Zenovia’s secret (Chapter 22)
Posted by: Maria Atalanti
Published on: 30/10/2022Back to Blog
The novel is the product of fiction. None of the characters described are real.
Lellos Demetriades and Mustafa Akinci, are real persons and the roles attributed to them in the chapter are their real roles. The interview that follows is an actual interview with Mr. Akinci and all the answers were given by him. Nothing has been changed.
Cyprus – Summer 2021
-Mr. Akinci I am an Australian journalist, with Cypriot origin. I have come to Cyprus to find my roots. As a journalist, though, I am interested about the Cyprus political problem. I have spoken with a lot of people, and I have heard a lot of what has happened all these years. From all these I was impressed by the way, you and Mr. Lellos Demetriades, had acted after 1974. Mr. Lellos Demetriades’ health does not allow him to give interviews, so you are the only person that can tell me what had happened and the motivation you had. You were the mayor of the Turkish Cypriot part of Nicosia and Mr. Lellos Demetriades of the Greek Cypriot part. Did you know Mr. Demetriades, before the facts of 1974?
Thank you for your interest in the Nicosia Master Plan and our cooperation with Mr Demetriades. As you say, we were the respective mayors of Nicosia. Lellos was mayor from 1971 and I became mayor in 1976. We didn’t know each other before 1974.
-How did you decide to work along with Mr. Demetriades, for this cause? There was a bloody separation of Nicosia and you have acted, very soon after, for the future unification of Nicosia. That was very brave of you both. Who took the first step?
The truthful answer to this question is that initially, mutual need necessitated this cooperation. The Nicosia sewerage project was underway only on the Greek Cypriot side before the events of 1974 but when the war erupted, the work ceased in July of that year. Construction of the sewerage treatment plant located to the east of the city near Mia Milia/ Haspolat was left incomplete and some of the main sewerage trunks were now on the Green Line, meaning that these too could not be completed.
So, at this point the Greek Cypriot side was in a very difficult position. They were collecting taxes from the Greek Cypriot inhabitants of the town, raising funds for the sewerage system mainly through the immovable property tax of all the households which were to be connected to the system. But when the project was forced to stop and the system could not begin to operate, the Greek Cypriot municipality faced real trouble.
Beyond the issue of tax collection, the sewerage system was badly needed in Nicosia due to the fact that the city was densely populated. A great deal of people was living in multi-storey buildings and the city required an infrastructural upgrade in order to function effectively. In the north, the situation was even worse because we didn’t have any project underway at all during that time and the soil in the northern part of the city was clay in most areas, meaning that it couldn’t absorb the effluent coming from the houses. Finding ways to cope with this situation was one of the biggest headaches for the municipality; having to try to empty the absorption pits from the households, which were filling up within a few hours of emptying them. Therefore, on one side of the city there were ongoing sewerage works which were halted due to the events of the summer, while on the other side there wasn’t even a project under design.
So, when the Greek Cypriot side wanted to do something about this situation, they had two options. The first option was to try to build another treatment plant elsewhere given that the one in Mia Milia now lay north of the dividing line and was therefore inaccessible to them. This option was physically and financially unfeasible however, given that a new site would mean that the sewage would be running against gravity, thus needing to be pumping all the time and requiring more energy and more funds. The second option was to find ways to cooperate with the Turkish Cypriot side to make the system run.
This idea for cooperation cropped up in 1977, when I was around one year into my mayorship. As I’ve explained, a major issue for us was the need for proper sewerage in the northern part of the city as the absorption pits were not able to cope. In addition, there were three factories, (one for flour, one for cold drink and one milk factory) which were discharging all their effluent without prior treatment into the Pedieos riverbed, creating a real nuisance and a potential health hazard. In other words, we also had an urgent need for a sewerage system in the north.
