In our first encounter with Archbishop Tutu, my friends and I were told that establishing the truth is the only way that we can ever achieve peace in Cyprus.
Sometimes when you’re involved in a peace programme, as my friends and I are, you overlook how important the truth is. In Cyprus, especially, it is difficult to get an unbiased account of the island’s past and to build a shared future. The island has been divided for 36 years; sadly, Nicosia, is the “last divided capital” of Europe, as one sign at the UN buffer zone reminds us.
The physical division is also an emotional division: for some people it’s the property they’ve lost, for others it’s the people they’ve lost, that mean they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that both sides have suffered.
Crossing borders with friendship
However, since 2009, our organisation, the Cyprus Friendship Programme (CFP), following the lead of other bi-communal programmes, has been attempting to bridge the gap between the two communities.
The programme brings together teenagers from the Turkish Cypriot community and the Greek Cypriot community on an exchange visit to the United States. This is so that we can spend time together in a neutral environment where our friendship is unhindered by borders and preconceptions. That way, we can see the other person is just like us.
The Cyprus Friendship Programme is not a political organisation that can offer a solution; we’re just trying to help the two communities to interact. And it’s not only the teenagers who come together. Even our parents held a big party when we were in the US, to meet and celebrate the fact that they too have made new friends.
Our journey with the Elders
In 2009, four of us were given the tremendous opportunity to participate in a documentary with three of the Elders – Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mr Lakhdar Brahimi and President Jimmy Carter – called “Cyprus: Digging the Past in Search of the Future”.
Together, we visited two excavation sites, where both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots search tirelessly for the remains of missing people, to provide closure for countless affected families. At the Committee on Missing Person’s laboratory, where anthropologists identify the remains excavated, we were introduced to two men who had lost their fathers in the conflicts of 1964 and 1974 and their inspirational story of forgiveness.
I was curious to meet them because you don’t usually see that kind of relationship in Cyprus. It was such a warm friendship, which is so strange given its foundations – they came together because they both lost their fathers in war. In my family we have lost 16 people. I don’t know if we could have been so calm.
I was proud to see these two Cypriots demonstrate an incredible capacity to forgive. It shows the ability of the people of Cyprus to strive for what is fair for the entire community. It also made me think about my friendship with the other teens in the CFP. Any reservations I had about bi-communal programmes just collapsed when we met those two men because we witnessed a friendship that had to overcome more obstacles than we have had to.
Spreading our message
It has not always been easy being part of the CFP. It was one thing to go to the US, but it was hard to come back to Cyprus and the negativity of those who don’t share the same point of view or who don’t think peace is possible. Sometimes we give presentations and people don’t even want to enter the room and hear what we have to say.
Possibly the most significant aspect of our time filming the documentary was to talk to the Elders as they shared their experience from the conflicts that they have helped to resolve. It broadened our perspective on international affairs, and more importantly, showed us that major conflicts are never resolved solely by politicians, but also by the collaboration of citizens.
In my view, people are usually apathetic in Cyprus and I think that’s especially true when it comes to teenagers. So when you meet people like the Elders, people of similar beliefs as you, it motivates you. Their support for the CFP makes us feel stronger and feels like all our work is worthwhile. We are ordinary citizens trying to show that it is possible to coexist.
Although our invaluable journey with the Elders is coming to an end, the skills and wisdom we gained will carry through indefinitely. Often, our peacefully expressed voice is overpowered by the violent yelling of the extremists. Yet the Elders have helped to empower our voices, allowing us to defy those who belittle us, allowing us to be heard and respected.
Michael Panayi is 17 years old and participates in the Cyprus Friendship Programme. In 2009 he and three fellow students accompanied Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and Lakhdar Brahimi to film a documentary about the search for missing persons in Cyprus.
Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.