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He sits in the shade of a mulberry tree in the garden of his ancestral home looking at the plaque placed on a wall outside what was once his brother's bedroom. “Soldier Ilias Dalamangas. Fell heroically in the defense of Cyprus's freedom, 21.7.1974. Age 22,” reads the plaque. This piece of marble, a bust on the village square and a few old photographs are all that Manolis Dalamangas has to remember his brother by.
He spent more than four decades hoping to one day bring back “even a bone” of his brother's remains and last year he felt that what he saw as his duty to his brother would never be fulfilled. “I got sick,” he says drawing a deep breath. “Lung cancer, inoperable, aggressive. I thought I wouldn't make it.”
The two brothers were born six years apart in this house in the village of Mesochori near Larissa in central Greece. “I always protected Ilias. No one dared touch him,” says older brother Manolis.
The last memory he has of his brother was in June 1974 when Ilias was training with the First Commando Battalion and was on leave. His hands and stomach were covered in the marks of the gruelling training regimen these elite soldiers are subjected to. They celebrated their reunion that day and never spoke again.
“He enjoyed life. He drank, danced and sang. He loved that kind of thing. I embraced him and never saw him again,” says Manolis Dalamangas.
After Ilias returned to base, his father had a bad dream that in retrospect seemed prophetic. “He saw his four children trapped inside a well. Three managed to come out; Ilias didn't,” says Manolis.
Just a few days later, Greece launched operation Nike (Victory in Greek) in response to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and Ilias was part of a team of 27 commandos and four airmen on the Nike 4 Nord Noratlas military transport plane.
Another 14 planes managed to take off from Souda Bay on Crete on the night of July 21, 1974, flying without lights or radar, only with a gyrocompass to guide them. One of the aircraft lost its way and landed on the southeastern Aegean island of Rhodes; another reached Nicosia but returned to Crete. The commandos on the mission were trained for operations on the islands of the Aegean, not Cyprus.
“They showed us a map on the plane; that's when we were officially briefed on our destination,” says Panagiotis Afalis, who was in one of the planes and today serves as the president of the Commandos 74 association.
As they reached Nicosia at dawn, the mission came under friendly fire after being mistaken for enemy craft. The Nike 4 crashed into Makedonitissa Hill – the only survivor among the 32 commandos and airmen was Thanasis Zafeiriou, who died in September at the age of 63. Two men were also killed by friendly fire on the Nike 6, though the aircraft managed to land.
In November 1975, a lawyer representing the Dalamangas family received a letter from the commando headquarters saying that an investigation had been launched into the incident.
The report also read that Ilias's remains were buried in grave number 34 of the Pano Lakatamia Cemetery in Cyprus, as they could not be transported back to Greece.
Over in southern Greece, in Havari, a village in the Peloponnese, the Anastasopoulou family also received a letter in the summer of 1974 informing them that their son, Andreas, had also been on the Nike 4 and was buried at Lakatamia.
This was a week after his death had been officially announced but the village policeman delayed delivering the bad news, believing that Andreas was the family's only child, when there were in fact two daughters.
A few years later, the family received a request to take delivery of Andreas's remains and his older sister, Athanasia, traveled to Cyprus with her father.
“As soon as I saw the skull, I knew it wasn't my brother. Not the teeth, not the cheekbones, nothing,” says Athanasia Sfountouri during an interview at her home in Distomo in Viotia, north of Attica. “My brother didn't have a bridge.”
A similar mistake was made with the remains of Dalamangas. Manolis unknowingly took delivery of remains belonging to two different people and buried them in Mesochori even though he felt that something was wrong.
“I delivered the remains to my parents and went out back where I started weeping because I didn't know what I had given them,” he says. “Was it Ilias, or wasn't it?”
Quite a few years after that, he received an unexpected visit from a group of Greek military officers, an anthropologist and a Cypriot civil servant named Xenophon Kallis, who headed the mission to discover the fate of the Nike 4 crew.