So, you see, it was the circumstances which necessitated this cooperation. It started with a mutual need, but from there onwards as you can imagine, real leadership was required on both sides in order to manage the challenges and obstacles created by certain political actors who were against bi-communal projects. But also logistically, this was a huge project. To implement a sewerage system in already inhabited cities is one of the most difficult infrastructural projects possible. Sewerage is one of the first elements of infrastructure needed when building a city from scratch, but our city had already been populated for hundreds of years. Imagine having to dig up the floor to implement repair works in a house that you’re already living in – it’s the same for cities.
We also faced another problem in the northern part of the walled city of Nicosia. The streets in the Nicosia old town are narrow and in addition to a lack of sewerage we didn’t have proper water supply. We had to dig two trenches, one for the sewerage and one for water pipes. So, in some areas, whole streets were dug up and it was impossible to even walk down them.
I also strived to achieve something which wasn’t part of the original plan; I agreed to cooperate with the Greek Cypriot side on the condition that the project be extended to the north. I didn’t feel it would be fair to agree that we’d finalise the treatment plant and the main trunks in order to start operating the system without agreeing to add the northern part of the city into the system. So it was agreed that areas of the Turkish Cypriot side of Nicosia would be added to the project in phases. In the first phase the northern half of the walled city and the area of Çağlayan, to the north of the walled city, was incorporated into the project. Today as everyone knows, not only the southern part of Nicosia is connected to the system but also the northern part up to and including Gönyeli. And it works well. It is perhaps one of the very rare examples where Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots worked together and achieved something collectively; where they could not be stopped.
Beyond including the northern part of the city into the system, another part of the agreement was to share the expenses fairly. On that point, I insisted that financial contribution should be decided by usage, i.e. both sides would contribute according to how much effluent they were pumping. There were other matters to be agreed upon as well but these two were the most important.
So, this is how the project began.
After our success with the sewerage system, we prepared the Nicosia Master Plan which was another very important project for the city. The Master Plan team consisted of architects, city planners, engineers, sociologists, etc. We worked with the help of World Habitat and international experts to prepare a plan involving the two sides of Nicosia. In my view, one of the major achievements of the Plan was that we were able to save the walled city of Nicosia.
The importance of the historical buildings as well as the fabric of the walled city was highlighted in this Master Plan, and we were able to raise awareness in order to preserve and inject life into this part of Nicosia. Notably, in 1986 we introduced pedestrianisation to the old city, namely Arasta street in the north and Ledras and Onasagorou streets in the south. The wall at Lokmacι was of course still in place in those days, but our vision was that one day it would be pulled down. We felt that to have a pedestrianised zone on one side and a traffic jam on the other would jeopardise the sense of harmony and so we pedestrianised the whole area. The hope was that one day, people would walk and shop through the streets safely and sit and enjoy their coffee. In this, we succeeded. Since 2008, when the wall came down, whenever I go to the area, I feel a sense of happiness knowing that the area is used as we had envisaged. Moreover, we raised awareness about the cultural heritage importance of our old inns, the Büyük Han and Kumarcılar Hanı. This legacy of pedestrianisation has continued with successive mayors and the current mayor Mehmet Harmancı, who recently pedestrianised Zahra Street opposite Ledra Palace.
So the Nicosia Master Plan was the second achievement following the sewerage system initiated by Lellos and myself. We were awarded the Europa Nostra Medal of Honour for this work. The Master Plan was also recognised by international organisations, for example it received the World Habitat Award and Aga Khan Award which were other proud moments for us as initiators of the project.
-How did you manage to overcome the practical difficulties? There were other authorities on both sides that you should convince that your cause was important, and they should help you, or at least not prevent you. I am sure there were fanatical people, on both sides, that were against these How did you manage to face them?
It is important to mention at this stage that the project was financed by the World Bank. Later, when the two sides began to cooperate, the EU also started providing some assistance to this project. It was perhaps the first time bicommunal infrastructural projects on the island were awarded EU funds. In those days the Republic of Cyprus had not yet applied for EU membership but there were financial protocols through which they were receiving aid in order to help upgrade the economy. At some point we also received funds through this protocol. So as you can see there were international actors involved, including the UN. But there were of course local actors who didn’t like the idea, particularly on our side. At the time I belonged to an opposition party and not that of the central government. We heard fanatic nationalist arguments accusing me of bringing Greek Cypriot effluent to Turkish Cypriot territories and creating a nuisance. Admittedly, sewage is not the most pleasant of all things but in this case the effluent was coming from both sides. It was mixed and couldn’t be separated.
