Diplomatic Efforts in Cyprus

John McDonald

Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Well, let's start with Cyprus. It's a beautiful island in the eastern Mediterranean. It's history goes back about 6,000 years, and it was part of the British Empire when the empire was collapsing. In 1960 they were declared a free nation. They lived in peace for four years, together Muslim and Christian, all intermixed, in villages, and there were no problems. Then Greece got a little greedy, and tried to take over the island, they attempted a coup, The Security Council met and put in a peacekeeping force. All that happened in 1964, and it's still there. Track I has been frozen in time since 1964, til 2003. They drew a green line, and there was an uneasy peace for about ten years, when there was another attempted coup. This time Turkey sent in 35,000 troops. A lot of killing took place at that time. All the Muslims moved to the North, and all the Christians moved to the South. The green line was in violation, you couldn't go across it, you couldn't send a letter, you couldn't make a phone call. We were invited in 1991, 1992. The first thing we did was listen and ask for the needs of people. Then we started our training, and then I called on for Track I and peace.

We called on the Sedentash, who was the president of the Turkish Muslim North, which is now a state recognized only by Turkey. We called on the predecessor, Mr. Kareves, the Prime Minister of the South, who's been there for many years. We then called on the United Nations, the headquarters in New York, and on the island, called on the State Department here, and the ambassador on the island. We said we're a small, not-for-profit NGO and we've been invited by the community of leaders that I've described in our multi-track system. They want us to help build a peace process. I told them when they were across the line between Track II and Track I relations. I said we've been invited here, and we're planning on doing training on conflict resolution skills, first separately and then bring people together, and we invite you to any of the trainings. We're totally transparent, we have no secrets. I didn't ask permission, I didn't ask for a letter, I just said this is what we're doing and you're welcome to attend. They still weren't quite sure why we were there. So I said, well - and this is important to the philosophy - I believe that every conflict can be resolved. I do not believe there is such a thing as an intractable conflict. It takes time, it takes patience, it takes energy, it takes money, but it can be done. This is the same thing that's going to happen in divided Cyprus. You sign the peace treaty and for three weeks you have beautiful peace, and then someone from the far left or far right throws a bottle and kills somebody, an act of violence by those who don't want the peace process.

By that time, we will have trained a critical mass, thousands of people, who will have connections in that village or in that community where that act of violence took place. They will be able to go in there because of their skills and their connections and contain the act of violence so that it doesn't spread across the country. Our goal is to break the cycle of violence. By containing that conflict with skilled people at the grassroots level, so that that cycle of violence is broken; that's our goal. Most conflicts around the world, that are all internal in the nation-state system, the cycle of violence is not ???, just look at Angola, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, etc etc.

If we can break the cycle then we made a major step forward in the peace process. Well, I'm sure they thought we were crazy. I'm sure they thought, you'll never get one Turk or one Greek to sit down and talk. It took time. We did our training with both sides, separately for fifteen months. I'll tell you one story about one of those that was quite touching. We were in that fifteen-month period, we decided to do a training in the Turkish Muslim north. As the word spread informally, thirty-five people showed up. All the tracks were represented, even the money track, which is never there. We had community leaders, business leaders, education representatives, thirty five people. We always sit in a circle, and I always explain why we use the circle.

The first reason for the circle is that it's practical. Everyone can see everybody and hear everybody, there's no head of table, we're all equal, and that's important. Second reason is that it's a symbol of peacebuilding in every culture I've ever been in. I've been in 97 countries, so I have some basis for comparisons. You go back far enough in the history of that culture, and the elders are sitting in a circle. Sometimes there's a fire in the center of the circle, sometimes there's not. Sometimes there's a peace pipe. The circle is viewed as a sign of peace and peacebuilding across history. The third reason is that without tables and chairs to interfere, it allows the energy of people to flow across the circle and start building relationships. They may think, maybe I can trust that person that I've hated all these years. Energy is an important element. The fourth reason is that's the symbol of our institute: the circle. So that's why we use the circle.

Forty percent of those present were Muslim women. That's a pretty good percentage. I strongly believe that it's the women who are the peacebuilders. If it's the women who are the peacebuilders in every society we operate in, the men follow eventually, but they weren't there first. So I was delighted to see forty percent women in that circle. I went around the circle and asked them their name - their first name, I'm not trying to identify people. We don't tape anything, we don't record anything, we don't use any TV, we don't use any audio; this is all confidential. We have ground rules of course.

