Never in my career have I felt that a situation is hopeless or that change is impossible – despite what other people may have told me.
In 1988 I went to Lebanon, a country not so very far from Cyprus. I had been tasked by the Arab League with trying to bring together the country’s warring factions and negotiate a peace deal, a lasting agreement that would bring to an end to a civil war that had lasted for 17 years and had killed many thousands of people.
Lebanon had been torn apart. When I arrived, feelings were very raw and vitriol was widespread. I was told several times that I was wasting my time.
People would say to me: "These people have been fighting one another for 17 years. What are you going to say that hasn’t been said already? There have been many mediators. There have been many agreements between the Lebanese and they have broken those agreements and they have gone back to war."
They were right. There had been many mediators. There had been many broken agreements. And yes, I probably would be telling them many things that they had heard before. But this time, things were different.
What we found was that after 17 years of war, most Lebanese had decided that a compromise solution was better than no solution. They were sick of fighting. They were still angry; they still fostered deep mistrust of those they had fought against. But they had decided that theirs was to be a future no longer marred by hatred and bloodshed.
I am not comparing the situation that Cypriots face now to that faced by the Lebanese in 1988. The guns in Cyprus have long since fallen silent. But there are comparisons to draw in how societies can overcome fear and uncertainty and can move forward following conflict and division, no matter how long ago that it began.
Many Cypriots still feel anger, resentment and mistrust. That is an inevitable result of warfare and these are understandable sentiments. But I do know that people can come to some kind of peace – and start to live together, even after such pain. I have seen that in Algeria, my home country. I have seen it in South Africa, where I worked to monitor the country’s first multiracial elections in 1994. And I have seen it in Lebanon.
Many Cypriots have little faith in the negotiation process and in the leaders carrying it out. Recent surveys of both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots show that a majority within both communities want a solution, but that looking at how things currently are, neither believe it to be possible. That is a very reasonable attitude to have.
The elections in April in the north and the divisions within the Greek Cypriot political establishment probably add to that scepticism.
But people also worry about change, especially in Cyprus which seems quite outwardly peaceful (despite the hurt and turmoil beneath the surface). That is also not surprising, nor does it make agreement impossible. The Lebanese took a very long time to come to a negotiated settlement. It was very, very hard. Yet even at a time of deep despair, and when so many had given up hope, its leaders came together.
In 1989, the Lebanese signed an imperfect agreement, following imperfect negotiations, which led to an imperfect solution. Every single Lebanese leader has criticised the Taif Agreement – including those who signed and those who refused to sign.
To this day they continue to criticise it and so they should. But the leaders and the people have also accepted the agreement as the imperfect basis on which they can live together. They decided that unity and cooperation were much firmer foundations to deal with whatever the future might throw at them.
If the leaders of the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities do come to an agreement - and I sincerely hope and believe that they will – then it will not be a miracle salve to soothe all grievances. No agreement can be perfect. But I would urge all Cypriots to get behind it. Unity will be a far better outcome for Cyprus than ongoing division.
Cyprus will face significant challenges in the coming years. One need look no further than the current water shortage across the island to see that issues will arise that will affect everyone and which can only be effectively be confronted through cooperation.
Despite the uncertainty that change will bring, there is nothing to fear from seeking genuine and lasting peace.