Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Searching for the island's missing

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkey sent troops to the North of the country following an attempted coup backed by the Greek government. Some 2,000 Cypriots on both sides are still officially registered as missing as a result of the inter-communal troubles dating back to the early 1960s.

For more than 30 years, the issue of missing persons has been highly politicized in Cyprus. Each side blames the other for lack of cooperation and effective investigation. During this time, the families of the missing have lived in doubt about the fate of their loved ones.

But now, both communities are cooperating in excavating mass graves and returning the remains to the victims' families. A team of forensic scientists is working in a prefabricated UN laboratory built in the buffer zone that still divides Cyprus.


According to anthropologist Oran Finnegan, the main priority is identifying the skeletal remains. He said they have to be put together like a jigsaw puzzle.

"We begin to look for features that will assist us: age range, whether male or female, did this person have an old fracture?" Finnegan said. "We look for specific dental work -- gold fillings or crowns -- and then we can look at the ante mortem date we receive from the families."

In addition, the scientists take a bone sample for a DNA lab to complete the final stage of identification. Finnegan said the families have high expectations and his team has to be certain that it will return the right remains to the right family.

"I'm still holding on to hope."


Agni Hadjinicolaou has been waiting for more than 30 years. The 67-year-old energetic woman still recalls very clearly the day her husband Christos was arrested by three Turkish men from a neighboring village. He and eight other men were put in a bus and have never been seen again. Agni said she first thought it was a routine interrogation, and that her husband would be back soon.

"For quite some years, I hoped he might be alive somewhere," she said. "But after over 30 years, it's not humanly possible. I'm still holding on to hope, though, and I will until I see evidence that he's dead."

Christos Hadjinicolaou was a judge and went missing at the age of 35. His son Spyros is now 37 and a lawyer. He took up his own investigation, speaking to government officials and making inquiries in the North of Cyprus, near the village where his father was arrested.

Spyros said he knows his father is dead. But now that he might get the remains back, he has mixed feelings.

"It's something I don't know how to handle, particularly when you know you will get the remains of someone younger than you are," Spyros said. "So it's quite bizarre. On the other hand, it will be a relief."

Families are waiting for the uncertainty to end

On the other side of the UN buffer zone or "Green Line" that divides Cyprus, the story is much the same. Emine Degirmencioglu was 23 years old when Greek Cypriot fighters attacked her village in the winter of 1963. The family fled in panic and her husband Munir disappeared, never to return.

"I never lost my hope until the borders opened in 2003 and Turkish and Greek Cypriots could cross to the other side," Emine said. At that time, she went to see the Committee of Missing Persons (CMP), where she was told soldiers had killed her husband.

The CMP was established in 1981 and operates under the auspices of the United Nations. Its aim is determining the fate of missing persons by establishing a complete list of victims, identifying burial sites, debriefing witnesses and exchanging information between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

Today, all Emine has left of Munir is a black-and-white photograph of their wedding day. She said it's important to her to get his remains back for a proper religious burial. Like Agni and Spyros in southern Cyprus, members of Emine's family have provided DNA samples. They are now hoping that the decades of waiting to find Munir will finally come to an end.

Working together helps break down barriers

The Committee's UN member Christophe Girod said things were finally moving after many years with little progress. He said there were many encouraging signs.

"It's a small island, and even though it's more than 30 years later, the witnesses have not all passed away," Girod said. "The more the project goes on, the more witnesses come out."

Out of the 200 sites that have been identified so far across the island, forensic teams have investigated eight and recovered the remains of around 100 missing persons.

At every site, Greek and Turkish scientists work together with the UN forensic specialists. Gulden Plumer Kucuk, the Turkish member on the CMP, said she had her doubts whether all the missing persons could be returned to their families. Still, she said this work was essential.

"This project is not only going to serve missing persons' families, but will also help reconciliation," Kucuk said. "When I watch the bi-communal teams collecting remains together, I can see that they realize what a big mistake it was to fight with one another."

Chris Anthe, a Greek Cypriot archeologist from the exhumation team, said this project would also eventually improve relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. For her, it had been a very meaningful experience. For the first time, she had had real contact with Turkish Cypriot people, she said.

"It has killed a lot of the prejudices that I had," Anthe said.

Demet Karcula, a Turkish Cypriot archeologist, said she enjoyed working in a bi-communal team. She said it was difficult at the beginning to exhume bodies that had been missing for 30 or 40 years. But she felt it was part of the healing process. Greek and Turkish remains are not separated.

"I am a Turkish Cypriot, but I feel the same when I find Greek Cypriot bodies," Karcula said. "We are all Cypriots."

Families would like an apology

Spyros Hadjinicolaou said he expected to get the remains of his father back next year. Only then would it be time to think about justice. The CMP was not mandated to investigate the causes of death, or to take legal steps, but only to return the remains to their families.

The need for justice existed, though, and was legitimate, Spyros said. He would prefer a process where the guilty come forward, admit their crimes and apologize, rather than pursuing lengthy criminal litigations in court. Considering the age of many involved, that would be pointless, he said.

For the time being, returning the remains of the more than 2,000 missing people continues to be the highest priority. Like Spyros and Agni, some cling to the hope of receiving their loved ones next year. For some, the process could take up to five years -- while others may never be found.

Searching for missing persons in Cyprus by barb

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