The confidentiality is that you can talk about the process but you never quote anybody by name. People are asked to just state their name and why you came in to this circle. You learn a lot about the group by just those two simple questions. Halfway across the circle a man said, "I'm a medical doctor. I've hated the Greek Cypriots all of my life, because they've killed both of my parents. I grew up, got an education, I'm now a medical doctor, I'm married, I have a five year old son. I came here because of something that happened three nights ago with my son. I went in to kiss him goodnight and I found lying in bed next to him a large, long toy wooden rifle. And I said, "Why do you have that rifle in bed with you? The boy said to kill the Greek Cypriots when they come after me." He said these things at the age of five. The doctor said, "it was a powerful lesson for me, and I decided then that I would raise my child to have a different view of the world than I have had, and I am here to forgive the Greeks for killing my two parents." Wow. That's pretty powerful. He became one of the leaders in the group.

We finally, after fifteen months, got six from each side to sit down on the Green Line where the UN force is in the city, and we had a couple of rooms at a hotel there. They'd never met before, but they were political leaders, business leaders, University presidents, there were journalists, and there was a politest. These twelve people were all leaders in their respective communities. They had the skills, they had trust in us, and in an hour they bonded, and they had never met before. They became our steering committee. We finally got some money, and we had our first international training in Oxford, England. We had ten from each side, so twenty people. We were together for ten days in Oxford. It was very powerful because, again, they had not met. They had these deeply rooted convictions that the other side was the enemy. We had psychologists and others working on this, because we had this whole process to work through.

At the very end - this is a little story I want to mention - we had a dinner. We always break bread together to start, and we always break bread together at the end. We have a meal to start breaking down barriers because, again, sharing food together, breaking bread together has been a peacebuilding tradition for thousands of years, and we use that. We recognize the cultural past, and we try to build on that for the present. So at the end of this big dinner we said farewell, and so forth, we each got certificates and that sort of thing. Suddenly, out of nowhere, two guitars appear. Two of the Turkish Muslims started playing the guitars and singing in Turkish folk tunes that they had learned as a child. A few minutes later, the same tunes were being sung in Greek, because they'd all learned the same songs on that island that was together. They began singing them together. That went on for a half an hour. It was great. Then the guitars passed over to the Greek side. Before you knew it, they were singing and strumming Greek folk dances. Before I knew it the entire community got up, Turk and Greek, arm in arm, doing Greek folk dances around the dining room. That's pretty powerful.

As a matter of fact, it was a young college student whose mother was a part of the group, he just came for dinner, told me, "I can't believe my eyes." He said if I didn't see this, I would never believe it if someone told me it was happening. I could never imagine my mother dancing with those Greeks. It blew his mind. That's how powerful music and song and dance was an element of bringing peace, people together peacefully. We trained over 2,500 Cypriots. We have that critical mass. Some exciting things have happened quite recently that might be worth mentioning.

First of all, the EU is putting the pressure on Turkey, on Cyprus, and they've put the pressure of the Muslim North, because they want to bring Cyprus as one island together into the island. Kofi Annan, the Secretary of the United Nations, has been very active and he's put forward a grant proposal now that was considered for three or four months by both sides. Mr. Danktash was never able to come to closure. I was in Canada in January of this year, and a friend had just come from North Cyprus and he told me that he had seen something that he'd never seen before in his life. He saw 50,000 Muslim Cypriots demonstrating in the streets of North Cyprus against Danktash. Ten thousand of those 5,000 were students, and they were saying, "Danktash GO Danktash GO. We want to be a part of the West, we want to join the EU. We want to be an island coming together, as a single island. Join the EU. Our economy is a disaster. We want a job. We want to be a part of the real world. Danktash has to go before that can happen."

Well, he didn't listen. It didn't get violent, but he certainly heard a message. The window closed from the EU point of view when they announced that Cyprus would come in as a divided island. The north would not come in. On April 24th, just a few weeks ago, Danktash, for reasons unknown to me, suddenly opened the green line that divided the two parts. He said both sides can move back and forth for a day visit. They can't stay overnight. First twenty-four hours, 5,000 people cross that line. Three thousand from the Turkish North move south for the day, 2,000 Greeks move north. In the next ten days, and we're on May 16th, the next ten days, 160,000 people crossed the line. Mr. Danktash can never close that border again. If he does, they'll throw him in the ocean. It overwhelmed the north, because, everyone wanted to have a drink, a cup of coffee, and have some food at their restaurants. They wanted to look at the ocean and go to the beaches, because they have beautiful beaches. The restaurant owners said my business went up 3,000% over night. They even had to go out and hire the fisherman to be waiters because there was nobody left on the island who wasn't working. That can never be pushed back in the box.

I'm convinced that this is a major breakthrough. People are speaking. I'm a strong believer in people power; it's the sixth track. All you have to do is look at what's been going on the last few years. Whenever I talk to governments, I tell them people power is there, you have to recognize it, and you have to deal with it.