They told Manolis they wanted the remains in order to discover who they belonged to. They took a DNA sample from Manolis as well as from the remains of his mother, in the ossuary of the local cemetery.
Athanasia Sfountouri also agreed to give a DNA sample but she refused to return the remains her family had buried until the proper remains of her brother were returned.
“They had told us that these were ours; these are the remains my mother and father wept over,” she says.
In the meantime, a monument to the fallen, the Makedonitissa Tomb, had been built on the site of the crash. In the summer of 2015, Cypriot authorities launched a large-scale investigation.
“The excavation of the airplane seemed out of reach,” says Sfountouri, who was invited earlier this month – 42 years after the Nike 4 was shot down – to travel to Nicosia with other relatives of soldiers killed in battle.
Kathimerini traveled with them, looking for answers.
In the summer of 1974, Makedonitissa Hill was little more than a barren landscape with an illegal dump and a few houses here and there in the general vicinity. Stelios Papastylianou was in the artillery and had been called up for the war. He remembers also thinking that the Noratlases were enemy craft.
“We shot at them with whatever weapons we could get our hands on, even revolvers – they were flying that low, in order to land. This has weighed on my soul for 42 years,” he says. After the Nike 4 came down, he and other men boarded two jeeps and rushed to the spot thinking they would be arresting Turkish pilots.
That's when they realized their mistake.
As became later known, the bodies of 16 of the casualties were thrown clear of the aircraft when it crash-landed and collected, but 15 others were trapped inside. The spot was covered in dirt and debris before daybreak. Papastylianou believes that this was intended to cover up the fact that the Hellenic Air Force had entered Cyprus.
Papastylianou's testimony in regard to the location of the bodies proved valuable to Kallis, who had been unable to get any solid leads as reports were conflicting. Some said they saw no bodies in the craft, other claimed that the dead soldiers had been buried in a mass grave and others still said that they had been dumped in a marsh.
Cyprus's Presidential Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs Fotis Fotiou took the political risk to team up with Kallis so that a group of experts could dig up the monument. Mistrust and misinformation were not their only challenges: They had to destroy an emblematic monument in an area that had become densely populated. The possibility that nothing would come of it just added to the pressure. But those who were involved in the investigation say that they were driven by their feeling of responsibility to the families of the victims.
“We had a national and moral duty to the relatives, to Greece, because these young men came here at a difficult time to defend this territory,” says Fotis Fotiou.
The tomb stood 3 meters tall and the team came across the first find, a part of the aircraft, after digging just 30 centimeters below the surface.
Bomb-disposal experts first scanned each excavation area for explosives and then gave the all clear for the archaeologists and anthropologists to go in. Hand grenades were found during these scans.
Kallis describes each day of the investigation as one of “torturous uncertainty,” as they didn't know what they'd find. “The waiting was exhausting, returning home each day without having found any human remains,” says archaeologist Andreas Skitsa. Two weeks later, things changed.
“In total, we brought up 268 skeleton samples,” says geneticist Marios Cariolou. “We were worried that they may have absorbed fuels and oils that could have affected the outcome of genetic testing.”
The experts' task was made harder by the fact that they did not know exactly how many bodies they were looking for but also because of the number of the finds. The examination process began in February this year and was completed in June. The Cyprus Institute of Neurology & Genetics was able to match 91 percent of the samples and identify 15 of the casualties. Cariolou likens the process to a puzzle.
Ilias Dalamangas's remains were confirmed by the discovery of a jaw bone. “It was a vindication and I was relieved of the sense of responsibility I felt toward this family,” says Kallis, who on his visit to Mesochori had promised Manolis Dalamangas that he would bring his brother's remains back.
It was Monday afternoon on October 3 when the bus carrying the relatives of the Nike 4 victims arrived at the Anthropological Laboratory of the Committee on Missing Persons in Nicosia, looking forward to getting the answers they had been searching for for the past 42 years.
