What happened when these Turkish-Cypriot and Greek-Cypriot mates took a long walk

In 2018, Melbourne-based Turkish Cypriot Yalçın Adal, 53, and Brisbane-based Greek Cypriot Stavros Tziortzis, 37, walked 400 kilometres, from one end of Cyprus to the other, to send a message, 40 years after the war that divided the island, that its people can live in harmony again.

Stavros Tziortzis (left) and Yalçın Adal. “Every day we walked for about 10 hours, each carrying an olive branch like a baton. I for him in the north, him for me in the south.”CREDIT:KORAY ADAL

Yalçin: My family migrated from [the Cyprus capital of] Nicosia to Box Hill, Melbourne, in 1973, as the tensions in Cyprus were heating up. Over the years, I took part in many activities with the Greek-Cypriot community intended to help bridge the post-war divide.

At an event in 2003, I was partnered with Stavros. He was 20 and reminded me of myself at that age. Growing up, I’d been told stories about the war, but they were propaganda. Like me, he wanted to know the truth. He was reserved, cautious even, happy to listen to my point of view before speaking himself. Once he realised we were on the same wavelength, he started to talk about his love of nature, swimming off Cyprus’s beautiful beaches and hiking in its mountains. We had a lot in common.

I empathised with his frustration that, despite the border opening between Cyprus’s north and south in 2003, he was still unable to visit his father’s village, Vasileia, because it was now a Turkish army base. Worse, his ancestral home was now the Turkish commander’s office.

In 2006, he invited me to stay with him and some friends in Ayia Napa [on the south-east coast of Cyprus]. A couple of them had never met a Turkish Cypriot before, but Stavros introduced me and we talked. The trip cemented our connection. We’re both about building bridges. It starts with each acknowledging the other’s experience, respecting his truth, apologising and asking for forgiveness.

“Our walk gave me the deepest connection to my homeland, but also to him. It completed me.”

By 2017, I knew I wanted to walk across Cyprus with him, spreading a message of peace. He agreed immediately. I remember the Cypriot High Commissioner in Canberra telling Stavros his safety in the north couldn’t be guaranteed, but he refused to buy into the scaremongering.

I was worried that Stavros wasn’t training hard enough. Every time I suggested that he walk more to prepare for hiking 25 to 35 kilometres a day, he’d say, “It’ll be okay – I’m playing soccer tonight.” He was relying on a game of indoor soccer twice a week to get fit.

We began in March 2018. Every day we walked for about 10 hours, each carrying an olive branch like a baton, I for him in the north, him for me in the south. Early on, we were challenged by this Turkish Cypriot farmer. When we told him we were walking for peace, he began talking to Stavros in Greek, in a very hostile way. Turns out he’d been in the army for 16 years; his eyes were still wells of pain. Stavros listened to him calmly and was slowly able to diffuse his anger.

Despite having sore legs, Stavros never gave up during the 16 days. Our walk gave me the deepest connection to my homeland, but also to him. It completed me.

We still like to hike together – in the Dandenong Ranges where there’s a shrine [on the Kokoda Track Memorial Walk] dedicated to mateship. Stavros is my dearest friend. I feel that what I can’t do – like speak Greek – he can. It’s almost like he does it on my behalf.

Stavros: My parents settled in Ascot Vale, north-west of Melbourne, as refugees in 1977; Yalçın was only the fourth Turkish Cypriot I’d ever met. Growing up, you hear a certain narrative: that Turkish Cypriots, as the war’s victors, are happy with the partition of Cyprus. I knew there was another reality.

The fact that Yalçın viewed what had happened in 1974 as an injustice gave me confidence. He told me how he’d tried to visit his grandparents in 1993, but the Turkish Cypriot police wouldn’t let him cross the border. I realised then how difficult it was for all of us.

In 2006, I took a gap year from my hospitality studies to live in Cyprus and visit my father’s village. Yalçin’s decision to visit me there deepened our bond. He told me how, 13 years earlier, he’d rented a pushbike and set out to discover the people and learn Greek. I took him to a restaurant where a good friend of mine was the manager – he’d told me he didn’t want to serve the Turk. I told him not to be so narrow-minded. That night, he and Yalçin started talking. They carried on talking a few nights later at my birthday party. I saw a transformation take place.

Back in Collingwood in 2008, I opened a cafe, which Yalçın visited frequently. We spent hours talking about politics and family life – I have two daughters, Yalçin two sons and two daughters. When Yalçin asked me if I wanted to cross Cyprus with him on foot, I started to laugh. He went quiet. I explained that I’d been thinking about doing the exact same thing!

Yalçin proved to be much fitter than me. He was so patient. When I needed to stop and stretch or even sit down for a break, which was often, he’d give me as much time as I needed.

Yalçin’s superpower is empathy. One day, visiting a Greek cemetery that had been vandalised, I cried. Yalçin said it was shameful and that one day we’d come back to restore the graves. Later, we visited the grave of his uncle, another casualty of the war. The war hadn’t created positive outcomes for anyone, I realised.

“It has created a lifelong bond between us; we’re working on a documentary about it now. I can’t imagine not having Yalçın in my life; he’s my brother.”

He can be stubborn. We could’ve crossed the island by walking 350 kilometres, but ended up walking more than 400 kilometres, because he wanted to take in various sites. On the home straight, we were running late and I suggested we drive the last five kilometres. Yalçin wouldn’t contemplate it. I was angry at the time but, in hindsight, I’m glad we walked the whole way. In the end, we were only an hour late. Our friends, families and the press were all there waiting. When Yalçin starts something, he finishes it.

In 2018, Yalçin, his wife and parents came to my mother’s funeral. In my wildest dreams I couldn’t have imagined such a thing happening. After, he called regularly to see how I was doing. Besides becoming a father, our walk has been my life’s greatest accomplishment. It has created a lifelong bond between us; we’re working on a documentary about it now. I can’t imagine not having Yalçın in my life; he’s my brother.

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.

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Michael Yiakoumi

Michael Yiakoumi

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