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The status quo is not a solution

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Thursday, 11 February, 2010

"Peace is not merely the absence of war." Examining the disengagement of ordinary Cypriots from the peace process, Christalla Yakinthou argues that to keep things the way they are is to remain frozen in the past.

In Cyprus we are hyper-fixated on the 'peace process' at the same time that we distance ourselves from it. We act like spectators at a sporting match - watching the main players scoring points against each other, and comment on whether what we're seeing is right or wrong.

Recent polls show that while people seem to 'want peace', they don't believe that the negotiation process will be successful. People feel disconnected from the peace process. We talk about political will for a solution. We talk about international will for a solution. But without real public will for a solution our politicians will get exactly nowhere. And here, we have a problem. Many of us believe that the status quo is the best solution.

Why are we so disengaged? The many many many years of on-again off-again negotiations, the role of international actors, and the way politics is lived in Cyprus have created the feeling that we, as citizens, have no control.

But it's also our own fault. By pretending that we remain outside of the 'peace process', by choosing not to engage, we make a choice we think is safe. But this is also an act of engagement. Silence is a decision in favour of keeping things the way they are.

It's easier to leave it to other people to have to make decisions for us. It costs less, emotionally and intellectually, to hold an unwavering perspective about what has caused the Cyprus conflict, and about why we continue to have this instability in our country, when we don't have to confront difficult truths about the past. I can be as hardline as I like when I'm leaving the decision-making process to other people.

Compromise is perceived here to be the option of the weak, of the traitors to our 'national cause'. But actually, compromise requires strength. It requires the realisation that in order to achieve a bigger goal, you may need to carve a new path to get there. And it requires the realisation that the situation we have at the moment is not safe.

The stability that we see every day here is only an illusion. The stability we feel we are protecting is an illusion. There is a lot under the surface of this stalemate that continues to feed the conflict.

It is not just a political conflict: everyone living in this country has been affected in very personal ways. It affects the way we live our lives at the obvious level. But it also affects things in more subtle ways.

We have no empathy for migrants, for domestic workers, for most foreigners. Because we believe that no-one had empathy for us when we were suffering. We are easily suspicious. Because we have been betrayed, and because we have betrayed ourselves. We are heavily individualistic. Because we have lost, and we are afraid of losing again.

We are not a culture of thinkers, we are instead a culture of 'put your head down and stick to the norm'. Because thinking requires reflection, and reflection requires letting go of this simplistic moral universe we have created which states that there is only ever one truth that is correct, and that is my truth.

The status quo is not the safest option for any of us. Being afraid of change is not enough of a reason to keep things the way they are.

There are six armies in this country. Symbols of nationalism everywhere. Greek flags. Turkish flags. Turkish Cypriot flags. Republic of Cyprus flags. EU flags. Soldiers. UN. Compulsory military service for all of our boys. Where they learn how to kill, in order to protect.

Greek Cypriot school kids who learn nothing about the years of fear, victimisation, disappearances of Turkish Cypriots between 1964 and 1974, but are taught that we lived peacefully together until one day the Turkish army came and tore our county in two. Den Xehno. Turkish Cypriot school kids who learn that 1974 was a happy peace operation, and learn nothing about what terrible pain and fear has been caused to Greek Cypriots as a result of that action.

Conscious choices at the institutional level on both sides of what we remember, and what we forget.

The 'peace process' exists with equal validity in every single one of us – it is not just something that is happening between Christofias and Talat. By choosing to keep things the way they are now, and to let the leaders keep talking while we remain disengaged is a choice to keep ourselves frozen in the past. Ironically, by not looking honestly at what we've done to ourselves and to each other in the past, we continue to place ourselves right back there.

I believe that we all want a peaceful Cyprus. But peace is not merely the absence of war. Empathy and a culture of debate and openness are key to building and sustaining peace in any society.

Empathy because without being able to feel another person's pain, we can do terrible things, or accept the doing of terrible things to people.

We live in a society where people do not relate to other people's suffering because their own traumas have not been addressed. In post-war societies that have not confronted their past people tend to be quite numb - when we are focused on our own victimhood, and our own wounds are festering, there is no space inside us to acknowledge another person or community’s pain. Abuse is easier to justify when we are angry, vengeful, or emotionally removed from another person's suffering.

And a culture of debate and openness because without it, misunderstandings can grow into prejudices, which have the potential to grow into racism, sexism, and bigotry, and to be manipulated by demagogues for their own gain.

We need strong people in society who can think, and question assumed truths, and feel, and grow. We need to begin to engage with the peace process, with the past, and ultimately with ourselves. The status quo is not a solution.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.

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