Objects found during the excavations were arranged on a large table: a plastic canteen, a revolver, a bayonet, coins and dozens of bullets. The airplane's wings were reduces to dust, which has been stored in dozens of paper bags.
A cross and a chain were found on two remains. “We didn't have a lot of objects to give back. The uniforms were ruined, and pieces of footwear or buttons are not important. I was very moved when we found the cross, though,” says archaeologist Elena Stylianou, who coordinated the teams of Cypriot and international experts at the dig.
The remains and personal items of the 16 casualties (the 15 identified dead, plus one who had been buried without due process at the Lakatamia Military Cemetery) were covered in white sheets on gurneys in the main hall of the first floor. The relatives of each victim were given an envelope with the results of the genetic tests and a map with the exact location of the remains in the tomb.
Manolis Dalamangas was the first to leave the hall. “I saw these heroes broken into pieces. I saw my brother; all his bones were broken. You give everything for your country,” he says.
“I would like to sincerely thank all the families for their patience. They gave us the courage to continue,” says Fotiou. “I would also like to extend a sincere apology on behalf of the state because we took 42 years to deliver the remains so that they could be buried properly.”
The following day, an official ceremony was held at the Makedonitissa Tomb, which was restored to its formal state. Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades and Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos reiterated that apology.
But these families did not just have to deal with the mistakes of the past, as there were times over the years when they felt they were being intentionally led astray. And when Athanasia Sfountouri returned from Cyprus with the remains she thought belonged to her brother, no one representing Greek officialdom was waiting for her at the airport in Athens.
Later, the General Accounting Office asked the family to return 300,000 drachmas, saying that a war pension for the victim's family had been mistakenly approved. They had to reach the Auditing Council to be vindicated. All she received from the state, says Sfountouri, was “bitterness and indifference."
Member of the Commandos 74 association say that a law recognizing the soldiers who took part in the Nike campaign as fighters in Cyprus – and granting them special status – was not passed until 1998. However, they say, more than 100 of their fellow fighters have yet to be awarded the special medal for action in Cyprus.
Seeing the mistakes and oversights made over the years, other victims' relatives were also hesitant to provide DNA samples. Lemonia Hatzopoulou from Didymoteicho, whose brother Christos died on the Nike 4, finally agreed to provide a sample when she realized that it would help in other cases of unidentified or missing persons.
“These people, the relatives, have given us a lesson in humanity and superiority, and I thank them,” says Xenophon Kallis.
“These families carried their sorrow and pain with fortitude,” says Maria Kalbourtzi, president of the Panhellenic Committee of Relatives of Undeclared Prisoners and Missing Persons of the Cyprus Tragedy, a group trying to heal another open wound from that time: Of the 1,508 missing Greek Cypriots, just 518 have been identified so far.
Most of the families of the Nike 4 casualties finally got the closure they were looking for on October 4, when a C-130 military carrier brought back to Greece the remains of flight sergeant Ilias Anthimos, commandos Andreas Anastasopoulos, Cosmas Giannakis, Stefanos Giannakos, Ilias Dalamangas, Antonis Zisimopoulos, Christos Ligdis, Spyridon Maniatis, Emilios Monias, Georgios Nakos, Stylianos Prinianakis, Nikos Skiadaresis, Evangelos Tsakonas, Sotirios Tzouras, Christos Hatzopoulos and Athanasios Christopoulos. The other three casualties on the aircraft are still awaiting identification.
“Today, we bring a close to the Nike 4 operation by welcoming the heroes of that night, who serve as an example to us all,” said Kammenos before boarding the Athens-bound C-130 in Larnaca.
Funeral services were held in many parts of Greece in the days that followed to pay tribute to the fallen soldiers.
Over in Mesochori, Manolis Dalamangas feels a sense of satisfaction: He survived the chemotherapy and the long wait for answers, and finally, he was able to bring his brother back home.