In a five-page article published on 14 August 2021in the distinguished German magazine Der Spiegel, journalist Timofey Neshitov and photographer Julien Busch are undercover with well-known cultural activist and campaigner Tasoula Hadjitofi to record her attempts to return to her home in Famagusta in the Turkish-occupied part of the island of Cyprus. For four days they documented her continued attempts to expose the human rights violations of the Cypriot people by Turkey, through her inability to return to her house and to pray in the church of her parish. The German journalist’s descriptive writing details the efforts of Tasoula Hadjitofi, culminating on 20 July, when she tries to meet Turkish President Erdogan in person at the new mosque on Dimokratias Street in the enclosed city of Famagusta, also known as the ghost city of Varoshia.
At the age of 15, Tasoula Hadjitofi was forced to escape her home in Cyprus. Forty-seven years after the war, Turkey has now permitted her to return. But can she find her home again? By Timofey Neshitov
One day in mid-July, a woman in a brown summer dress passes through two checkpoints and reaches Famagusta, a city on the eastern coast of Cyprus. She gets out of her hire car and stands at a fence – the third and last checkpoint. The police, drinking Turkish coffee, clock the golden cross the woman wears around her neck. The woman’s eyessearch the empty street behind them.
She sees the painted house facades, bleached by the sea wind. Windows with trees growing through them.
It is a long time since she was last in Famagusta – 47 years. This is the city where she grew up, in the district of Varosha. Until a few months ago, Varosha was a prohibited military zone guarded by Turkish soldiers. It’s a ghost city.
“I am not a ghost,” the woman at the barrier says. “I want to go home at last.”
Tasoula Georgiou Hadjitofi is 62 years old. She remembers the shoe-box that she kept under her bed as a schoolgirl in Famagusta, containing her silkworms. She much preferred feeding her silkworms to going to church. The silkworms ate mulberry leaves and their silk was turned into sheets and tablecloths, her dowry. They lived in a small house not far from the sea, 41, Esperidon Street. Tasoula’s mother sewed clothes, her father drove trucks, and they wanted Tasoula to make a happy marriage. Tasoula wanted to study abroad and travel the world.
In those days, the world liked to come to Famagusta. Brigitte Bardot used to swim here on one of the longest beaches in Europe. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton stayed at the Hotel Argolis on Kennedy Avenue. Paul Newman shot “Exodus” in Famagusta. The best coffee could be found at Boccaccio, the hottest dance music at Perroquet. This city was known as the Las Vegas of the Mediterranean.
Tasoula Hadjitofi learned Greek dancing in the arts centre behind the Café Edelweiss and borrowed books from the city library at the church of St. Nicholas. On expeditions, she pulled risarka out of the earth – a tall, coarse weed that her mother used to dye Easter eggs.
July 20, 1974, was a Saturday.
Tasoula Hadjitofi remembers the sirens at dawn and the face of the Turkish pilot in the cockpit, he flew so low over her house. He waved at her, then flew back towards the sea. The next morning, napalm bombs fell on Famagusta.
Her mother hid Tasoula and her sisters in the cellar and unscrewed an electrical socket to show them how to make it short-circuit. No Turkish soldier was to catch them alive. Tasoula was 15.
On this morning in July 2021, she hesitates for a while at the checkpoint turnstile. There is a crackle of radio sets, it’s 9 a.m. and it’s 38 degrees in the shade. She has come here because the Turks have reopened Varosha. The Turks have not yet said what they plan to do with this strip of land.
Tasoula Hadjitofi lives in The Hague with her husband, a manager at Shell, on a 3,500-square-metre plot of land next to the royal palace. She will spend four days in Famagusta. During this time she will hardly sleep and she will spend a lot of time talking to people like her who have returned home. She will have imaginary conversations with those she holds responsible for the unresolved Cyprus conflict: with politicians in Ankara, Athens, Nicosia and Washington. She will in her own way prepare for the visit of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He is due three days after her arrival in Famagusta.
Above all, she will try to get to her family’s home. It had just three rooms, unplastered walls, and chickens in the yard. On that morning 47 years ago on August 14, as the Turkish army sent more units to the island, the family left their cups on the kitchen table and got in her father’s car.
Tasoula Hadjitofi walks just a few metres. The street she is standing on is freshly surfaced; behind the checkpoint there is a kiosk. There are coffee and crisps and mountain bikes for hire. She looks at the kiosk as though it were a meteorite. Her legs are shaking.
