“Turkey has nothing that contradicts Taliban’s faith,” said Turkey’s president, a country that is also a NATO member. The comments were made by Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 20 to members of the press while visiting Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus.
His comments accompanied an escalation of multiple human rights abuses toward Cyprus, abuses rooted in historical atrocities on par with those currently displayed by the Taliban. Such actions are inexcusable from a human rights perspective and unacceptable by a NATO ally, particularly one that is also attempting to become the Taliban’s lifeline toward the outside world.
Turkey’s current and historical actions in Cyprus show an example of what we can expect from its role with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The July visit of Erdogan and his accompanying delegation was part of a continued violation of northern Cyprus. His visit celebrated the forty-seventh anniversary of Turkey’s 1974 military invasion of the island, an event that brought much death and destruction. By traveling to Cyprus, Erdogan attempted to legitimize an illegal seizure of land, foreshadowing Turkey’s current attempts to legitimize the Taliban’s illegal seizure of Afghanistan’s government.
Understanding how Turkey came to occupy northern Cyprus is an important factor for understanding Turkey’s current actions in Afghanistan. The 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus was very well planned. Preparations had been made since at least the 1950s, when Turkey armed ethnic Turkic Cypriots, inciting violence and tension between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. In July 1974, the then-ruling junta of Greece organized a coup against Cypriot President Makarios, but he escaped. Turkey invaded on July 20, five days after the coup, claiming Turkish Cypriots were being massacred, even though no Turkish Cypriot had been harmed as a result of the coup. The Greek military junta collapsed under the public outcry hours after the invasion. On July 23, democracy was restored in Greece with the return of exiled Konstantinos Karamanlis. Turkey, however, used the coup as a pretext to launch the massive invasion it had been planning for years, using the cover of the Treaty of Guarantee of 1960, under which the signatories were obligated “to recognize and guarantee the independence, territorial integrity and security of the Republic of Cyprus”. Not only did Turkey not help restore order, but it also violated the agreed-upon ceasefire to launch a second invasion on August 18, which was even more brutal and bloodier.
Since then, approximately 43,000 Turkish troops and over 160,000 Turkish settlers from Anatolia have continued to occupy nearly 37 percent of Cyprus’ territory. This is in violation of international law as well as Cyprus’ sovereignty.
One need only look over at Afghanistan to see a comparable process occurring. sThe brutality of the Taliban toward locals as they seized new territories did not alarm Turkey; after all, they had done worse atrocities in Cyprus and other places.
The nearly 200,000 Greek Cypriots who were forcibly expelled from their homes by the invading Turks in 1974 are still prevented by the Turkish forces from returning to their homes in the occupied area. They need permission from the Turks to pray at their looted churches or visit the plundered graveyards of their ancestors. In Afghanistan, Turkey is negotiating with the Taliban in a way that could give them control of the airport. In other words, Turkey wants control over the entry and exit points, just as they have in northern Cyprus. Why would they not abuse this position of power in Afghanistan, just as they have in Cyprus?
The human consequences of such situations are real and long-term. For example, Tasoula Hadjittofi is a prominent Greek Cypriot rights advocate from the city of Famagusta in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus. At the age of 15, she was forced to flee her home during the invasion as Turkish napalm bombs fell and soldiers marched through her hometown’s streets. Soon thereafter, Hadjitofi found herself homeless and a refugee.
Just like the Afghans now fleeing the takeover of the Taliban, she left home unsure about her country’s future. The world became complacent about Cyprus, allowing Turkey to illegally occupy it for 47 years. Her story is a warning about what happens when the world becomes comfortable with extremists’ illegal seizures of governmental power.
It took 47 years for Hadjittofi to finally see the district of “Varosha” in Famagusta, where she had grown up. The German magazine Der Spiegel accompanied her during her visit. She went to her homeland, only to find it is still occupied by those who violently seized it, and that this violence is praised.
During his visit, Erdogan participated in the opening ceremonies of some buildings, including the new illegally erected mosque named “Bilal Aga masjid” in Famagusta. His speech was transmitted live in Turkey during the opening of the mosque.
She hoped to meet Erdogan and ask him to pray with her in her destroyed Greek Orthodox Church in Famagusta. She waited in case Erdogan would eventually visit Famagusta, but he remained in the Turkish-occupied part of Nicosia, the divided capital city of Cyprus.
Hadjitofi stood and prayed silently in the street in front of the looted Church of Agios Nikolaos (St. Nicholas), holding an icon given to her by her godparents as she claimed her right to pray. The Cypriot media reported that Turkish soldiers stood frozen, watching her pray, while just 30 meters further down the road Erdogan was connecting via the internet to watch and speak at the inauguration of the mosque.
There is no interest by occupying powers to know the stories of those who had to flee their violent takeover. There is no interest to help those refugees find a way to return. There is no interest in restoring their human rights and dignity. Forty-seven years of illegal occupation, and there is no interest. Why would the Taliban, who is now supported by Turkey, behave any differently to those who are fleeing today?
Such occupying powers often have to erase history to try and justify their illegal seizure. Hadjitofi knows this first hand. Her hometown, Famagusta, for instance, is named Ammochostos in ancient Greek, which means “hidden in the sand.” In the sixteenth century, the Ottomans invaded, plundering the island and putting thousands to death. Historian Raymond Ibrahim describes how “Muslim Turks—in the guise of the Ottoman Empire—invaded the island of Cyprus in 1570 and captured Famagusta” and “skinned Christians there alive for refusing Islam.” In 1878, Britain assumed administration of Cyprus, and in 1914 it annexed the island when Turkey sided with Germany during World War I. In 1960, Cyprus became an independent republic, but 14 years later Turkey invaded. Because of the continued Turkish invasion, “Varosha,” a part of Famagusta, has been “a ghost city.” It was a prohibited military zone at the hands of Turkish soldiers until October 2020, when a small part of it was opened to the use of the Turkish public.
