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Media Watch 2003

10 May 2003
Source: Telegraph
Author:
Comment: The following article appeared in the Telegraph of London on 11 May 2003.
Cypriots find stolen homes sold


Cypriots are returning north only to find their stolen houses sold to Britons. Tabitha Morgan joins one family on their heartbreaking return home

For Michael Patsalis, ownership of the traditional stone-built house in the picturesque village of Lapithos is beyond dispute. As far as he is concerned, his claim is spelled out in black and white in the title deeds to the property.

The 63-year-old Greek Cypriot greengrocer brandished them in his right hand as he rapped on the freshly painted green door.

Since the Turkish Cypriot authorities eased travel restrictions three weeks ago, around a third of the island's population has taken the opportunity to cross the dividing line between the two communities. The authorities on either side have been overwhelmed by Cypriots' enthusiasm to revisit their former homes after 30 years.

Mr Patsalis and his wife Sofia were making their third trip to Lapithos which lies in the hills of Northern Cyprus overlooking the Mediterranean and has been under Turkish Cypriot control since the island was divided in 1974.

"This is our house," he said. "We moved here just after we were married. An Englishman lives here now, but I have brought these deeds to show him I am the legal owner."

Mike, the 39-year-old occupant of the house, who declined to give his full name, reluctantly allowed Mr and Mrs Patsalis to stand in the hall. This was the couple's third unannounced visit in as many weeks and Mike made it plain he was not keen for more.

Confronted by the original title deeds, he explained he had been issued with a similar document by the authorities in Northern Cyprus when he bought the property last year for £50,000. "If you'd come here two years ago you wouldn't have recognised it," he said. "It was just a ruin."

Outside the house, Mrs Patsalis started to cry as she showed me a photograph of her grandmother standing before the front door. "It's very awkward, I don't know what to do, you have to be polite."

Around 8,000 Britons live in the internationally unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Many, like Mike, have bought properties from Turkish Cypriots, have carefully restored them and say they have their own equally legitimate title deeds.

After fleeing their village at the time of the invasion, Mr and Mrs Patsalis spent several years in Britain.

"We learned about the British sense of fair play, and now this English boy coming from a democracy buys our stolen house," said Mr Patsalis.

"Look after the house," Mrs Patsalis called to Mike as she left. "I will do," he said, "It's mine."

The couple then walked down the narrow streets between the village's traditional stone houses, the gardens bursting with poppies and pink bougainvillea, to visit other family properties.

"Asil Nadir lives in the village now," said Mr Patsalis, as he pointed out his former lemon groves and pomegranate trees. "He blocked off the road to my mother-in-law's house to make a bigger garden."

The current occupants of that house, Turkish Cypriots Mehmet and Hayriye Ali, welcomed their old neighbours with home-made lemonade and biscuits, in stark contrast to the cool reception they had received earlier.

"We heard you were coming," said octogenarian Mr Ali in Greek. "If you can come back again tomorrow, we can have a barbecue."

The two couples sat down and reminisced about life in the village before 1974, after which Mrs Ali took her former neighbours on a tour of the house, pointing out the alterations.

Mr Ali urged Mr and Mrs Patsalis to help themselves to fruit from the medlar trees in what had once been the family orchard.

At yet another family property, the Patsalises found Turgut Engin, a Turkish Cypriot fisherman in residence - he and his family were refugees from the southern port of Paphos. All around the garden, fishing nets were spread out in the sun.

Once again the encounter was remarkable for the apparent lack of bitterness on either side.

"Let me know when you are thinking of coming to the south and I will take you to your house," Mr Patsalis said, before being presented with a large bag of freshly caught fish.

Many Cypriots have welcomed the easing of travel restrictions by the authorities in Northern Cyprus but there are no indications yet that the move reflects a new willingness on the part of the Turkish Cypriot leadership to agree to a comprehensive political solution.

Until they do, people like Mr and Mrs Patsalis will be able to visit their former homes only as tourists, dependent on the good will of those now living there."