A bus comes from the direction of her childhood home and stops at the kiosk to let people off; women in headscarves, children with inflatable swim rings. The driver is wearing a mask around his chin and says he is setting off again straight away, ten Turkish lira.
He drives too fast for her. She turns her head from side to side, opening and closing her mouth. Palm trees, acacias, bougainvillea rush past, hiding the shops and street signs. It smells of laurel and oleander. As the bus turns right at a roundabout, she claps her hands. She recognises nine red letters: Edelweiss.
The bus turns into St. Andrew’s Street, speeds up on Kennedy Avenue and circles around a Turkish barracks. It comes to a halt in front of a kiosk with a view of the sea. At the last stop there are plastic chairs, Turkish coffee and a policeman wearing sunglasses.
“Where are the streets?” asks Hadjitofi. It’s not clear whom she is asking. Leading off Kennedy Avenue, Famagusta’s promenade, there used to be streets. But Tasoula Hadjitofi can only see trees and barricades.
Behind the plastic chair where the policeman is sittingis the beginning of a path; it’s overgrown, but passable. “How high up are we?” she asks the policeman. “My house is in Esperidon Street.”
The policeman shrugs his shoulders.
“Please,” she says “I have to go down here, just 100 metres, then turn right.”
The policeman points to the red warning sign in the hibiscus bush: “Beware: It is dangerous to leave the marked paths.”
The district is officially open, but in reality most of it is still a military zone. The policeman tells her about snakes and roofs that might collapse. “Behind you there used to be an ice-cream parlour,” she says.
“Go to the beach,” he says.
She turns away and looks towards the sea. She keeps an eye on the policeman. At some point, he stands up and goes behind the kiosk to stretch his legs.
Famagusta, Ammochostos in ancient Greek, means “hidden in the sand.” In the 7th century Greek fishermen hid from Arabian robbers here. In the 16th century, the Ottoman army landed. Turkish settlers expelled the Greeks from Famagusta and allocated a strip of land south of the city walls to them, called Varosha. It means suburb, or ghetto.
Over the centuries, Varosha developed into the liveliest quarter of Famagusta. This is where the most fruit trees grew, where the best potters lived and the richest merchants resided.
When Tasoula Hadjitofi was born here, on February 23, 1959, Cyprus was threatened with civil war. It was a British colony increasingly controlled by Greek and Turkish militias.
Four days before Hadjitofi’s birth, an agreement was signed in London, under which the British accorded Cyprus independence. “A terrible agreement,” Hadjitofi says: at that time, 30 percent of the seats in parliament were occupied by Turks, although Turks accounted for less than 19 percent of the population.
Greek Cypriot nationalists wanted the island to be annexed to Greece. In 1974 they overthrew their own president. Turkey sent its army. In a matter of weeks, it controlled almost 40 percent of the island.On the day when Hadjitofi’s family fled this army, a Greek militia killed 126 Turks in the villages around Famagusta. The youngest victim was 16 days old, the oldest was 95 years old.
Hadjitofi walks less than 10 metres from the kiosk on Kennedy Avenue before the policeman calls her back. “Please,” he says. “Soon everything will be open here. Then I will come to your house and we’ll have coffee, OK?”
“Come with me now,” she says.
He points to the roof of the Hotel la Paloma. “Cameras everywhere.”
On the beach, Turkish teenagers are swimming. Hadjitofi read in the newspaper that President Erdoğan had promised “good news” before his visit.
What could be good news for Famagusta?
After 1974, Turkey brought tens of thousands of settlers from Anatolia to Cyprus and gave them property and houses in the north. Varosha, the most elegant spot on the island, was surrounded by barbed wire.
Six square kilometres, 105 hotels, 4,649 residences, 21 banks, 14 theatres, 10 cinemas, 14 churches, 380 construction sites.
The home of 36,000 people now lay right by the UN buffer zone.
Varosha became a political football in a bigger competition: Turkey was planning its own state in northern Cyprus; if world powers had recognised this state, then Turkey was allegedlywilling to return Varosha to its residents.
Tasoula Hadjitofi remembers the rumours back then – at the latest in one year, perhaps in two years, they would be able to go back. They lived in accommodation in Limassol, a town on the southern coast.
The UN Security Council grappled with Cyprus. After Resolution 353 came Resolution 354, followed by Resolutions 355, 357, 358, 359, 360, 361, 364, 365, 367, 370, 383, 391, 401, 410, 414, 422, 430, 440, 443, 451, 458, 472, 482, 486, 495, 510, 526, 534. In November 1983, Tasoula Hadjitofi‘s house in Famagusta had stood empty for almost 10 years when Turkey proclaimed the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. No government apart from Turkey’s recognised the state. The barbed wire around Varosha remained in place.
