Cypriots unearth a little reconciliation

Greek and Turkish Cypriots exhume mass graves to help move beyond a bitter past.

Yigal Schleifer
Big dig: Greek Cypriot archaeologist Angela Ioannou (l.) and Turkish Cypriot archaeologist Hazar Kaba worked recently to excavate a mass grave near Nicosia.

Turkish Cypriot Mehmet Arkut was only 4 months old when his father disappeared on his way home from work on May 11, 1964.

For decades, Mr. Arkut dreamed of again seeing his father, one of some 2,000 people who went missing during the violence between Greeks and Turks that gripped Cyprus during the 1960s and '70s and which ultimately led to the island's partition.

Last summer, Arkut's wish came true – in a way. His father's remains were found, along with those of five other Turkish Cypriots who had been shot and dumped in a well. The first glimpse Arkut had of the father he never really knew was of a skeleton with a bullet hole in its skull laid out on a surgical table.

"My mother waited for him for 44 years, hoping that one day he might come home," says Arkut, a budget planner in the Turkish Cypriot Ministry of Agriculture.

The Arkut family's bittersweet reunion was the result of the work of the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus (CMP), a United Nations-sponsored group created in 1981 and tasked with finding the remains of the Mediterranean island's missing.

The committee is one of the few official joint Greek-Turkish groups working on the island, and its mission – exhuming the past and trying to help the victims' families come to terms with it – speaks of both the divided island's painful history and the possibility of reconciliation, especially in light of the recent resumption of reunification talks between the two sides.

"It's the most successful bi-communal project in Cyprus. Its work is deconstructing a lot of the myths and easing a lot of pain," says Mete Hatay, a Cyprus-based researcher with the International Peace Research Institute of Oslo. "People can mourn now."

After decades of inactivity, the CMP, in the past two years, has already exhumed the remains of some 400 missing Greeks and Turks at dozens of mass graves around the island and has identified 125 of them, allowing them to be properly buried by their families.

Until recently, the fate of the missing – some 1,500 Greeks and 500 Turks – was one of Cyprus's most taboo subjects, the names of those who disappeared rarely mentioned.

"The two communities initially decided not to deal with this issue and to hide it," says Elias Georgiades, the top Greek Cypriot member of the CMP.

"Practically every family in Cyprus has a relative who is either missing or dead. This is a wound, a wound that touches all of us and that gave great suffering to those involved."

He adds: "It is logical to expect that once you solve problems like this, it will help improve the climate. The opposite is also true – if we don't deal with this wound, it will lead to further problems."

Cyprus, ruled by the Ottomans and then by the British, gained its independence in 1960. But by 1963, the new country made up of Greek and Turkish speakers was in shambles, with intercommunal violence leading to the arrival of UN peacekeepers. The island was partitioned in 1974, after Turkey invaded in the wake of a Greek-led coup that sought to reunify Cyprus with Greece. The Turkish-occupied northern part of the island in 1983 declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a ministate of 264,000 currently only recognized by Ankara.

After decades of futile negotiations, the two Cypriot communities have recently restarted talks in the hope of finding a settlement that will lead to the island's reunification.

Ahmet Erdengiz, an official with the Turkish Cypriot Foreign Ministry and a member of the CMP, says he believes the group's work could be helpful in bridging the gap between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

Unlike the search for mass graves in violence-scarred places like the Balkans, the CMP's efforts are taking place before a political settlement has been found, he says.

"The politicians are actually following in our footsteps. We are offering them a model," Mr. Erdengiz says.

"We are proving every day to the politicians on both sides that, yes, under the right conditions, the two communities can work together."

A team of Greek and Turkish Cypriot archeologists, for example, leads the CMP's mass grave excavations. Inside the committee's lab – a prefabricated building inside the UN-controlled buffer zone in Nicosia – Greek and Turkish Cypriot forensic anthropologists work side by side at long tables strewn with bones recovered from mass grave sites.

"I think that by doing this work and working together we are helping the communities heal," says lab technician Elena Styliano.

"And by healing, we can move on," she says.

Not far away, on the Greek side of Nicosia, Cyprus's divided capital, Tassoula Lazarou is still coming to grips with the discovery of the remains of her brother, Nestoros. Missing since 1974, the Greek soldier's bones were found in 2006 in a grave in an open field with three other missing Greeks.

"I was very sad in the beginning, but now I'm feeling better, stronger. The sadness is still there, but it's not as strong. We feel more at peace," says Ms. Lazarou, who keeps her brother's picture on her diningroom table, along with a wooden box containing dirt-specked scraps of his uniform.

"I can sympathize with the families on the other side," she says, adding, "I want all the families to feel at rest."

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