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Identifying the Remains of the Missing After the Turkish Invasion of Cyprus

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Greek Cypriot widows and mothers search for their missing husbands and sons after the Turkish Invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Credit: Public domain

Over 2,000 people in Cyprus were reported missing after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, when Turkish troops illegally invaded the island.

According to a list of 2,002 missing people that was agreed on by both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities shortly after the invasion in 1974, 1,510 were Greek Cypriots and the remainder of the missing, 492, were Turkish Cypriots.

In the years after the invasion, Turkey sent thousands of settlers from its own country, who had no relationship to Cyprus, to inhabit the homes and villages of the nearly 200,000 Greek Cypriot refugees who had been forced out of their homes. The UN has designated this an act of ethnic cleansing.

The puppet government in the occupied north that was created as a result of the invasion, called the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,” is only recognized by Turkey amongst all the other nations of the world.

The political remnants of the Turkish invasion of the island are evident everywhere, as even Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, is split in two, making it the last divided city in Europe.

UN troops still patrol the “dead zone,” or the strip of no-man’s land between the borders of Cyprus and the occupied lands in the north of the island.

But perhaps the most devastating and violent remnants of the brutal Turkish invasion are the thousands of civilians who went missing nearly fifty years ago — and whose remains have yet to be found or identified.

Hundreds of people remain missing on Cyprus, decades after invasion

Since the painstaking work to identify and return all remains to families began in 2004, the remains of over 1,200 missing people have been found; nearly all of these have been identified and returned to their families.

As of today, hundreds of Greek and Turkish Cypriots still remain missing, however.

These figures include both those who have been missing since the clashes between Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities in 1963 and 1964, as well as those whose fate has remained unknown since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus a decade later, in 1974.

The Committee on Missing People in Cyprus, or CMP, a bi-communal body dedicated to identifying and locating the remains of the missing in Cyprus, was established in 1981.

The CMP is headed by three figures, two of whom were appointed by and represent the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, and a third, who was chosen by the International Committee of the Red Cross and appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations.

Leonidas Pantelides, the Greek Cypriot representative, spoke with Greek Reporter about the importance of returning the remains of the missing to their loved ones, and the process of uncovering the layers of the country’s brutal history.

The CMP does the “belated, but necessary” work of recovering the bodies of those who were reported missing after the Turkish Invasion in 1974, Pantelides states.

The main mission of the CMP, as Pantelides stresses, is “not assigning blame, or culpability” for the deaths of the missing, but simply to “find and identify their remains” and return them to their families.

This work is integral to providing closure to a deep wound that has remained open for decades. Locating and returning the missing to their loved ones is “extremely important,” Pantelides says.

Recovering the missing “removes the uncertainty” for their families, he believes.

“If their loved one remains missing, they don’t know what happened…Did they suffer? Were they imprisoned? When they don’t know, it’s just a vagueness. Once we have recovered the remains, we can tell them the full story and give them closure,” Pantelides relates.

Recovering remains is “A medicine for an open wound”

Nikos Sergides, the President of the Organization of Relatives of Undeclared Prisoners and Missing Persons of Cyprus, states to Greek Reporter that “although it is a tragic development” for remains to be identified, “it is medicine for an open wound that has been bleeding for almost half a century.

“Just after receiving the remains, it is a normal for there to be anger and sadness, but then the souls of the relatives of the missing are at peace, because at least they know what happened to their loved ones and they have a place to light a candle for them,” Sergides continues.

The CMP also provides psychological support to loved ones of the missing once their family members are finally found, and after identification, they release the remains so the dead can receive a proper burial.

Additionally, Pantelides argues that CMP’s policy of not assigning blame on particular individuals for the deaths of those recovered is “integral to recovering information” about the whereabouts of the missing, and continuing their work.

The CMP depends on eyewitness accounts to determine the locations of potential burial grounds. Often, statements come from survivors or accidental witnesses, and even those who may have been involved in the killings themselves.

There are instances, however, when construction workers come across remains while digging; but these and other similar instances are less common.

While the body relies mainly on depositions and witness statements taken shortly after the invasion in 1974, many people still come forward decades after the events to share information about the locations of bodies.

If the CMP were to assign blame for deaths, Pantelides stresses, this could lead to many people remaining silent about any knowledge they may have, impeding the group’s mission of recovering as many remains as possible.

For this reason, when bodies are recovered, CMP provides as much information as they can to the families, without releasing anything that could be used to prosecute an individual.

Even without the fear of criminal prosecution, witnesses can be hesitant to share information. The trauma of their experience, coupled with the passing of time, can make statements fuzzy and even unreliable.

The process of locating, identifying remains of the missing on Cyprus

However, when CMP receives a reliable account about the location of remains, it is taken to all three members, who decide jointly whether or not to proceed. When they do, they send out a team of mainly Greek and Turkish Cypriot archaeologists to excavate.

Over 60 Cypriot geneticists, anthropologists, and archaeologists currently work with the CMP to find and identify remains of the missing on the island.

Anthropologists sort and piece together the bones of the bodies recovered during excavations and examine them for any potential details about the person and their death.

Sometimes, Pantelides notes, excavations yield unexpected results. Due to the island’s great prominence in antiquity, CMP has recovered a number of ancient skeletons in its hunt for the missing.

When bones of the missing are recovered, they are sent to a lab in the United States for DNA testing.

Once a genetic profile of the person is created, geneticists at the CMP compare the profile to those submitted by the Cypriots who have never stopped searching for their missing family members.

