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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 April, 2003, 15:39 GMT 16:39 UK
Cypriots celebrate historic day
Tabitha Morgan
In Nicosia

Turkish Cypriots gazed into the windows of smart clothes shops in Makarios Avenue in southern Nicosia.

Greek Cypriot families wandered anxiously through the narrow and dingy streets in the north of the divided city.

All of a sudden, the impossible was happening.

Turkish Cypriots cross the UN buffer zone for the first time in 29 years
A taste of freedom for Turkish Cypriots after years of isolation

On the first day that travel restrictions between the two sides of the island were eased, several hundred Greek and Turkish Cypriots had their first chance since 1974 to visit each other's half of Cyprus.

It all came about in a matter of hours - after a surprise announcement by Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash that he was amending travel rules, provided that Cypriots from both communities returned home the same day.

While the change was not accompanied by anything dramatic like the destruction of the Berlin wall, it was, nevertheless, an emotional day.

"For nearly 29 years I have been wanting to go through this gate," said one Turkish Cypriot mother with her family waiting on the northern side of the line in central Nicosia, "and now I am free to do so."

Emotional return

"I feel like I am living a dream," said another.

Greek Cypriots were equally incredulous. "I can't believe what I am seeing," said Andreas a taxi driver.

For Turkish Cypriots, the prospect of being able to cross into the much more affluent south opens up major possibilities.

In the past we couldn't even talk to each other
Turkish Cypriot
"There is no work for us in the Northern Cyprus," said Hassan, a student from Kyrenia.

Kemal, who raced towards the Greek Cypriot checkpoint, said his aim was to get a Republic of Cyprus passport so that he could travel to Europe and get a job.

The republic has been admitted into the EU, but membership rights do not apply to the Turkish-occupied northern part of the island.

For many Greek Cypriots, travelling to the north will mean an emotional return to towns and villages abandoned nearly 30 years ago.

"I am from Famagusta, and today I am going to visit my town, my country," said Paschalis Nicolaou, a 51-year-old customs officer, his eyes brimming with tears.

The question being asked on both sides of the UN line is why Mr Denktash, who for decades has discouraged contact between the two communities, has changed his mind.

UN buffer zone dividing north and south Cyprus
A green line has separated the communities since 1974
Diplomats in Nicosia believe that, in part, he is responding to growing public discontent among Turkish Cypriots at their international isolation and economic deprivation.

Over recent months there have been large anti-government demonstrations in northern Nicosia.

No matter how important the latest developments are, Cypriots from both communities question their long-term significance.

For the political issues dividing the two sides are as intractable as ever.

But, as one Turkish Cypriot man said as he crossed to the south of the island, "this is good for the sake of peace.

"In the past we couldn't even talk to each other, and now we will have the chance to do that."

Cyprus border opens
23 Apr 03  |  Europe
In pictures: Cyprus border reopens
23 Apr 03  |  Photo Gallery
Timeline: Cyprus
23 Apr 03  |  Country profiles
Country profile: Cyprus
11 Mar 03  |  Country profiles

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