Building peace through hard work and culture
06. juli 2017 Av: Liv Tørres
Peace is hard work. They know that in Colombia, Tunisia and Myanmar. They have lost faith in it in Syria. In Iraq, they don´t know what to expect from peace any longer. And in Cyprus, they are not even sure if they want it. Few Cypriots can remember how many rounds of peace talks there have been. Right now, a new one is going on in Switzerland. And while many have hopes that the talks will lead somewhere, others are skeptical and expect little. Because they have seen it before. In fact, they sometimes feel like they have seen far more of the failed peace initiatives than they have seen of the actual conflict. Yet, there are still some who keep the faith. There are still some who recognize that peace requires hard work and investment and that it needs to be built bottom-up through dialogue, contact, mutual respect and common interests.
Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting two of them: Rita and Costas Severis.
The Severis family started collecting artworks from Cyprus in the ‘80s. Out of love for Cyprus. Out of love for the culture and its people. But also, out of respect for the need to build a common identity and for the role that culture and arts have in that perspective. Gradually, the collection grew bigger and bigger. Thousands of artifacts altogether. When tourists started to visit their private home to see the collection, Rita and Costas found out it was about time to make it available to a lager public. In 2014 they opened the Centre of Visual Arts & Research (CVAR) in Nicosia. It is based in an old Ottoman “hun”, i.e. an inn, that was later turned into a flour mill. It is close to The Green Line, which since the mid-‘60s has been the buffer zone between the Turkish and Greek side of Cyprus. The center has thousands of photos, artifacts, paintings, posters, clothing and other items. Together, they tell the story of a common cultural heritage, shared by all Cypriots. But even more important, the centre houses ideas, respect and a commitment to peaceful contact and dialogue.
The Severis family believe in what they are doing. And they live for the mission. Because this is not an old-fashioned museum. A museum should not be built on a pedestal, Rita Severis says. Instead it is a vibrant centre with activities, film, music, events, talks, tours and school programs. All built on the idea of establishing contact between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. All built on the idea that if we respect each other and our shared history, reconciliation and peace will develop. Establishing contact on an equal footing is key to everything they do. All signs are written in both Greek and Turkish. Both groups are represented on the board. Tours are arranged for Greeks to the Turkish side and for Turks to the Greek side. Music and dance evenings for both groups take place in the buffer zone, as well as talks about the history of the island before the ‘70s. All these events, which may seem commonplace, ordinary or modest in any normal setting, are unique on this island where people have been separated for half a century.
More than 50 years have passed since the green line first divided Cyprus and the Cypriot capital. The early ‘60s saw violence break out between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. Tensions continued despite the presence of UN peacekeepers, culminating in a Greek-backed coup d’état in 1974 and Turkey invading and capturing the north, leading to the de facto division of the island. For the past few years people have been permitted to cross the green line, but they seldom do.
There are major issues to be dealt with in the peace talks in Switzerland. Almost half the inhabitants on the island are displaced either directly or through origin. Compensation for lost property will be a major stumbling block. Security issues and guarantees an even bigger one. Diverse foreign interests may be a barrier. In the long term, however, the greatest barrier of them all may be the internal lack of dialogue, contact and reconciliation between the groups. Few institutions aim for contact and dialogue. The educational systems, governments and other institutions concentrate instead on building national identities and anxiety of reconciliation. It is on this background the work done by the Centre of Visual Arts and research is so crucial and impressive.
The Centre builds understanding and invests hard work in establishing contact between the two population groups. Positive remembrance identifies common denominators and the resemblance of communities. And it is, after all, on such pillars peace is built. It is hard work. Work with few investors. Work with little recognition. But work that should be embraced, supported and cheered. Because it is on such pillars peace is built.