From the sea, this Mediterranean port city looks as it always has. Modern hotels line a sandy beach like massive sentinels against a hot wind. Television aerials stab into the sky atop apartment buildings. In the gentle, shimmering heat haze, the walls of the houses are strikingly white.

Only when you get closer do you realize that Varosha - as the modern part of Famagusta outside the walls of the Turkish old city is called - is a ghost town. Except for an occasional Turkish military patrol, not a single car moves along its streets. No people sit under the awnings of the cafes. Now and then a lean cat darts out of an alley and disappears. A sea breeze rattles half-closed shutters. The silence is eerie, oppressive, nerve-racking.

It has been like that for the past three years, since Varosha's 26,000 Greek Cypriots left by car and on foot, atop farm tractors and on donkeys to escape the advancing Turkish army.

Sealed off by Turkish troops, Varosha had been waiting, an empty shell lashed by rain in winter, scorched by the sun in summer. It has been waiting for a settlement, a pawn in the never-ending verbal chess game over Cyprus.

Varosha is the eye of the latest political storm on the island. The Turks announced they will bring in settlers and reopen abandoned hotels. The Greek fired a volley of cables to governments and international organizations. A vast propaganda effort has been set in motion in Washington, New York, Athens and London to keep Varosha from the conquering Turks.

[Cypriot Foreign Minister John Christophides appealed to the United Nations Security Council Wednesday to block Turkish moves into Varosha, Reuter reported.]

As usual in Cyprus, the problem, with its ominous international implications, stems from a misunderstanding.

After their seizure of the abandoned city, the Turks left Varosha intact. For months the city remained the way the fleeing Greeks left it. There were neatly ironed shirts in the window of a laundry and frozen chickens in the supermarket.

Varosha, it was understood, was "negotiable." The Turks apparently hinted that while they intended to run the port, which is in the old Turkish quarter of the city, they were willing to allow the Greek inhabitants to return to their homes in exchange for Greek concessions on a future Cyprus government.

The Greeks did not respond to the Turkish hints with any counter offer. During haphazard negotiations in the wake of the 1974 Turkish invasion of the island, the Greeks insisted on the evacuation of Turkish troops and the return of refugees to their homes in the Turkish-occupied sector.

The Turks staked their prestige on invading Cyprus and regrouping the Turkish population under Turkish army guns in the north of the island. While the dialogue became more and more sterile, Varosha rotted.

Eventually Turkish troops started removing stocks from shops, machines from factories, equipment from hotels and offices. No one knows the cost of the war booty, and all estimates are bound to be incorrect as no information has been released by the Turks. But Varosha was the warehouse of this prosperous island, and the size of the loot must have been considerable.

When news of the planned Turkish resettlement of Varosha was announced in July, Archbishop Makarios, then-President of Cyprus, warned that the action would remove all hope for an early settlement. Few politicians were unduly perturbed; no one expects an early settlement.

Subsequently Rauf Denktash, president of the self-styled Turkish Federated State of Cyprus, said there was never any formal indication that Varosha was negotiable. Varosha, Denktash said, "concerns only the Turkish Cypriots."

How fast the Turks can move to resettle the city is debatable. Army barricades still bar all entrances to Varosha. Some immigrants from Turkey and Turkish Cypriots have been settled on the outskirts but not in Varosha.

The plan under discussion is to open to settlement only a small fraction of Varosha, an area of 800 by 1,200 yards since the Turkish Cypriots have no trained personnel capable of running a modern city the size of Varosha. Whatever talent is available is being used in reactivating life in the Turkish sector of Cyprus, about 36 per cent of the island.

Thus the "reactivation" of Varosha may take some time. It will take even longer to reopen the hotels, once the pride of Cypriot tourism.

All this seem distant from the eerie reality of Varosha. In the empty streets the sun is blinding. A Turkish army jeep manned by helmeted soldiers breaks the silence - a brutal reminder of the disparity between words and facts in Cyprus.