Limousines draw up in front of the kiosk and men with ties get out and head to the beach. “Are you from Turkey?” Hadjitofi asks.
“No,” says one of the men, lighting a cigarette. “We are a delegation from Azerbaijan.”
“I come from Famagusta. Five minutes from here.”
“It’s not good at all. I am not allowed to see my house.”
“It is now all our country,” the man said. “It is my home too, we are part of the big Turkish world. Be grateful that you have been allowed in here.”
Hadjitofi goes back to the kiosk, where a man in green shorts is standing in front of the policeman and pointing to his legs.
“Can you see this, goose bumps?”
“I still can’t do it,” says the policeman.
“Just 30 metres from here, 18a Efesou Street, please, just behind the tree.”
“I will lose my job.”
“Just a photo, please. My grandfather wasn’t allowed to go there, he is dead. My father wasn’t allowed to go there, he is dead. I am 55.”
The policeman looks at the ground. Hadjitofi and the man exchange numbers. His name is Dimitris and he works as a clerkon a British military base in Cyprus. He bought an apartment in the neighbouring village so that he can see Famagusta from his balcony.
The cross Hadjitofi wears around her neck belonged to her father. When she left Cyprus, he gave her a five-shilling note at the airport. He had written on it: “Safe journey, my tomboy—14th of November 1976—Never shame the family.
Eight years ago she summoned the courage to make the journey to Famagusta because her father wanted to see the city again.
The checkpoint with the turnstile was not yet in place but you could get close on the sea front. They walked across the beach on the Turkish side and came to the fence with the guard. She went into the water, up to her waist, until she heard the shouts of the Turkish soldiers.
In July 2021 she walks alone on this beach and says “I buried a refugee.” Her father died four years ago.
At the fence, she speaks to two men in wet bathing shorts. They say they are construction workers from Eastern Anatolia. “And what are you doing here?” asks one. “Holiday?”
“Sort of,” she answers.
The workers recommend a beach further north where the sand is finer.
On the terrace of the Devran Beach Restaurant a man with thick eyebrows is eating fish.
“Stavros?” Hadjitofi calls out. The man is well-known on the island. He was a minister in Nicosia and a candidate in the latest presidential election in the Greek south, where he won 44 percent of the vote. “Stavros, Erdoğan is coming, how can you sit here with the Turks and eat fish?”
“What is unpatriotic about that, Tasoula?”
In the 1990s, Tasoula Hadjitofi was often in the newspapers. The president of Cyprus was godfather to her son at his christening in Rotterdam, while the archbishop christened her daughter. She was the girl from Famagusta who went to Europe to study computer science and founded the right company at the right time. She trained the employees of international corporations to use computers. Her first customer was Royal Dutch Shell and she earned her first million at the age of 29. Soon she was dining with Queen Beatrix and wearing designer clothes. But she never forgot her island.
After 1974, hundreds of churches were plundered in northern Cyprus. Tasoula Hadjitofi decided to track down icons and mosaics on the black market and bring them back to Cyprus. She dealt with art thieves in the Netherlands, briefed police in Germany, paid lawyers in Japan. She wrote a book about it, “The Icon Hunter.” She called her NGO Walk of Truth.
No more than 1 percent of the stolen treasures have returned to Cyprus, she says. Only Greek Cypriots care, she says; the Turkish state will never be prosecuted for the biggest art theft in the history of the island. Turkey has the second-biggest army in NATO.
The EU and the UN have funded a cultural heritage committee in Cyprus, in which Greeks and Turks work together to renovate churches, mosques and aqueducts; for many years they have been working on the Apostolos Andreas monastery in the northeast. St. Andrew is very important to Tasoula Hadjitofi – her brother and her son are called Andreas, and her mother said in 1974 that St. Andrew saved her from the Turkish bombs.
Today Hadjitofi says: “WhyAndreas monastery if I am not allowed to pray there without their permission?”
Another Greek-Turkish committee on Cyprus opens mass graves from the time of the civil war. Since 2006, 722 Greeks and 284 Turks have been identified. 788 Greeks and 208 Turks are still missing.
“All the Turks who came after 1974 are illegal immigrants,” Hadjitofi says.
On this day, her second day in the ghost city, she is wearing a white silk dress with a floral pattern. She meets Dimitris, the man from 18a Efesou Street, opposite Élysée, a perfume shop. They want to try again – perhaps there is a different policeman on duty at the IR crossroads today.
