In September 2018, I was asked to travel to Cyprus and photograph the Buffer Zone in Nicosia. An exclusive opportunity, since this area is not accessible for civilians. It is a demilitarised zone (DMZ), patrolled by the United Nations. The goal of my visit was to take photos of the endangered architecture within the zone, and also bring the social aspect into the frame. In an attempt to bring the divided parts of Cyprus together again, the photos will be exhibited in the Centre of Visual Arts and Research in Nicosia. More about this project will appear on my blog after the 23rd of October 2018. My visit to Cyprus has been made possible thanks to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Europa Nostra.
Since I was escorted by the United Nations throughout the Buffer Zone, they offered to combine it with a visit to the abandoned Nicosia International Airport. Not part of the initial project and goal, but a great chance for me to squeeze this in as well. If you’re interested in reading more personal stories about Nicosia, I can highly recommend this book on Amazon.
Before the Turkish invasion in 1974, Nicosia International Airport was the main airport of the island. It is located 8km west from Nicosia.
The airport has been built in the 30’s of the 20th century. Its first purpose was to serve as a military airport. American Bombers used the runway during the Second World War. After that war, commercial flights were introduced to the airport. The facilities at that point were very limited, until in 1949 the first terminal building opened. In the next 10 years, the building was being largely extended. However, in 1968 a new, modern and for that time very high tech, terminal opened leading to the closure of the first terminal building. One of the fancy details the new terminal building has, were pressure sensors in front of the doors for automatic opening. This new terminal could accommodate a lot more passengers and 11 aircrafts.
6 Years after the opening, in 1974, plans were in place for the airport to extend so it could accommodate 16 aircrafts. This never happened. On July 15th 1974, right wing Greek nationalists overthrew the democratically elected president of Cyprus. This lead to a short closure of the airport. 2 Days later, on July 17th 1974, it was used to ferry troops from Greece to Cyprus to support the coup against the overthrown president. On July 18th 1974, the airport opened for civilian traffic again. This resulted in immens chaos, since foreigners tried to leave the island at the same time. Eventually, on July 20th 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus bombing the airport heavily and forcing its permanent closure. Two empty Cyprus Airways airliners were destroyed on the ground during the invasion on July 20th. On July 22nd 1974, 33 people were killed when 20 ageing Nord Noratlas and 10 C-47 Skytrains, of the 354 Transport Squadron “Pegasus”, were assigned to transport a Greek commando force to protect the airport from invading Turks.
Turkish forces invaded and captured 3% of the island before a ceasefire was declared. The Greek military junta collapsed and was replaced by a democratic government. In August 1974, another Turkish invasion resulted in the capture of approximately 40% of the island. The ceasefire line from August 1974 became the United Nations Buffer Zone in Cyprus and is commonly referred to as the Green Line. The reference to the ‘Green Line’ is due to the fact that the ceasefire line has been drawn with a green pencil.
The leaders of the Greek Cypriot Community and Turkish Cypriot Community discussed reopening Nicosia International Airport at the beginning of 1975. After the leader of the Greek Cypriot community, Archbishop Makarios, had initially rejected the Turkish Cypriot proposal to reopen the airport to international traffic under joint control, agreement to reopen it was ‘in principle’ reached during the negotiations in Vienna from April 28th to May 3rd 1975. However, discussions by a joint committee set up for that purpose were unproductive.
The last commercial flight out of Nicosia International Airport took place in 1977, under special authorisation from the United Nations. The flight was to retrieve three of the remaining Cyprus Airways aircrafts that were stranded at the airport since the invasion in 1974.
With the invasion of the Turkish, the airport was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting between Turkish and Cypriot forces. The United Nations Security Council therefor declared it a United Nations Protected Area during the conflict. This required both of the side to withdraw at least 500 metres from the perimeter of Nicosia International Airport. With the ceasefire line signed on August 16th 1974, Nicosia International Airport became part of the Buffer Zone controlled by the United Nations. While the airport is not fully functioning anymore, United Nations helicopters are based at the site. It is also used as one of the sites for inter-communal peace talks and the home to a number of recreational facilities for United Nations personnel.
Following the closure of Nicosia International Airport a new airport, Larnaca International Airport, was opened in the Southern part of Cyprus in 1975. In the Northern part of Cyprus the Ercan International Airport was opened in 2004. There have been some plans for Nicosia International Airport to be reopened under United Nations control as a goodwill measure, but so far neither the Greek Cypriots nor the Turkish Cypriots have seriously pursued this option.
More photos of my visit to the Nicosia International Airport can be found below: