by Eli Markham
On Thursday, our first full day in Cyprus, we traveled to the United Nations Protected Area to meet with Rolando Gomez, press secretary for UNFICYP (“un-fi-sip” in the local lingo). Over the next few hours we were charmed and impressed by the United Nations effort in Cyprus.
First we received an impromptu tour of the old Nicosia airport, which was originally built to serve the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. The main terminal was world class when it was built in 1968. It had air conditioning, exterior fountains, a five-star restaurant, and automatic doors, all unprecedented for the island. Now it also has bullet holes in the windows and an abandoned plane a hundred meters away, grounded in the 1974 fighting, just six years after the terminal’s completion. Because the UN mandate is to preserve the area, they can’t even move a brick without permission. As a result the airport has been preserved and allows a glimpse to the world of 1970s air travel, when jet planes were such a novelty that tourists came to the airport just to watch them take off.
During the subsequent meeting with Gomez we discussed the current state of affairs in Cyprus, the role of the United Nations in the negotiations, and the prospects for peace, among other issues. He was optimistic, predicting that significant progress would be made between July 2011 (after the Turkish mainland elections) and 2013 (next election for President of the Republic of Cyprus).
We were struck by the sense that the UN mission on Cyprus is not a permanent one. Every six months the mandate comes up for renewal, and it is renewed, but eventually it won’t be. Parts of the operation are already departing. The head of the Mine Action Centre (responsible for clearing the buffer zone of mines) is in Benghazi, and the entire Mine Action Centre is packing up this month. The main peacekeeping force is down to around 800 soldiers from a peak of 5,000, and the UNDP program is also downsizing. Right now UNFICYP’s main purpose might be facilitating communication between the military on each side.
The UN won’t be going anywhere for another couple of years. But it’s not hard to imagine that UN resources might be better spent in Congo or Cote D’Ivoire. The divided island feels surprisingly at peace about the situation. If the current round of peace talks, begun in Sept 2008, fails to produce peace, the Cypriots might be left on their own.