Cyprus speeds up searches for missing people with high-tech tools

Cyprus speeds up searches for missing people with high-tech tools

A sad and dark history lays buried on the Mediterranean island paradise of Cyprus, an island divided in two, with a U.N. patrolled buffer zone keeping the peace.

A war over 40 years ago split the country between the Greece junta-backed Cypriot Greeks on one side, and Turkish troops and Turkey-backed Cypriot Turks on the other. Thousands died, many buried in shallow graves, their deaths never recorded, their bodies never found.

For families on both sides of that buffer zone, the heartache from never knowing for sure what happened to their love ones, having nothing to hold on to but the void left by their disappearance, is agony.

With an office at the disused Nicosia airport straddling the U.N. controlled buffer zone, the Cyprus’s Committee on Missing Persons has worked for 11 years to end that pain.

The group has unearthed the remains of more than half of the 2,000 Greek and Turkish Cypriots who disappeared in the 1960s and during Turkey’s 1974 invasion.

Scientists and anthropologists meticulously piece together skeletons ravaged by time, sometime piecing together tiny fragments of a skull so that when loved ones see their family members one last time and get to put them to proper rest, it is more than a pile of fragments that they see.

“It’s for the dignity of the dead, but it’s also to prevent that the family who faces the reality, the harsh reality for the first time in terms of seeing their loved one into (as) a skeleton doesn’t have more of a shock to see the skull broken because the skull in all cultures, including here, is the centre of the human person, it’s the soul,” said Paul-Henri Arni, the U.N.-appointed member to the Committee on Missing Persons (CMP).

But for many families, getting that closure has become impossible. Natural causes, new construction, bodies buried in riverbeds and later washed away, the inevitable work of nature itself will leave some of the disappeared forever a mystery.

Time is also running out because the people who know where some of the bodies are buried are starting to die of old age.

Nestoras Nestoros a Greek Cypriot member of the Committee on Missing Persons (CMP)  said they are doing what they can to encourage those witnesses to come forward, or to at least tell someone what they know.

“We’re 100 percent sure that there are people that are still alive who are keeping important information,” he said. “We want them to understand that it is very, very useful for us, but for the families that are still waiting and still looking for their loved ones.”

With witnesses passing away, the CMP is turning to high-tech tools and archive searches to speed up the process.

The group has gained access to archival information from the United States, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and some six countries that had dispatched peacekeeping troops to Cyprus at the time of the fighting.

The CMP then uses new technologies like the Geographic Information System, or GIS, to link together information from archives, investigators, and eyewitnesses to get a more exact estimate of possible burial sites.

The new approach and archival information should boost information inflow by 20 percent, said one member of the CMP.

With the help of international donations, CMP scientists have identified more than a third of the 2,001 Greek and Turkish Cypriots who vanished during fighting between the two sides.

Conflict between the island’s two major ethnicities turned into war when a coup aiming at a union with Greece in 1974 triggered a Turkish invasion that split the island into a breakaway, Turkish Cypriot north and an internationally recognized south.

The CMP still encounters a strong unwillingness from some witnesses or even perpetrators to talk, despite promised immunity from prosecution.

Turkish Cypriot Raif Toluk is hopeful his family will soon find answers about his missing father.

Mehmet Raif vanished in early on Dec. 22, 1963, while working at the state telecommunications authority CyTA.

Toluk said his brothers were told their father was shot as he rode his bicycle home.

The family heard nothing of what happened to their father for 40 years. Now investigative work has indicated that Mehmet Raif may be among a number of Turkish Cypriots buried in a mass grave.

Excavation at the site late last year unearthed the remains of seven people, said Toluk. DNA results are pending.

The news of his father’s discovery would mean much to him, said Toluk.

“I think relaxation will come to our soul. Because if you don’t see anything, you don’t believe it. When they say ‘this is your father’ and we bury, I think we will relax,” he said.

Those who have laid their loved ones to rest, said it has brought them peace.

Greek Cypriot Eleni Kyriakou waited 43 years to bury her son.

The 88-year-old sat in a wheelchair at head of the grave as the small, wooden flag-draped coffin of her son Epiphanios was buried with full military honors at Makedonitissa military cemetery.

The remains of the 20-year-old second lieutenant were found along with those of five comrades in a makeshift grave after vanishing on Aug. 15, 1974, during a retreat from of advancing Turkish troops.

Epiphanios’s older brother Kyriakos said the back of his brother’s skull bore a small hole.

“After 43 years, you can imagine the emotional pressure,” said Kyriakou. “When I saw the bones of my brother, I felt relief from this pressure.”

A Turkish Cypriot man helped uncover the grave after remembering a moment from his childhood, when he was 7 years old, riding atop a donkey led by his grandfather.

The passed the soldiers’ unburied bodies in a gully shortly after the fighting ceased.

As the decades pass since that bloody conflict, the possibility of healing Cyprus as a unified island also becomes possible.  

A summit aiming to reach a breakthrough agreement reunifying the divided nation will be held on June 28 in Geneva, Switzerland.


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