NICOSIA (Reuters) - With Cyprus reunification talks once again stuck in the doldrums, a basketball initiative that draws young players from the island’s Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides provides a welcome glimmer of hope.
The PeacePlayers, one of a number of offshoots of an international group that uses sport to build trust in divided communities, has ballooned since it was set up in 2006.
It now has more than 250 players and 12 teams that play all over the island, including in Nicosia, on a court at the Ledra Palace hotel in the United Nations-controlled no-man‘s-land separating the Greek and Turkish sides of the divided capital.
“PeacePlayers is the bridge where we are building our relationships,” Serife Ertay, one of the group’s Turkish-Cypriot players, said on Tuesday.
PeacePlayers is about to add more coaches and will be able to take in more players following a donation from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which is holding its annual meeting this year in Nicosia.
The bank had hoped to hold its meeting with reunification clearly in sight.
The reunification talks are focused on bringing the island, split along ethnic lines since 1974, under a federal umbrella of two semi-autonomous zones. But they have lost some momentum since the start of the year, causing frustration for diplomats who had seen the chances of a deal as the best in decades.
Harris Georgiades, finance minister of the Greek Cypriot-led government that represents Cyprus in the EU, who was watching the PeacePlayers practice, would not comment on the reunification process when asked by Reuters.
Instead he said both the PeacePlayers group and the EBRD’s decision to hold its meeting on the island were of symbolic importance for Cyprus.
“It is an opportunity for us to portray Cyprus as a safe, stable destination,” Georgiades said.
The Ledra Palace hotel backdrop to Tuesday’s basketball practice has rich historic associations in Cyprus. These days it is used by British troops, but in its heyday was frequented by Hollywood stars.
It was the venue of talks between the then-British colonial administration and Greek Cypriots seeking independence in 1955, it became a sanctuary for stranded tourists during a Turkish invasion in 1974 that followed a brief Greek-inspired coup, and has also been used as a prisoner-of-war exchange point.
For the teenagers taking part in Tuesday’s practice, however, the basketball games are not about politics or even, primarily, about the sport but about making new friends.
“It gives us so many opportunities that other things cannot give us,” said Nicos Mashias, one of the Greek Cypriot PeacePlayers.
Ertay added: “I have made so many friends from the south.”
Reporting by Marc Jones; Editing by Gareth Jones