, featuring a map with a red box drawn around Bil’in. The police were preventing “suspicious” people from entering this area. Another bus (maybe from Tel Aviv) was also stopped.
We headed to the police station in Giv’at Ze’ev where the other members of our party were detained. We learned that the detention center only had room for half of the people they had detained, so some were inside, while others waited outside in the increasingly nasty weather. Clouds blew in and the temperature dropped. There were rumors of snow in Ramallah later on, and we were all expecting rain. We also learned that the majority of the activists had just been detained, not arrested, and they could only be held for three hours. However, it is subjective when the three hours starts, so we worried that the activists waiting outside might not start their three hours until the first group was released and they could be moved inside. With Shabbat approaching, this could make things unpleasant for getting home that evening.
Some of the activists were making phone calls to lawyers, another pair ran off to buy food for the detainees. We waited for maybe an hour and a half, and the suddenly most of our companions were released. The Israeli-Palestinian, who had actually been arrested “for refusing arrest” was not among them. By this time, food had arrived and it was 3pm. We tore into the bread and fruit outside the station as it began to rain.
It was extremely frustrating to be prevented from going to the protest in Bil’in, especially because this was my one and only chance to attend. However, the experience reminded me of a paper presented at a Border Conflicts conference I attended last Fall which argued that modern borders are being moved back into countries, manifested in airports, cities, and of course, checkpoints. They are no longer geographically tied to the borderline itself. This paper was based on the situation in Ukraine, but the theory was demonstrated clearly today in Israel/Palestine. What better case study than a country where borders operate on a de-facto basis and are still being formed and defined? The police who stopped us at the checkpoint today represent a wall that is every bit as real and physical as the concrete blocks that loom in the West Bank.