What does the international community often think when they hear “Cyprus”? A beautiful island country in the Eastern Mediterranean? A heavenly holiday destination? Warm weather and scenic beaches? All of these are true. However, this small and resilient island country also has a dark and criminal history – a history shaped by the Turkish occupation since 1974.
Cyprus gained independence from Britain in 1960 but full independence across the island would not last for long. In the summer of 1974, the Turkish military invaded northern Cyprus twice – first on 20 July and then on 14 August, committing ethno-religious cleansing and crimes against humanity in an attempt to terrorize the Greek Cypriots to push them southward.
Turkey “launched a full scale aggressive attack against Cyprus, a small non-aligned and virtually defenseless country, possessing no air force, no navy and no army except for a small national guard,” Zenon Rossides, the then-Cyprus representative to the United Nations, sent a letter on 6 December 1974 to the UN Secretary General. “Thus, Turkey’s overwhelming military machine embarked upon an armed attack including napalm bombing of open towns and villages, wreaking destruction, setting forests on fire and spreading indiscriminate death and human suffering to the civilian population of the island.”
To invade the island, Turkey used the coup organized by the then ruling Junta of Greece against Cypriot President Makarios. According to the website Kypros.org:
“The coup presented Turkey with the pretext she had long sought. Alleging a right of unilateral military intervention as guarantor of the 1960 Constitution, Turkey 5 days later invaded Cyprus…. Once in Cyprus, instead of restoring the state of affairs under the 1960 Constitution and protecting the human rights of all the people of Cyprus, as was her duty and alleged justification, Turkey, despite the coup having collapsed and democratic government having been restored in Greece, on 14 August 1974 massively extended her invasion to occupy 36.4% of Cyprus, driving out well over 170,000 Greek Cypriot refugees and moving her army to the aptly named ‘Attila line’. That Turkey committed atrocities in the course of her invasion is scarcely surprising in view of her record in the Balkans, in Syria, in Armenia and in Anatolia and her long-standing policies of population expulsion and transfer and of discrimination against non-Turkish ethnic groups.”
These atrocities include murders of Greek Cypriot civilians including children, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances of civilians, wholesale and repeated rapes, eviction and displacement of Greek Cypriots from their homes and land, looting, seizure and distribution of houses and business premises belonging to Greek Cypriots, forced labor of detainees, and cultural destruction of churches and graveyards, among others.
The rapes were also confirmed by a 1976 report by the European Commission of Human Rights.
“Even women of ages up to 80 were savagely raped by members of the Turkish forces,” the report said. “In some areas forced prostitution of Greek Cypriot girls continues to be practiced. Many women who remained in the Turkish occupied areas became pregnant as a result of the rapes committed by the Turkish troops.”
The rapes were so widespread that the Church of Cyprus was compelled to relax its previous strictures on abortion. The Red Cross also reportedly sent pills to the prisoners and enclaved people in the occupied areas in case of pregnancy.
On August 5, 1974, the New York Times reported that “Greek Cypriots from small villages around Kyrenia told stories today of murder, rape and looting by the Turkish Army after its invasion of Cyprus.”
The NYT interviewed victims and eye witnesses of the atrocities. One was a young woman, aged 20, who refused to be identified.
She “told of how she was raped, after she had seen her fiance machine‐gunned with other men in her village. ‘When my fiancé was killed I threw myself into a ditch to hide —I was terrified,’ she said, adding: ‘As I was lying there a Turkish soldier grabbed hold of me. He threw me, to the ground and tore off my clothes. I tried desperately to escape but he was holding me at gunpoint. He said he would kill me. At one point another soldier came up with a baby in his arms. He asked who was the mother. I thought if I said it was mine it might save me. However, when I said I was the mother he threw it to the ground’.”
The crimes committed during the Turkish invasion are well-documented.
“On August 14,” wrote author Victoria Hislop, “the Greek Cypriot population fled in terror, in cars, on buses, by foot, taking nothing but the clothes they stood up in. They expected help from a foreign power, but none came, and their evacuation turned into weeks, then months, then decades.”
As was the case with tens of thousands of other Cypriots, the life of Maria Hadjivasili, who grew up in 1960s Famagusta, also changed completely after the occupation of her town:
“We heard that civilians had been killed and women raped,” she said. “People were anxious for their daughters. I heard that one of my school friends was raped and killed.”
Sadly, during the period of the Turkish invasion, world opinion did not raise much of an outcry. Since there still is no international outrage, the occupation continues and it is accompanied by similar rights abuses.
On June 21, 2013, for example, Koray Başdoğrultmacı and Çinel Senem Hüseyin, a Turkish-speaking Cypriot couple living in the occupied north of Cyprus, were arrested and kept in jail for 6 1/2 hours. Their trial lasted for months, until all charges were dropped against them in June 2015.
Their crime? Flying three Cypriot flags outside their home and shop.
The Turkish government does not even recognize the Republic of Cyprus and calls it the “Southern Greek Cypriot Administration”. “The claim put forth thereafter by the Greek Cypriots to represent the ‘Republic of Cyprus’ has been illegal, and has not been recognized by Turkey,” claims Turkey’s foreign ministry. It also asserts that Cyprus is “geographically an extension of the Anatolian peninsula” and “has never been a Greek island.”
The ministry cannot be more wrong. Cyprus has been a majority-Greek island for millennia – demographically and culturally. The Turkish presence in Cyprus, however, only dates back to the Ottoman occupation from 1571 to 1878. Never until the Turkish military intervention in 1974 did the northern part of Cyprus have a Turkish majority. Both the north and south of the island were majority-Greek and majority-Christian until then. Nonetheless, the myth of Cyprus being a Turkish island is popular with many Turks. In 2018, Erdogan even said at a press conference: “There is no country called Cyprus.”
Before Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, however, its borders were internationally recognized. The document that granted Cyprus independence in 1960 was signed by three “guarantor” states – the United Kingdom, Greece, and Turkey – all of which committed themselves to respect Cyprus’s independence and territorial integrity. The Turkish invasion in 1974, therefore, was a violation of Turkey’s commitments. As a result of the invasion, Turkey has changed the demographic character of the northern part of the island and turned it into a majority-Turkish area.
To this day, refugees and displaced persons are denied their right to return and reclaim their homes and lands in the Turkish-occupied north. Citizens of the Republic of Cyprus are not free to live wherever they wish in their own country. The “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (the “TRNC”) in the occupied north was de-facto manufactured in 1983 by Turks and for Turks. It is recognized by Turkey only.
Since 1974, nothing has changed in occupied northern Cyprus except for the increased number of settlers imported from Turkey. The Turkish government still cannot even tolerate the Cypriot flag in Cyprus and illegally keeps the island divided in a system of apartheid and ethno-religious segregation. For 46 years, the northern part of Cyprus has been ethnically cleansed and colonized at the hands of Turkey, a NATO member and a perpetual candidate for European Union membership.
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. Her writings have appeared in The Washington Times, The American Spectator, The Christian Post, and The Jerusalem Post, among many other news outlets. Bulut’s journalistic work focuses mainly on human rights, Turkish politics and history, religious minorities in the Middle East, and antisemitism.