Peace Through Basketball


Credit: Alexa Dvorson

Special Series: Fast Forward

Hopes Through the Hoops

By Alexa Dvorson

From dazzling beaches to arresting ruins, Cyprus can have a bewitching effect on visitors exploring the island’s landscapes of raw beauty.

Then there’s Nicosia — Cyprus’ divided capital — where passport controls, armed guards and warning signs conjure up Cold War Berlin.


At its widest reach, the island can be traversed by car in less than a day. But Cyprus has more turbulent history per square mile than many places — especially in the last half-century.

If the wounds of the past have been coated by a layer of normality that evolved after 40 years of separation, it’s a thin one. Scratch the surface, and stories of loss, atrocities and displacement emerge over cups of coffee.

Facing off (Kerim Belet)

Facing off (Kerim Belet)

Considering the long parade of occupiers the island has endured over the last 3,000 years — Egyptians, Persians, Assyrians, Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans, and the British — the Turkish invasion of the island’s northern coast in 1974 might seem like a brief chapter. But the period that followed, solidified by a UN-administered buffer zone between Greek and Turkish Cyprus, has given rise to parallel worlds.

The atmosphere at the fault line in Nicosia, as it’s known on the Greek side, or Lefkoşa on the Turkish side, is far more relaxed than in decades past, but it still jars the senses. Even more bizarre, the border checkpoint is now a tourist attraction.

Nicosia is the capital of a European Union member state, while Lefkoşa is the government seat of the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Ankara.

Credit: Kerim Belet

Credit: Kerim Belet

The backstory is equally complex. The country’s newly won independence as a republic in 1960 was fraught from the start. In July 1974, Greece’s ruling military junta, fearing Cyprus might lean toward communism, staged a bloody coup (backed by the CIA) in an attempt to assassinate the Cypriot president and unify the island with Greece. Turkey responded with a military invasion. Massacres on both sides were followed by mass population displacement. The ensuing chaos resulted in a formal separation of the two parts of Cyprus within weeks. Over a thousand people are still missing.

A 2004 referendum to reunify the island was approved by Turkish Cypriot voters, but rejected by a majority of Greek Cypriots. Until very recently, the stalemate had been underscored by the fact that past leaders couldn’t agree on what happened four decades earlier — or at least how to describe it.

Credit: Kerim Belet

Credit: Kerim Belet

In the north, the word ‘invasion’ never featured in public discourse; the official term for Turkey’s action in 1974 has always been a “peace operation.” But something very different happened last July during a commemoration marking the 41st anniversary of the event. In the presence of Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, Mustafa Akinci, President of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus since last April, broke with tradition and referred to “the war” for the first time. Both leaders acknowledged the suffering of the other side, as well as the mistakes that led to the division in the first place.

It was front-page news on the island. Diplomats speak of a conciliatory chemistry between the two leaders that is likely to yield more progress on negotiations to reunify Cyprus than in the past. In another first, the two leaders gave a joint TV address over the holidays, saying they hoped for a peace deal in 2016. Bi-lateral talks re-launched last May are now ongoing.

It would be an understatement to say the issues on the table are complicated: governance, security, lost property, and refugees — for starters.

Credit: Kerim Belet

Credit: Kerim Belet

But there’s another parallel world on this divided island, and that’s where this story takes place. It’s at the grassroots level, and a lot of the action is on the basketball court.

Back in 2006, not long after border controls were relaxed, PeacePlayers International, a Washington D.C.-based organization that uses sport to unite youth in conflict-torn communities, opened an office in Cyprus. Since then, it has brought together hundreds of Greek and Turkish Cypriot youth inculcated in an environment of prejudice and mistrust toward those on the other side of the buffer zone.

“I call it my soul food to work with children on the island,” said Jacovos Christofides, president of the PeacePlayers board in Cyprus. Offering a safe space for them to be competitive and confident, to listen and be heard, he added, is “my way of investing in the future.”

That’s because the youth become role models of positive social change in their own communities.


A different kind of teamwork: designing and painting peace posters (Alexa Dvorson)

“Our grandparents say ‘they [Greek Cypriots] started the war,’” said Cetin, a 19 year-old Turkish Cypriot participant. Cetin’s grandfather was born in Pafos, now on the Greek side, and he’s only been back once since the island was divided. “I saw him cry and I also started to cry,” Cetin explained. “But our lives are different,” he added, referring to his fellow players, “because we start to think about peace on both sides.”

But peace building is no slam dunk. The year-round program of bi-communal games combines leadership training with dialogue to help the teens put aside any stereotypes they may have heard about “the other.” Whatever politicians are doing to overcome the forty-year separation of Cyprus, it could be argued these kids are ahead of the ball.

PeacePlayers International is not a political organization. As with its other project countries that include South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Israel and the West Bank, the focus is on shared goals, teamwork and mutual respect. For participants in Cyprus, a highlight of the year is summer camp, where Greek and Turkish Cypriot youth spend six days training with basketball professionals in the Troodos Mountains on the Greek side of the island.

“It’s amazing to see young people from different backgrounds getting along,” said Aaron James, a retired NBA player visiting from New Orleans. “So that’s got to carry over to the older people.”

Fast Forward: Stories of Challenge & Change is produced with the generous support of the Government of Canada and the Social Justice Fund of Unifor. Thanks to Roger Dumas for his wonderful human brain ‘sonifications’, one of which appears in Fast Forward intros/extros. For more information about Roger’s Pieces of Mind CD, go here. Feature photo credit: Alexa Dvorson.