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‘But what happened in 1974 totally altered the course of my family’s life.’Maria grew up in 1960s Famagusta, then one of the most glamorous and sophisticated seaside resorts in the Mediterranean.
The beach, with its famously pale sand and turquoise sea, was lined with luxury hotels that attracted millionaires and celebrities such as Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot and Paul Newman.
‘I wrote a long list of what I wanted him to bring.
He made me choose the four things I wanted most, in case the bombing started again and it wasn’t safe for him to stay.’She chose some clothes, the family photo albums (‘so I could be back in Famagusta in my mind’), the diary of Dostoyevsky that she was midway through reading and her tape recorder ‘so I could listen to music’.
Within days the Turkish government responded by sending troops to the island to ‘protect’ Turkish Cypriots.
They landed at Kyrenia, 50 miles north of Famagusta. ‘It seemed far away, as though it was in another country,’ she recalls.
It was one of the most glamorous resorts in the Mediterranean, a favourite of stars such as Burton and Taylor.
Today, however, glamour and wealth have given way to decay and the main tourist area – a quarter known as Varosha – is an uninhabited ghost town, its port a Turkish military zone, a no-go area fiercely guarded by the Turkish army.
Our paths first crossed earlier this year when I was on a research trip to Cyprus and I was captivated by her story of an idyllic childhood cut short.
Her life followed a completely different path than the one she had imagined in 1974 at the age of 17, before conflict divided her island.‘I thought I was going to become an artist, get married, have children and have a calm, easy life, going to the beach every day,’ she reflects.
Her mother owned several properties and her father had a job in a bank in addition to being a prominent orange grower.
Greek and Turkish Cypriots worked alongside each other in the many hotels and businesses in Famagusta; there were very good relations between the two communities, with mutual respect for each other’s customs and religions.