Relatives of missing Cypriots given new chance to get closure

NICOSIA – The final act in dozens of human tragedies from divided Cyprus’s troubled past is unfolding in a clinical room with four tables draped in white sheets. Here, in the buffer zone separating Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot communities, families will get a first glimpse of relatives who vanished in fighting in the 1960s and 1970s, their hastily dug graves lost in the fog of postwar politics. «We’ve had instances where children who hadn’t been born when their father disappeared see him for the first time as a skeleton,» said Elias Georgiades, the Greek-Cypriot member of a committee tasked with uncovering the fate of hundreds of missing Greek and Turkish Cypriots. An international forensics team carries out the actual search for the approximately 1,500 Greek Cypriots and 500 Turkish Cypriots who are listed as missing. To date, the exhumation and identification program has unearthed the remains of 379 missing people. The disappearances began in 1964 at the onset of intercommunal violence. They culminated in 1974 when Turkey invaded in response to a failed coup by supporters of union with Greece. Many died in battle; others were victims of revenge killings, buried in unmarked graves undisturbed for decades until long-suppressed information guided anthropologists to them. The new facility, inaugurated this week in the no man’s land that cuts across the island’s capital, Nicosia, will allow scores of families from both sides to see recently unearthed remains of a relative for the first time in decades. «This is a place where a lot of emotion will unfold,» said Christophe Girod, the committee’s UN-appointed member. Until now, viewings of the remains were held in a cramped office that was once part of the old airport’s installations. Since July, the families of 57 Greek Cypriots and 26 Turkish Cypriots have viewed the identified remains of their relatives. Remains first undergo laboratory analysis before DNA testing to identify them. Then families are called in. At one recent viewing, an elderly grieving woman caressed the skull of her husband, weeping softly as she kissed his jaw bone. The Greek-Cypriot man had vanished in 1974, after being snatched from his home late one summer evening, his relatives said. They asked that neither they nor the man be identified. His remains were found in a shallow grave in the northeastern Karpass peninsula alongside those of 11 others. He was handcuffed to another body lying beside him. Forensic scientists said they could not determine the exact cause of death. But in his relatives’ minds, there was little doubt – his skull was fractured and he had a bullet hole in his shoulder blade. The black-clad relatives viewed the skeletal remains with quiet resignation. «After so many years, we expected this,» said one of the man’s three daughters. One relative lit incense to waft over the remains in accordance with Orthodox Christian custom. His children said that at least this time, their father would receive a proper burial. There was a palpable sense of relief at the end of the viewing. The relatives embraced the staff and expressed their gratitude, some even managing to smile. Families take custody of the remains a day or so later after signing release papers. Officials say such viewings have a ceremonial quality to impart a sense of closure. Relatives are first ushered into a sitting room where experts involved in the exhumation and identification process field questions and offer emotional support. They are then guided into an adjacent viewing area where the remains are neatly arranged on a table. Clothing and other items such as keepsakes and pocket change found at the burial site are displayed nearby. «The families cry, they shout, they kneel, they kiss the bones, they touch them… they demand the truth, the whole truth,» Georgiades said. «These are sacred moments for the relatives,» he added. «They imagine the last days, hours and moments of the skeleton that lies before them.» The exhumation program is seen as a way to heal a festering wound that has long impeded reconciliation between the two estranged communities, as efforts to reunify the island remain stalemated. The program has raised around $5.33 million in donations to carry on its work through 2008, with an estimated five years remaining for completion. «Without closure, the pain and anguish of these families remains. That is why the work of the (committee) is so important, not only to the families themselves, but also to the future of the island,» US Ambassador Ronald Schlicher said.

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