Northern Cyprus: Visiting a country that doesn’t exist

Nicosia, Cyprus CNN  — 

A fuzzy snout nosed into my open car window, followed by a pair of brown eyes under enviable lashes.

Jarring my rental car on hard-packed ruts, I’d turned onto a dirt track in the Karpaz Peninsula hoping to find the wild donkeys that live here – instead, one found me. In this remote region of northern Cyprus, their domesticated ancestors were abandoned by Greek-speaking farmers who fled to the south when Turkish troops occupied the northern part of the island in 1974.

Now, donkeys have free rein in the peninsula’s beaches and grass-scrubbed hills; they cluster at the edge of the dusty road looking for handouts from tourists. But if this conflict set the donkeys free to live on carrots and granola bars, it left the island of Cyprus divided by fences and conflict.

The wild donkeys of North Cyprus look for tourist handouts.

A buffer zone splits this easternmost Mediterranean island in two, a 180-kilometer scar maintained by United Nations peacekeepers in one of the longest-running missions in history.

To the south of the razor wire is the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus, an European Union member state that claims the entire island as its own and is supported by the international community.

To the north is the Turkish-occupied zone, whose leaders adopted a new name when they unilaterally declared independence in 1983: the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).

Only Turkey recognizes the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as legitimate. Though the local tourism ministry estimates that 360,000 people live here, in the eyes of the world the TRNC is a country that does not exist.

Through the razor wire

Sandbags fortify the buffer zone that runs through Nicosia's historic center.

To enter northern Cyprus, I lined up at a checkpoint in Nicosia, the capital city of the Republic of Cyprus. The historic center is cleaved in two by the buffer zone – and the TRNC claims the north side of town as their own capital. Stern notices informed me that I was traveling to occupied territory. On the other side of the buffer zone, though, the fortified border gave way to stylish restaurants and shops. Here, malls abut war memorials and military bases rub shoulders with beach bars.

In the TRNC, the growth of a booming tourist economy barely covers wartime scars.

Those scars are on display at the beachside-city of Varosha. Once a glamorous getaway for a star-studded, international crowd, the hollowed-out resort is now penned behind rusting barriers and Turkish military posts. Gentle waves lap the barbed wire fence, where tourists snap selfies beside notices that prohibit all photography.

Politics extend into the island’s most remote places. While high on the ridge that travels through northern Cyprus, I climbed a long staircase to the Byzantine fortress of Bufavento, which seemed a world away from the modern-day conflict – until I spotted the enormous TRNC flag painted across the adjoining mountainside.

The flag is positioned to dominate both sides of divided Nicosia. Beside it, white stones spell out a quote from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish state: “Ne mutlu Türküm diyene.” (How happy is the one who calls himself a Turk.)

An economy behind the walls

Historic architecture flanks the buffer zone on both sides of Nicosia, with Greek signs giving way to Turkish ones when crossing from south to north.

And while I crossed into the TRNC with just a cursory passport check, status as an unrecognized state has shaped life here in profound ways.

A longstanding embargo severely restricts exports from the region, wh