DNA detectives on divided Cyprus

Mysteries created in the confusion of war rarely become easier to solve as time goes by, memories fade, and records are lost.

But on the island of Cyprus, where nearly 2,000 people on both sides of the ethnic Turkish and Greek Cypriot divide are still counted as missing a quarter century after a brutal conflict, DNA testing may help bring "closure" and healing.

The key to the puzzle is to be found not in archives, but in a few refrigerators. Scientists of the Greek-led and internationally recognized government of Cyprus keep a "bank" of 4,000 DNA samples and a computer database of relatives of missing persons. They hope to use these tools to identify remains.

Employing methods first developed by Western forensic experts, Cypriots have for several years made genetic profiles of many of the 1,493 cases of missing Greek Cypriots. Some 500 Turkish Cypriots are also missing.

Most disappeared or were killed during the summer of 1974, when Greek Cypriot hard-liners staged a coup aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece, and mainland Turkish troops invaded to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority.

Some 30,000 Turkish troops still occupy northern Cyprus, providing backbone for the ethnic Turkish statelet recognized only by Ankara.

A joint UN Committee for Missing Persons was set up in 1981, but a 1996 report of the London-based human rights watchdog Amnesty International called the lack of progress "inexcusable."

A breakthrough came July 31, 1997, when leaders from both sides agreed to raise the missing persons issue above politics and exchanged information. But that exchange has all but dried up. Each side now accuses the other of stalling, and of politicizing a humanitarian issue.

"The DNA technology ... can provide answers," says Marios Cariolou, director of the DNA identification laboratory at The Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics in the divided capital, Nicosia.

"The willingness of people to participate is very, very closely tied with political developments," Mr. Cariolou says. "If they feel that nothing is going to be done about the missing people, then there is no point in coming."

An American precedent

In the past decade, DNA-aided identification has revolutionized forensics work. Among high-profile cases was the identification last year of the remains of a soldier killed in Vietnam, which had been interred at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.

"DNA has really opened the door to all sorts of investigations," says Dr. Mitchell Holland, chief of the DNA Identification Laboratory of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, Md., who worked on that case. Dr. Holland's lab was designed to identify older remains, and is the model for the Cyprus effort.

But in Cyprus, scientists point to the example of the one case that has been solved here with DNA so far: that of American-born Andreas Kassapis. The remains of this young man - captured by Turkish Cypriots in 1974 - were identified in Dr. Holland's lab.

But while this example shows both the potential of DNA analysis, it also shows how much effort must be made to fill in the blanks of a single case.

Turkish Cypriots say the Greek side is getting ahead of the game by expecting immediately to start seeking remains. They say Greek-on-Greek casualties surrounding the 1974 coup - which have little to do with ethnic Turkish atrocities - are ignored or blamed on the Turks, and that Greek Cypriot officials have falsely kept up hope that some of the missing were still alive.

Different interpretations

"There is a difference of interpretation," says Rustem Tatar, the Turkish Cypriot member of the UN's Committee for Missing Persons. "Our first task is to find anyone alive, but the Greek side says that until a body is found, they won't close a file."

"We are ready to resolve this, but [Greek Cypriots] are running away," says Mr. Tatar. "They want to keep this going, because if they say they are all dead, they feel they will lose their ammunition against Turkey."

When the stalemate eases, the key to closure for many could be the identification of the lost. "Without their cooperation, we can't do anything," says Takis Christopoulos, the presidential commissioner for humanitarian affairs for the Cypriot government. "So the mystery continues."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to DNA detectives on divided Cyprus
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today