Healing the wounds of a divided island
The tragic events in the 1960s and 1970s affecting Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots left a brutal mark on the island.
During those years, thousands of men, women and children went missing: plucked off buses, pulled out of shops and hospitals, executed in villages or killed in battle. Their remains were thrown into wells, buried in secret, unmarked graves or simply left in the battlefield.
Over the next three decades, with virtually no communication between the two communities, the tragedy of the missing remained unspoken. Far from uniting the communities, the suffering of the bereaved often served to bolster contrasting, nationalistic narratives on both sides of the divide.
In 1981, the Committee on Missing Persons (CMP) was established by agreement between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities under the auspices of the UN. The committee identified an official list of 2,001 missing persons. Since then, thanks to the support of the European Union which in recent years has become its largest contributor, it has undertaken more than a thousand excavations and exhumations across the island, recovering and identifying half of the missing and returning their remains to their families.
Taking the first steps
Each missing person case begins with an investigation into the circumstances of the disappearance.
“In the early days, it was dangerous for people to talk to us. Informants and witnesses were bullied into silence. Our investigators were threatened. The perpetrators feared being exposed. But today they understand that our work is humanitarian, that the information is not used against them.” — Murat Soysal
Murat Soysal, 41, is a Turkish Cypriot who works for CMP helping to guide and direct operations. He visits people in their homes, where he often hears stories that leads the team to an unidentified grave. Like this one from a 95-year old widow.
In 1974, the woman had noticed newly disturbed soil at the edge of her field. She knew what that meant, but after armed men spotted her, she escaped and hid. She kept that secret for more than four decades, until last year when Murat found her. Her confession led to the recovery of 20 missing Cypriots.
Murat could hardly imagine that going back to thank her would help unearth another confession. In a voice hardly louder than a whisper, she told him about another mass grave, this time in a dry riverbed. CMP had dug there before, but without success.
Over the following weeks, 16 more bodies were recovered from the new burial spot.
Across the island, Xenophon Kallis, a Greek Cypriot, is doing similar work. For almost 30 years, in hundreds of cafés, in thousands of hushed conversations, he has drawn the truth out of men and women from both communities.
“When a person goes missing, their identity is negated. They are denied both life and the right to be dead. This is barbarism.” he says.
“In my work, I try to convince the killers that their victims have a right to be brought back into society.” — Xenophon Kallis
When he was a child, he grew up in a mixed village. His neighbor, Hussein Buba, a man with many gold teeth, was the bus driver. In 1963 paramilitaries stopped his bus, and asked who on board were Turkish Cypriots. He was never seen again.
“A few years ago some remains of Turkish Cypriots found in Nicosia couldn’t be identified. So I asked the scientists if the deceased had gold teeth. And he did. ‘This is Hussein Buba who used to drive me to school,’ I told them. The DNA check eventually confirmed that it was him.”
Finding the remains
Through the efforts of Xenophon, Murat and other investigators, missing Cypriots have been unearthed from under new swimming pools and rubbish piles, in cemeteries, stone-clad lime kilns and hidden vehicles, and at the bottom of Ottoman wells.
Since 2006, the CMP has excavated more than a thousand secret burial sites across the island. The graves have been located by information gathered from witnesses of the murders, family and friends of the perpetrators, or the perpetrators themselves.
Once information on a possible burial site is obtained, the CMP’s archaeologists conduct a meticulous excavation.
Every stage of the process is recorded with photographs and drawings. Often possessions found alongside the remains — watches, wallets, rings and shreds of clothing — provide the most moving indicator of the victim’s identity and individuality.
It can take weeks — even months — to exhume and separate commingled remains. Experts must follow strict forensic procedures to distinguish each individual and ensure that there is no possibility of misidentification.
Mehmet Zorba, 34, is a CMP digger and vehicle operator. In 1963, his grandfather — who was also a driver — went missing on a journey home from work. Mehmet and his father Musa have both continued the family business of driver and digger.
In 2008, an anonymous informant revealed where Mehmet’s grandfather had been buried 45 years earlier. The CMP hired Mousa and his digger machine for the excavation. They worked for days, but as time passed, Mousa asked Mehmet to relieve him at the wheel.
Within minutes Mehmet’s scoop unearthed a thighbone. “I knew right away that it was my grandfather,” he says.
“Did you find him today?” Mehmet’s grandmother asked him when he came home that evening.
“Yes,” he answered, and described to her the shirt, trousers and shoes that had been found in the rough grave.
“Those were his clothes. That is him,” she replied.
The CMP archaeologists secured the site and proceeded to exhume the remains. DNA testing confirmed the link between grandfather and father as well as the identity of a cousin’s skeleton.
“When an excavation isn’t successful, I can feel cheated,” Andria Avgousti explains. “You believe the informant and work for months under the sun and in the rain, yet sometimes in the end you find nothing.”
Andria, 28, became an archaeologist because of her love of mythology. She studied abroad, but came home to feel her roots. That’s when she got involved with CMP.