In front of Barclays Bank in Democracy Street, a Turkish guard sits in a wooden hut. Tasoula Hadjitofi speaks to him.
“Where are you from?”
“From Mersin on the southern coast of Turkey.”
“When did you come here?”
“1975. Our whole village came.”
“But why did you come?”
“How should I know? I was eight.”
The guard tells her about his work: his shift lasts 24 hours, he brings his food with him, he is not allowed to sleep at night. He has been sitting at this crossroads for 19 years.
“Are you not afraid of ghosts?” she asks him.
“Until 10 years ago, we didn’t have any electricity, only candles. Seven years ago a colleague disappeared and we found him three days later. He had collapsed in the house by the open-air cinema.”
Tasoula and Dimitris walk towards the sea and remember voices from 1974: the sweetcorn seller in front of the Hadjihambi Cinema, the chestnut vendor in the school park, the Anorthosis Famagusta football fans. She recounts to him how she collected snails in the reeds at the edge of the road.
At the Hotel Golden Mariana the wind blows a window shut, then open again. In Miaouli Street, which runs parallel to Esperidon Street, Tasoula Hadjitofi looks back at the Turkish barracks again, then lifts her dress to climb over the cordon.
She ducks and begins to run. Her sandals get entangled in the grass, she climbs over branches, stones, remnants of fence, dodges a lizard, and leaps aside when an owl shoots out of the undergrowth. She runs past two signs with arrows pointing to the Angus Steakhouse from opposite directions. Where she believes her house to be, there is a wall of reeds.
She stands on tiptoe, tears in her eyes, in the bush behind her there is a door. A three-storey house.
Turkish soldiers have immortalized themselves in the stairwell. Cengis from Lüleburgaz, April 1975, Ejder from Burdur, January 1980. Tasoula Hadjitofi holds the hem of her dress in both hands and walks through the rooms in the first floor. Remains of parquet flooring, children’s shoes, a basin with no taps. No furniture, no television. She climbs up to the roof terrace. And smiles.
From here you can see the tower of the Holy Cross. It’s her church, at the end of Esperidon Street.
The door is nailed shut. Tasoula Hadjitofi sticks her head through a hole where there was once a window pane. She sees the bench where she sat as a child and the iconostasis she used to pray in front of. The icons are missing from the iconostasis. Tasoula Hadjitofi rattles the door. Then she freezes.
She hears the engine of an approaching car, the driver shifts up a gear. She throws herself down on the flagstones of the church and lies there, her face in her hands. The car leaves a cloud of dust.
Tasoula Hadjitofi smooths down her dress and goes home, 41, Esperidon Street. She counts the houses: number 13, number 15, 17. At No. 27, she hears another car. This time, she doesn’t hide.
The driver is a young soldier in sweat-soaked khaki.
“I had to pee,” Tasoula Hadjitofi says. “How come you don’t have any toilets on Kennedy Avenue?”
The soldier blushes. He calls his commander.
Just before Hadjitofi’s birth, her father got into a bar brawl in Famagusta. A pomegranate farmer came to his aid. He became her godfather. The man lives in a Greek village neighbouring Famagusta and he has prayed for Tasoula Hadjitofi for 62 years. Today, his whole family has come together.
Erdoğan has landed on the island. The Turkish president, who calls the Mediterranean a “Turkish lake,” opened the beach at Famagusta last autumn and immediately set the tone with a picnic in front of the Argolis Hotel. Today he wants to reveal his plans for Famagusta.
Hadjitofi brings two cameramen to her godfather’s this afternoon. They are making a documentary about her. She sits on the sofa in front of the television.
Greek Cypriot television is showing a repeat of the talk-show “Happy Hour.” Turkish television is showing a programme on how to dismember a cow. Tomorrow is Eid Al-Adha, which this year coincides with the anniversary of the 1974 invasion. In Turkey, the day of the invasion is called “Festival of Peace and Freedom.”
Hadjitofi tells her godfather about the young soldier who arrested her on Esperidon Street. He took her to the checkpoint and said, by way of farewell, that he only had six months left on the island. The Turkish policeman who searched her bag warned her not to do anything stupid again. Then he said he was sorry for her, he understood her – he, too, was a refugee. He had driven to Limassol five times already and he couldn’t stop himself from going to look at the wasteland where his parents’ house stood in 1974.
There is a smell of resin and olive leaves this afternoon Hadjitofi’s godfather gives her an icon. St. Andrew. She sets it in front of the bowl of incense.
