This interesting novel deals with arguably the most significant of the all-too-many unresolved issues of European geo-politics – the division of Cyprus. It does via the lives of a number of characters, some Greek Cypriot and some Turkish Cypriot, living in Famagusta, an important port city with a rich history which by the early 1970s was one of Europe’s most prestigious tourist centres. “The Sunrise” is a luxury hotel, which two of the characters own and most of the others work in or are otherwise associated with.
We hear about the history of the families involved, and learn of the deaths of several of their relatives in the conflicts of the 1960s. Then we see the Turkish invasion of 1974, during which Famagusta was bombed and then occupied, and pretty much the entire population fled. To this day, Varosha, the tourist area where the posh hotels were, remains a ghost town: after more than forty years, and despite attempts by the UN to intervene, it’s still fenced off. No-one’s allowed to go there, and the hotels are sitting there, empty, falling apart.
One of the main storylines is the gang rape of a major character by Turkish soldiers. Mass sexual violence against women was perpetrated by both sides, as it was in the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s – to such an extent that the Cypriot Orthodox Church agreed to the legalisation of abortion. Several other characters are killed. Most of those who survive end up in London. And, again as happened in the former Yugoslavia of the 1990s, there was “ethnic cleansing” – the expulsion of people who were in the “wrong” area for their ethnic group. And there was also considerable destruction of important cultural treasures.
A lot of the book involves a Greek Cypriot family and a Turkish Cypriot family hiding out together in The Sunrise after everyone else has fled: I’m not sure how realistic that is, but the horror of the events does really come across even so. I think the author might have done more to show the concerns of Turkish Cypriots before the invasion, because Turkey did have some valid reasons for its decision; but nothing can excuse the war crimes perpetrated by both sides.
I understand that there are reunification talks going on at the moment. The requirement for a visa to enter Turkish Northern Cyprus has recently been abolished, and it seems that both sides now have leaders who are willing to do business. I don’t know that it’ll ever happen, or even that it would be for the best of it did. It’s a very difficult and sensitive situation, and we’re now forty years on and most people in Cyprus now have grown up in one of two separate states. But maybe something can be done to try to heal the divisions. There are hundreds of people on both sides whose fates remain unknown: their families and friends must have to assume that they were killed in the fighting, but they don’t know for sure. But, whatever happens, it can’t put right what people suffered in the 1970s. Time moves on, and stories slip out of the headlines, and it’s easy to forget that this happened so relatively recently, in an island with which Britain has close historic ties and which is still a popular holiday destination for British tourists. This isn’t the best book ever written, but it’s worth reading as a reminder of something of which there isn’t nearly as much awareness as there should be.