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Last Updated: Monday, 13 September, 2004, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
School's fresh start tests Cyprus thaw
By Tabitha Morgan
BBC News, Rizokarpasso, northern Cyprus

For the first time in 30 years a Greek Cypriot secondary school in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus has opened its doors to pupils.

Rizokarpasso school
The Rizokarpasso school has hardly changed in the past 30 years
The village of Rizokarpasso in the remote north-eastern tip of Cyprus remained inhabited by Greek Cypriots even after the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974.

But in an attempt to drive Greek Cypriots away, the village secondary school was closed.

Many children were forced to travel to the Greek Cypriot south for their education and, once there, the Turkish authorities prevented them returning home.

Now the more liberal administration of Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat has decided to reopen the village school again.

Greek Cypriots in Rizokarpasso were excited as they took delivery of a consignment of cooking gas canisters along with sacks of rice and onions.

These regular deliveries from the government in the south send an important message to the isolated Greek Cypriots in the north of the island - that they are not forgotten.

Exodus

Before the 1974 Turkish invasion - an event prompted by a Greek-backed military coup - about 2,000 Greek Cypriots lived here.

Thirty years later the community has dwindled to 500 - largely because the Turkish Cypriot authorities closed the village school.

Those who chose education in the south of the island were not allowed to return.

Greek Cypriot Polakis Sarris, commissioner in charge of humanitarian affairs, says that for 30 years the Greek Cypriots have been living "under threats, afraid to speak freely, even among themselves".

"Until this year the people had three choices: to stay in Rizokarpasso and not offer their children any further education; second, to send their children to areas where the (Greek Cypriot) government has full control, to stay in houses that the government would provide; or third, to abandon their places in order to be with their children and support them".

Back to school

Andri Illia, 13 (left) with her mother Maria and younger sister Kiriakoulla
Andri (left), with her mother and younger sister, prepare a local soup
The junior school in Rizokarpasso is where 13-year-old Andri Illia spent the first part of her school career, until last year.

Her parents then decided they had no option but to leave their home and farmland and move to government housing in the south of the island, for her to attend school there.

Andri is excited that her village will at last have a secondary school - and is keen to talk about her favourite subjects.

Now her parents hope that other Greek Cypriot families will be encouraged to return to their village to live.

Eager teachers

At the start of term for pupils across Cyprus, the newly-opened Rizokarpasso secondary school only has 24 pupils. But for villager Tassos Archondites, the school's enthusiastic new maths teacher, it has provided a chance to go home.

The existence of Greeks in Rizokarpasso goes back to ancient times, everything there is Greek
Polakis Sarris
Greek Cypriot humanitarian affairs commissioner
"This is the most important part of my career... Twenty years, and now the school is opened! I am really excited. We won't bother anybody, we'll just do our job as teachers, nothing else."

But much has changed in the past 20 years and Tassos and his colleagues may find that just doing their job is not that easy.

Since the island was partitioned the population of the village has changed dramatically.

Turkish settlers

Turks from the nearby mainland have gradually settled in the village, moving into homes that departing Greek Cypriots left behind them.

Those playing table football in the village coffee shop were apprehensive about a possible influx of Greek Cypriots and a revival of Hellenic culture.

Zia Alkan, from Turkey, has lived in the village for 11 years.

"It's quite natural for the GCs [Greek Cypriots] to demand to have a secondary school for their children, because nobody would like to send their 12-year-old child away just to study.

"So we think this is a humanitarian issue. But what we have been reading from GC newspapers - they say things like the 'rebirth of Hellenism' or 'return of Hellenism to North'."

But for Mr Sarris, the region will always be inherently Greek.

"This is a wrong feeling by the Turks. The existence of Greeks in Rizokarpasso goes back to ancient times, everything there is Greek. It's not something that Turkey can stop from one moment to another."

The villagers say they just want to be left alone and that without political interference the Greek Cypriot and Turkish communities might be able to live alongside one another amicably.

Their success or failure - and that of the school - may be an important indicator of whether the two communities are ready to put the past behind them.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Tabitha Morgan
"The re-opening of the school has huge symbolic significance"



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