Bringing up the bodies: Cyprus's search for 2,000 missing people

“You know what I see every day? I see the things we are capable of doing to each other.”

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A stout old man scrambles through the dry grasses and up a mound of earth, tracing out the shape of his memories.

“There was a stream here. We used to call it a river,” says Soteris Theophanous, as he paces across the scrub in the village of Minareliköy. “Then, the distance to the tree was one metre. We used to put some animals there, and here we put olive trees. I know everything here, every step.”

Somewhere under the red soil lies the remains of his mother. It is 43 years since Panayoda Theophanous’s body was bundled out of a car door a few hundred metres up the road, swaddled in a black bed sheet with a bullet in her head. That was the last time anyone saw the woman who had been famous for her cooking and beauty.

Cyprus, home to a mixed population that consists mostly of Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians and Turkish-speaking Muslims, is riddled with these bones. As many as 2,000 people went missing during two spasms of violence on the island, most of them murdered and buried in mass graves. Over the winter of 1963-64, ultra-nationalists from both communities committed acts of fratricidal murder on the other, usually killing innocents.

Then, during the crisis of 1974, the Greek military launched a coup, prompting the Turkish army to invade the north of the island. Both sides slaughtered civilians.

Since then, the island has been split in two by the “green line”, a 110-mile-long buffer zone that runs across Cyprus like a scar. It cleaves the capital, Nicosia – or Lefkosa, depending on which side of the divide you are on. Just north of Ayia Napa, the booze-soaked resort beloved of the British, the UN-controlled no man’s land swallows whole towns and villages.

To the south of the line is the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus, an EU member that hosts more than two million tourists each year. To the north, there is the part that the Turkish army never left, a state recognised only by Ankara and propped up by its subsidies. On an island less than half the size of Wales, there are two governments, two currencies and, for half of the year, two time zones: the north keeps in step with the Turkish clock, the south with the Greek.

Theophanous, now 72, left Minareliköy when he was called up to the Greek army in 1974. At that time, it was called Neo Chorio, a mixed village of Greek- and Turkish-speaking Cypriots. “We used to play together when we were children,” he tells me.

But soon after Theophanous was called up, the Turkish army took Minareliköy. Greek-speaking Cypriots fled to the south and Turkish-speaking Cypriots to the north. The borders were closed and the phone lines cut. He didn’t go back for three decades – and his story was repeated, tens of thousands of times over.

The borders were opened in 2003, allowing Cypriots from either side to visit the other for the first time in nearly 30 years – the crossing can now be done in a minute. Yet numerous peace talks have failed, and few Cypriots regularly travel over to “the other side”. In May, the island’s two presidents called off their negotiations and had to be cajoled by the UN to return to Geneva for talks.

The bodies of the missing are part of the reason that reconciliation is so hard. But in a huddle of temporary buildings in the buffer zone, a team of young Cypriot scientists is working to change that. Since 2006, the Commission on Missing Persons (CMP) has been piecing together witness testimonies – often from the perpetrators – to identify the places where remains are buried. Once graves are located, archaeologists excavate them and send even the smallest sliver of bone to a laboratory in the buffer zone. There, samples are taken for DNA matching. So far, the team has handed back the remains of more than 700 people to their families for burial.

“Every primary school pupil in Cyprus should be brought here,” says the forensic scientist Fotis Andronikou, sucking on a roll-up during his coffee break. “You know what I see every day? I see the things that we are capable of doing to each other.”

Many of the skulls lined up on the white-sheeted tables have bullet holes in the left temple. Are they Greek- or Turkish-Cypriot bodies? “They are both,” says Emine Cetinsel, a forensic archaeologist who has identified the body of her grandfather in the five years she has been working here. “Imagine, 2,001 people missing. Many have suffered. To move on, we must uncover and heal. Peace is not possible if we don’t.”

Every month, there are funerals on both sides of the island for people who died decades ago, with families finally given the chance to grieve and visit the graves of their relatives. It is a slow healing process – the only project to which both sides of Cyprus are signed up. Psychologists working with the CMP say that most families still cling on to a shred of hope that their relatives are alive, even after half a century. It is only once they have seen their bones, however few may remain, that they can begin to acknowledge what happened.

For some, that is the first step towards reconciliation. “Lots of people became nationalist after the conflict. They began thinking, ‘We are Turkish. We are strong. They are our enemy,’” says Mentes Zorba, whose grandfather and uncle were killed within a week of each other in 1963. The mass grave in which his uncle is thought to have been buried is being excavated. “But once we go outside our propaganda, we realise that both sides have faults. No one is innocent. I have thousands of reasons to be a nationalist, but it is never a good thing.”

Back in Minareliköy, Theophanous is determined to locate his mother’s body before he buries the remains of his father, who was thrown in a shallow grave near where their house once stood. The archaeologists have a hunch that they may find her in a well that has since been covered and lost. Theophanous knows exactly where they should dig. As he hurries around the place where his house used to stand, now abutted by a Turkish military base, the team follows him, scribbling down the clues. 

This article appears in the 06 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania