Cyprus, Turkey and the importance of teaching real history

I have a good friend in Cyprus named Daniel who was 15 in 1974 when Turkish forces split the island.

Daniel lived in a village in the north of the island and when the Turkish troops rolled into his village the soldiers separated the men from the women and children. Daniel was small for his age and looked younger than his years, but there was still a dispute whether he should be placed with the men or with the women and children.

Finally, a Turkish colonel broke up the argument and told Daniel “go back to your mother”. Then he watched as his father and uncles were led away. He never saw them again.

Years later, he took his four-year-old son, Christopher, to a small plot of land the family owned with fruit trees that sat right on the Green Line separating the two sides. One could see the Turkish watchtowers not far away.

Christopher picked up a rock and declared that he was not afraid of the Turks and would defend his father. Daniel was stunned. Where was this coming from? He worked bicommunally; never spoke ill of the Turks, and he recognized how scared his young son was.

“It was the media, the family, and the environment,” Daniel told me. “I knew I had to let go of any animosity I harbored or it would eat me alive and damage my children.”



Through the years, the U.S. government spent millions coaxing the Greek and Turkish Cypriots to re-write their history books to try to remove poisonous accounts of “the other”.

One peace activist I spoke to noted that she had read through her daughter’s new schoolbooks and did not find anything objectionable, but sighed and said “but it is what the teachers say in the room”. Cyprus remains a frozen conflict.

I have written previously that one of the most effective tools conflict resolution scholars used in Cyprus was the “history walk” — asking Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots to write down key moments in the island’s history and place them side-by-side chronologically and then walk down the row reading each one.

The differences were striking and provoked heated arguments, but the exercise drove home the point that perhaps people held skewed views of

history. Younger participants were well aware they had been fed a great deal of propaganda growing up.



Embracing a shared history and historical facts has always been key in resolving conflicts. In South Africa, a truth and reconciliation commission was crucial in the transition from apartheid to majority rule.

Individuals who have a particular political agenda can twist historical facts to support their point of view. Holocaust deniers continue to exist in our midst. January 6th rioters were “peaceful tourists”.

Now a controversy has arisen over a new middle school history curriculum in Florida. It suggests that enslaved African Americans “benefitted” from their servitude because they gained marketable skills. Who benefitted from those skills? Could they sell those skills on an open market to improve their situation? Please.

This kind of historical whitewashing is dangerous and moves us farther away from dealing with the issue of race in our society. The American experiment — bringing together people from every race, creed, and color united by the idea of freedom and individual liberty — is hard enough.

When historical facts are twisted for political reasons — particularly at this moment of division and tribalism in our politics — we are taking steps backward and not forward. It is in this nation’s interest to teach our children our full history — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and all points of view. The discussion should be robust, and it should not be hijacked by our politicians

• Keith Peterson, of Lake Barrington, served 29 years as a press and cultural officer for the United States Information Agency and Department of State. He was chief editorial writer of the Daily Herald 1984-86.


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