Only when the DNA testing is inconclusive does the CMP notify family members that they have recovered their loved ones. They also offer them a tour of the facilities where they explain the process of recovering and identifying the missing.

The fight to begin the search for victims after Turkish invasion

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The Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Credit: Facebook/Nakvat Hatikva Hakimov

Tragically, the important work of the CMP was put on hold for over two decades after its formation due to lack of cooperation by Turkish Cypriot leadership, whose collaboration was necessary in order to search for remains in occupied Cyprus.

“The Turkish Cypriot side took a completely negative stance on the issue for decades, which caused it to go on for many years,” Sergides states to Greek Reporter.

During this period of inaction on the part of the Turkish Cypriot leaders, pressure from the international community led to some breakthroughs in identifying the remains of missing Cypriots.

The devastating story of Andreas Kassapis, a once-missing 17-year-old American-born Greek Cypriot who was taken from his family’s home in the village of Assia, located in occupied Cyprus, spurred the US Congress to action, despite lack of cooperation from the Turkish Cypriots.

In 1994, American Ambassador Robert Dillon, with the support of President Bill Clinton, created a team dedicated to finding and returning the remains of the five Americans of Cypriot descent whose fate had remained unknown since 1974.

The team went to Cyprus and Turkey, where many man had been sent to prison camps, in order to locate the bodies of the missing in 1994.

While in Cyprus, they were able to find and identify the remains of Kassapis, who had been murdered by Turkish troops just one kilometer outside of the village on the very day he had been taken from his family.

This was the first time the remains of a missing Cypriot were found, and the first time DNA was used to identify a body there. The bones of the young man were returned to his family in Detroit, who finally had closure after so many years.

The four remaining Americans of Cypriot descent who had gone missing have not yet been found, but Ambassador Dillon reported that, according to information he received, they should be presumed dead.

After Kassapis’ remains were found, dialogue began to open up between Cyprus and the occupied portion of the country in 1997, with each side establishing a comprehensive list of the missing and exchanging any information about potential burial sites.

While the Greek Cypriots were eager to proceed with work to exhume and identify the bodies of the missing, including any Turkish Cypriot burial sites located in the free territories of Cyprus, the Turkish Cypriot side was still reticent, and often refused to acknowledge the extraordinary number of mass graves of Greek Cypriots in occupied Cyprus.

Cyprus, however, continued to search for the missing in its own territory, even though the same work was not being done in occupied Cyprus.

When the Republic of Cyprus informed the Turkish Cypriot leadership that they had located the graves of 20 missing Turkish Cypriots near the village of Alaminos and they wanted to exhume the bodies and return the remains to their families, the Turkish Cypriots refused to participate in any way, even in the identification of their own people.

A ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Cyprus v. Turkey in 2001 found that the refusal to participate in the recovery and identification of the thousands of missing Cypriots on occupied land amounted to a violation of the human rights of the families of the missing.

Things only began to change after Turkey began to seek admission to the European Union in 2005, after Cyprus had already joined the bloc the year before.

One year later, Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot representatives began to work with the CMP, allowing them to exhume, test, and return the remains of the missing to their loved ones, under the strict provision that the organization not apply blame for any deaths.

They also did not open their files to the CMP, a point which Sergides argues prolongs the suffering of the loved ones of those missing and damages the relationship between Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities.

Issue of missing people “a dark stain” on history of Cyprus

“The issue of missing people is a dark stain on the modern history of Cyprus. It could have been solved in a few weeks, which would have contributed to the rehabilitation of mutual trust between the two communities,” Sergides argues.

“Unfortunately, the Turkish Cypriot side preferred not to cooperate, clearly to cover up the evident crimes that the Turkish army and Turkish Cypriots committed, which are being proven scientifically today,” he contends.

Sergides argues that the ” use of inhumane methods” by the Turkish army during the invasion of Cyprus in 1974 “is deplorable, even in wartime,” and that the execution of captives and civilians, which happened during the Turkish invasion, “should never be accepted by the international community.”

Pantelides does not dwell on the past of the CMP and does not place any blame or responsibility on either party for any delays, arguing that it distracts from the committee’s job to find the missing.

However he notes that, since ancient times, in times of war, the burial of the dead was a sacred tradition, one that could have solved this painful issue in Cyprus.

“Since ancient times, there have been codes of honor between armies that there would be ceasefires so that each side could recover the dead and give them a proper burial. This did not happen when it should have…

“We’re doing this job belatedly, but it is necessary. We’re not looking to blame anybody, we’re looking to recover these people who should have been brought home a long time ago… We have the moral, ethical, and even religious responsibility to do it,” Pantelides notes.

Is recovering the remains of the missing essential to reconciliation between Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities?

Many have argued that recovering the bodies of the missing is the key to making substantial steps toward some sort of understanding between the two communities.

While Pantelides does not go so far to say that identifying and returning the remains of missing Greek and Turkish Cypriots to their families will solve the complicated issues between the communities on the island, he does believe that the process “removes an obstacle to reconciliation.

“This is an open wound, and as long as its an open wound, reconciliation is more difficult. I don’t know if by itself it will bring the two communities closer together, but it is certainly something we should remove from the equation,” he stresses.

“The more cases we solve, the more we clear the way” toward reconciliation, Pantelides notes.

The committee in itself serves as a model for a future of collaboration between the two communities, however. Pantelides concludes his remarks by saying, “The CMP is one of the very few programs where Greek and Turkish Cypriots work together shoulder to shoulder.”

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