When she visited the Turkish Cypriot community in the northern part of the island as an adult, she was struck at how similar it was: the same people, the same architecture, the same gardens, the same tastes and smells.
“I realised how alike we are, and how most of us do not want to see it.” — Andria Avgousti
Putting the pieces together
Newly discovered bones are washed with care, then laid out on a medical table. Next, meticulous analysis and exhumation site photographs help to determine if the remains are of one or more individuals.
The anthropologists assemble and associate individual bones with larger skeletal remains. Together they determine the sex and approximate age of the individual, look for identifying features such as pathologies or dental characteristics, and examine and record all clothing and personal belongings found among the remains. Small bone samples are then taken and sent abroad for DNA analysis.
The more complete a skeleton, the easier the analysis and identification.
“Although we try to remain distanced and not to become emotional, each case is an individual, of course,” admits anthropologist Photis Andronicou.
“Once [the remains of] three generations of a single family were brought into the lab: a grandmother, her daughter and the daughter’s nine- month-old son. [The way the younger woman was found], we could tell she had been holding the baby in her arms, turning away from the killers, shielding her son from them.” — Photis Andronicou
“For me, the CMP matters for two reasons. The first is emotional; everything must be done for the families to close this terrible chapter,” anthropologist Theodora Eleheriou, 32, says. “The second reason is both historical and political. The Cyprus problem cannot be solved until we have solved the problem of the missing.”
“It is a human right never to lose one’s identity even after death.” — Theodora Eleheriou
Identifying the missing
Once the remains are collected, bone samples are taken for DNA extraction and genetic matches are made to possible relatives. A small bone sample — ideally taken from the femur — is cut and sent abroad to a specialist laboratory to extract the deceased person’s DNA.
A bone and blood match of at least 99.95 percent accuracy is required for a result to be considered a positive identification. But this is not always an easy process in a place like Cyprus.
The country’s original villages consisted of small numbers of families. “The same Y chromosome is passed down the male line for generations,” explains geneticist Gülbanu Zorba, 32. “If four sons of one woman have gone missing, it is not possible to differentiate them by DNA with only a reference sample from their mother.”
Once identification is confirmed, family members are offered the chance to meet the scientists and view the remains.
“Deep down the families of the missing know that their loved ones are dead but haven’t been able to accept it,” says Gülbanu. ‘They hang on to the belief that they are alive quite simply because they never saw them dead. At the Family Viewing Facility they see the bones, and cry as if their loved one had died only yesterday.”
Laying bodies and mind to rest
After formal identification, the remains can be handed over to the missing person’s family for burial, with CMP psychologists providing emotional and practical support.
Lisa Zamba, 33, is one of the psychologists. She came to this work from a personal experience: when she was 15 years old, two government officials came to her home to tell the family that the remains of her uncle — an armoured corps officer missing since 1974 — had been found.
“The men were so matter-of-fact that my grandmother fainted,” she says. “I knew that it would be better for a woman to speak to women and started to think that I wanted this role. I wanted to help people who suffered.”
On some days she goes to villages for notification visits and finds 20 or 30 relatives waiting for the news. On other days, she stands by families at the Viewing Facility while they talk with the teams of scientists about the identification process. She might go to as many as two or three funerals on a weekend.
Lisa, and her fellow psychologist Zühre Akmanlar, 30, have broken news, held hands, given comfort as tears flowed again and again in the face of long pent-up grief.
In one case, a young Cypriot, killed decades earlier, is mourned and accompanied to his grave by his four sisters and two brothers. His remains were identified by a 99.95 percent certain DNA match, as well as personal belongings including yellow socks, black boots and distinctive buttons.
“It is so hard to let go and move forward. But the bereaved can start a new chapter in their lives with their acceptance of the truth.” — Zühre Akmanlar
A race against time
A new generation of Cypriots determined to heal the wounds left open by their fathers and grandfathers are carrying out extraordinary work through their efforts at CMP.
Over the last decade, the remains of 622 Greek Cypriots and 190 Turkish Cypriots have been identified and returned to their families. 888 Greek Cypriots and 302 Turkish Cypriots are still missing.
But time is of the essence. With the passing years, relatives desperately waiting for information on the fate of their loved one, as well as witnesses whose cooperation is vital in locating burial sites, are passing away at an ever-increasing rate. For some it is already too late. One widow’s gravestone reads, ‘If you find my husband, please bury him next to me’. The identity and dignity of so many Cypriots — so cruelly snatched from them some 40 or 50 years ago — must be restored before it is lost forever.
The materials presented here were adapted from Beneath the Carob Trees: The Lost Lives of Cyprus, published by the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus, with text by Rory MacLean and photos by Nick Danziger. The book was produced with funding from the European Union. The European Union is the largest financial contributor to the work of the CMP in Cyprus.
UNDP in Cyprus, in full synergy with the overall mandate of the CMP in Cyprus, is responsible for the day-to-day administrative, financial and procurement implementation of the project.