Beyond the beaches: landmines in Cyprus

by Sophie Broach

Known for its beautiful beaches and extravagant shopping opportunities, Cyprus is also home to some 15,000 unexploded landmines. I have to assume the majority of tourists that flock to the beaches of Famagusta Bay have no idea that a few miles inland lies one of the island’s four remaining minefields.

Over the last six years, a UN program has removed 27,000 landmines laid in the buffer zone after the inter-ethnic violence of 1974. The project has opened large areas to resettlement and farming, removing a physical barrier to Cyprus’s reunification and helping to eliminate an enduring legacy of violence.

When three of us visited The UN Mine Action Centre in Cyprus (UNMACC) last week, we found the office crowded with cardboard boxes and the leader of the program absent in Libya. UNMACC is wrapping up operations of its roughly €400 million project, citing “lack of access to remaining minefields.” This problem of access is purely political. Both the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the southern Republic of Cyprus have refused to allow UNMACC to clear mines in contested areas where Cypriot governments assert UN jurisdiction does not apply. Erik Nikiforous of UNMACC explained that both sides have used the existence of mines as “a political chip…in give and take negotiations.” One will not remove its mines until the other agrees to do so, though Nikiforous estimated Cypriot removal efforts without UN assistance will take ten times longer. The two governments seem more inclined to yield to the undesirable status quo rather than work together to improve the island’s physical environment and help put to rest persistent tensions.

Meanwhile, landmines continue to affect civilians though the most intense North-South violence ended almost four decades ago. Farmers sometimes jeopardize their lives by plowing dangerously close to mines in an effort to maximize crop yields. Nikiforous showed us a picture of an anti-tank mine nestled in the weeds beside a furrow. The plow had missed it by 7.5 cm.

Nikiforous estimated there have been 22 mine-related casualties since UNMACC began in 2006, including a man who followed his dog into a field and a suicidal driver who zigzagged across the ground until his car hit an anti-tank mine. But these are only the reported incidents. Human traffickers sometimes choose deserted mine-ridden areas to smuggle illegal immigrants across the border from the TRNC leading to unreported injuries and deaths.

The UNMACC itself contributed to Cyprus’s diverse immigrant community by attracting workers from Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Professional de-miners often travel to regions of conflict across the world after gaining expertise in their own mine-plagued countries. I assumed the salary in this dangerous line of work would be high and made an uninformed comment indicating so. Nikiforous replied, “I can tell you [the salary], but you’ll hate yourself for being American, and I’ll hate myself for being British.” He didn’t tell us, but I did feel a flare of hatred for the gruesome unfairness of the whole situation. Mines are already expensive to remove, generally costing upwards of $1,000 each while costing merely $1 to implant. Without cheap labor, surely more mines would persist, causing more deaths and environmental degradation. But do things have to operate this way? Especially in ritzy Cyprus?

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