Certain fanatics from time to time called for authorities to block the sewerage system in order to prevent Greek Cypriots from sending their effluent but I would point out that the presidential palace was also connected to the system and that if blockages were caused, nobody could predict where the sewage would come out! I also maintained that there is no difference between what Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots produce. It smells the same and has the same colour.
So in the minds of some fanatic nationalist circles I was a traitor. But they couldn’t stop the project. It has continued under various different mayors until today. The treatment system we erected and started to operate in 1980 was a lagoon system. For a system like this you need a large area, and sometimes the aerators for the lagoons didn’t work properly, which gave rise to bad smells. Around 10-15 years ago a new system was built with the help of EU aid, called a compact membrane system. This is a newer technology than the lagoon system. It requires much less area and is cleaner, so now the effluent is much better treated. It’s a pity that they haven’t started making use of the water, e.g., for irrigation purposes.
It was important to me to gain the support of the people. I organised a dinner for journalists – mainly those who were highly critical of the project – and exhibited the old drinking water pipes on a nearby table. One of the journalists present recalled that seeing those pipes in such a rusted, broken and unhealthy condition, while making it difficult to eat the meal properly, helped to understand how important the project was.
People in old Nicosia began to have pressurised water in their homes for the first time and they were pleased with the new system. We completed the first phase of the sewerage project in 1986 but we hadn’t yet paved all of the streets with asphalt. But when people see the benefit of something, you gain their support, and in the end, I was re-elected. The fanatics existed of course, as they exist today and will exist tomorrow on both sides. In order to rise to the challenges, it’s crucial to gain the support of your people.
-I believe it was difficult to take the decision to start all this. After deciding though, I would like you to describe to me your feelings and your vision for the future of Nicosia and Cyprus. I think, and correct me if I am wrong, that from all the actions taken by all the politicians, all these years, it was the only one that was successful up to the end. Please comment on this.
I think your assessment that this was the only successful initiative from beginning to end is correct, and indeed it continues successfully. I hope that it will continue to be successful for as long as Nicosia exists, because this is a joint and inseparable system. Just as humans cannot live without any kidneys, so a town cannot survive without a sewage treatment plant.
-Mr. Akinci, you have represented the Turkish Cypriot in the Intercommunal Talks for a period of five years. Although these efforts did not succeed to solve the Cyprus problem, all the Greek Cypriots I have met, think the best of you and respect you enormously. I would like to hear your vision about the future of Cyprus and if you think it is possible to be unified in the near future.
Thank you for your kind words. Throughout my political career, not only when I was representing my community as president* for five years but also when I was mayor, or party leader or MP, I tried my best to help solve the Cyprus problem. My presidency* was my greatest opportunity to work towards this aim, and after the lost opportunity of the Annan Plan, we once again came very close to the possibility of a solution during that time. Unfortunately, due to well-known reasons that I have explained on several occasions, we were not able to conclude the agreement.
For the foreseeable future, unfortunately I don’t see any opportunity to bring about a federal united Cyprus, which in itself still seems to be the only mutually agreeable solution. The positions of the two sides are currently too far apart.
My experience up to now has shown me that it will be unrealistic from now on, to expect a solution from the leaders. It will have to come from the grassroots on both sides.
Is this possible? It is of course very difficult; it requires determination and hard work. But future generations should not lose hope.
-Thank you very much, Mr Akinci, for such a detailed and full description of the events of that time. I hope that other politicians in this country will follow your example. That is why I am recording these events. Perhaps I can inspire people to overcome the surrounding atmosphere of hostility and suspicion and fight for peace.
Note from the author of Cosmosblog:
* Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is recognized as a state, only by Turkey.