The occupation forces are continuing to open parts of Famagusta, although it legally belongs to the Republic of Cyprus. This illegal reopening also means further destruction of the indigenous Greek cultural heritage there. For instance, the Greek inscription on the men’s gymnasium of the town, “Ellinikon Gymnasion,” which translates as “Greek High School,” was recently erased by local Turkish authorities. The Cultural Center of Lykion Ellinidon (Gymnasium for Girls) was also Turkified that day, and the new mosque was erected on the top of the street. “These three actions raped the soul of every Famagustian men, women, and Christians,” said Hadjitofi. She continued:
They did not even respect the fact that behind the doors of this Lykion Ellinidon still lie the clothes and shoes that the people of Famagusta had gathered but did not manage to send to the refugees of Kyrenia, between the two phases of the invasion.
In 2009, a member of the European Parliament, Athanasios Plevris, presented a parliamentary question to the European Commission. In it, Plevris states:
It is well known that during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, Turkish soldiers, acting on orders from the Turkish State, committed large numbers of heinous crimes against Greek Cypriot civilians and captured soldiers. Mass graves of civilians slaughtered by the Turks are continually being discovered. Rape and slaughter were endemic and now, with DNA identification, it is clear that the “disappeared” Greek Cypriots were slaughtered by the Turks. Recently the remains of military heroes were identified in a well: photographic evidence shows that they were prisoners, and, being unarmed prisoners, were thus executed in defiance of any notion of law or ethical behaviour. The bones of a family which remained in Kyreneia—which is still under the Turkish yoke—have also been identified: they were unable to flee because their two children were handicapped. The criminal Turkish State of course saw no reason to respect even the disabled.
What about the new criminal Taliban government? If Turkey could get away with ethnic cleansing, forcible mass displacement, and the seizure of lands, why not the Taliban too?
As a result of the Turkish invasion, the demographic character of northern Cyprus was forcibly changed, and the area was turned into a Turkish colony whose population consists of Turkish Cypriots and settlers who came from Anatolia. Atrocities were committed by the occupation forces. Greek Cypriot civilians, including infants, women, and old men, were murdered. Wholesale and repeated rapes of women were reported, including those of children. Thousands of Greek Cypriot civilians were arbitrarily detained by the Turkish military authorities in the occupied areas. Concentration camps were established. The victims were exposed to systematic torture and other inhumane treatment. A great number of detainees were compelled to carry out forced labor.
Those houses and businesses belonging to Greek Cypriots were looted. Lands and other properties of Greek Cypriots were seized, appropriated, and distributed by the Turkish occupation forces to members of the Turkish army and Turkish settlers from Anatolia. Churches, monasteries, and cemeteries as well as other religious and cultural symbols were targeted and looted and, in some cases, destroyed.
To this day, the occupying Turkish forces continue to plunder and systematically destroy the Cypriot cultural heritage in the occupied part of the island. For decades, Hadjitofi has dedicated herself to rescuing the cultural artifacts stolen by occupation forces and bringing them back to their home in Cyprus. In 2012, she established an organization, the Walk of Truth, which campaigns for the protection of cultural heritage from violence as well as the recovery of stolen artworks and antiquities. In 2017, she published her book The Icon Hunter: A Refugee’s Quest to Reclaim Her Nation’s Stolen Heritage. During her visit to her hometown 47 years later, she inscribed the book for Erdogan. She writes:
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.
On the day of the opening of the mosque, Hadjitofi hoped to give the book to Erdogan. But he was not there. So she handed the book to a policeman at a checkpoint, asking him to “please make sure Erdogan gets the book.”
Erdogan, however, stated during his meeting on the same day with some youths in Turkish-occupied Nicosia that in 1974 “Cyprus was emancipated from brutal Greeks.” The head of an occupying state claiming an indigenous people and their sovereign government was “liberated from their brutal selves.” Apparently, Turkish colonialism is like no other. It accuses the victims for the ethnic cleansing they have been subject to and publicly takes pride in the atrocities it has committed.
Meanwhile, in a recent interview, Abdul Qahar Balkhi from the Taliban’s Cultural Commission, said:
Turks are our Muslim brothers. We share a great history and a broad culture. We have a lot in common, such as religion. We want to cooperate with Turkey and the Turkish people in diplomatic, economic, and other fields.
Since its founding in 1994, the Taliban has proven to be a destructive group that has no regard for the rights of Afghan people—particularly women, non-Muslims, and other minorities. Turkey too has devastated the Greek and other non-Muslim Cypriots in northern Cyprus through its murders, rapes, ethnic cleansing, cultural heritage destruction, forced disappearances, and seizure of lands and property, among other crimes. Both entities engage in massive propaganda to brainwash the masses under their control. They have almost no tolerance for dissent and have destroyed the lives of tens of thousands as a result of their actions. Both remain proud and unapologetic.
Given the crimes against humanity the Turkish military committed and continues to commit in Cyprus, the Turkish government and the Taliban’s mutual sympathy for each other makes even more sense. Indeed, Turkey and the Taliban seem to have a lot in common. The world should take note. History matters, and we are seeing the consequences of it play out in the real lives of people.