She no longer wants to wait for Erdoğan on television; she wants to show Katie Famagusta. Katie is her godfather’s daughter – she was eight when the family fled. Katie packs a yellow checked child’s dress with buttons on the breast panel. The dress she wore to flee.
Between the second and third checkpoints, Tasoula Hadjitofi sees clusters of policemen. The day before, Erdoğan spoke to the Turkish parliament in Nicosia, but he said not a word about Famagusta. Apparently he wanted to save his announcement for today, the anniversary of the invasion. She wants to speak to Erdoğan after his appearance in Famagusta and ask him whether he would pray with her in her church. If that’s not possible, she will send him a message in writing.
The columned portico of her former art school is hung with Turkish flags. Hadjitofi sits on a stone and puts a copy of her book, “The Icon Hunter,” on her knee. On the cover is a black-and-white photograph of her, taken at a poetry competition in this school. It is the only childhood photograph she has; all the rest were left in the house on Esperidon Street.
She searches for a long time for the right words for President Erdoğan. He needs to understand what she wants.
In July 1989, an expellee from northern Cyprus filed a complaint at the European Court of Human Rights. She demanded compensation for her house. Seven years later, the Strasbourg judges awarded her almost $1 million. The case triggered a wave of lawsuits and the court ordered all further complaints to be resolved on site in northern Cyprus.
Hadjitofi never filed suit. “It is like sending a rape victim to the rapist,” she says.
Her company’s customers include Europol, Eurojust, the European Space Agency, and the now-dissolved International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. “Why should I file suit in a state that no one recognises?” She never filed suit in Strasbourg either. She says she doesn’t want money for her house – she wants to be buried in the graveyard behind her church, and she doesn’t want her children to receive a burial certificate in Turkish.
She opens her book and inscribes it for “Dear Mr. Erdoğan:”
I will pray for you to make the right decision and stop hurting us. Try to save your soul, because the ghosts of Famagusta will follow you. Our tears won’t fit in any mosque. No mosque would be big enough to save your soul. Please give me one hour of your time, anywhere on this planet. Let us speak about truth, peace and reconciliation. Warm regards, Tasoula Hadjitofi, a ghost from Famagusta.
She snaps the book shut.In the garden in front of her a fountain is playing; two days ago, it wasn’t there. A red ribbon is stretched across the entrance and next to it, a man in a suitis waiting with a pair of scissors in his hand. Tasoula Hadjitofi sees limousines driving up Democracy Street. She walksafter them. Behind the Church of St. Nicholas, she sees more Turkish flags.
In a courtyard behind the ruins of a wall a small mosque is being consecrated. Tasoula Hadjitofi approaches a policeman and asks: “Is Erdoğan here?“
The officer clicks his tongue – no.
She looks at the shoes at the entrance to the mosque, hears the Turkish national anthem and leaves.
She stops in front of the St. Nicholas, next to an official limousine. A loudspeaker is broadcasting Eid Al-Adha greetings as Tasoula Hadjitofi kneels and clasps her icon in both hands. She prays for five minutes.
Then she goes to the checkpoint. The policeman who warned her not to do anything stupid is holding his mobile phone in front of his face. He is listening to Erdoğan.
Erdoğan is in Nicosia, 60 kilometres away from Famagusta and his speech is being transmitted live. The president recites a poem: “In the place where the Turkish people wereonce beaten in chains, where the Turkish people were once slaughtered, today the Turkish flags waves and we are free.”
Then Erdoğan says Varosha will be completely opened. “We do not want to take anyone’s property away from them,” he says, adding that he will ensure that people can enter the city without being in danger. At first, three percent of the area will be freely accessible and in the long term, Varosha will become a “symbol of peace and prosperity.”
Erdoğan doesn’t say who will live here in future. Or who should govern the city. Or which three percent of the area he means.
The policeman at the checkpoint smiles and says “everything will work out, Tasoula.” She hugs him, then gives him the book that she signed for Erdoğan. “Can you make sure he gets it?”
On a hill in northern Limassol, 1-1/2 hours away by car from Famagusta, Tasoula Hadjitofi’s mother sits in an armchair with her legs propped up, staring at a swimming pool. She is 92. A Filipino carer passes her a plate with two peeled mangoes on it.
“Did you see our house?”
“No Mama, but I went to our street with the St. Andreas icon in my hand.”
“I will pray to him to release us finally from the Turks.”
Hadjitofi’s lawyer in Athens is examining whether a suit against Erdoğan personally would have a chance.
For the autumn, Hadjitofi plans a march on Famagusta. Hundreds of expellees are to dress up as ghosts and go to their houses.