Searching for the missing

by Emily Ullmann

A belated reflection from Cyprus…

In the aftermath of the 1974 Cypriot conflict, 1,464 Greek Cypriots and 494 Turkish Cypriots were reported missing. Over the years that followed, both mass graves and individual sites were uncovered, revealing bones and other artifacts. Thirty-seven years later, the political issues remain unresolved, and the UN-occupied buffer zone holds together the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Without a consensus on which to build a joint group to identify the human remains, the UN created a Committee on Missing Persons (CMP) to help dig up and identify the bodies.

Hearing about this program, Sophie and I went to visit the UNFICYP headquarters at Ledra Palace to speak to Oleg Egorov, CMP Political Affairs officer, about the impact of the CMP so far.

UN anthropologists analyze the remains that the CMP has unearthed. (Ullmann/TYG)

Ledra Palace lies deep in the buffer zone, a large, beautiful hotel surrounded by fences and barbed wire. Sophie and I entered through a gate, escorted by armed security. Instead of a concierge, a UN blue beret sat at the front desk and phoned Egorov to inform him of our arrival. Egorov approached us, introducing himself and leading us to his office. As we passed through the hallways, he explained that Ledra Palace had been Nicosia’s most luxurious hotel before it became the site of some of the heaviest fighting. Now, as the UNFICYP building, it seems eerie and desolate, with shells and bullet holes still in the walls.

Egorov explained to us the tough political situation surrounding the CMP, which consists of Turkish Cypriots, Greek Cypriots, and UN members. “The UN is a go-between on CMP to navigate the committee through a sensitive and tangled web of political interests, agendas, desires, and dangers,” he explained, adding that the two sides use remains and threats to impede cooperation efforts as bargaining chips.

At the heart of the project remain the families, Egorov emphasized. Due to this goal, the investigators at CMP are exempt from having to provide the names of the witnesses who come forward with possible locations of bodies. Although this continues the trend of leaving the issue unresolved, it enables people to feel safe approaching the committee with information, and thus the identification of bodies comes before blaming people or solving the political issues. In this way, CMP seems to hope to unearth the past in order to put it to rest. However, the program has caused some tempers to flare. We later found out that most of the families want to know who killed their loved ones and how they died. Some Cypriots and organizations such as Amnesty International have argued the program is inadequate because it fails to bring any murderers to justice.

Later that day, Egorov drove Sophie, Cathy, and I deep into the buffer zone to see the anthropological lab where scientists analyze and identify bones. The way with which Egorov explained the place was sobering.

“This lab is the cage. It is the pain and spirit of Cyprus. The ghost of the terrible past.”

In the lab, an anthropologist named Popi Chrysostomou gave us a tour and explained the procedure of comparing the identification given by the bones to the information provided by the families who originally reported a friend or loved one missing. Once the scientists match the bones to a missing person, they notify the families and give them the opportunity to see the remains. The family can ask how their loved one died, but if they do not ask, Chrysostomou and her staff will not offer the facts.

Anthropologist Popi Chrysostomou shows us the process for identifications. (Ullmann/TYG)

For our last stop, Egorov brought us to the room where the families get to see the remains and any accompanying artifacts. The room was strikingly bare, almost sterile. When a family comes to see remains, only a religious leader (an imam for a Muslim Turkish Cypriot or a priest for an Orthodox Greek Cypriot) and a scientist stay with them in the room. The process, though relatively short, still gives the utmost importance to the comfort of the families.

After identifying a set of remains, the UNCMP brings families to this room to show the remains and provide closure. (Ullmann/TYG)

Although the UN CMP treats the families with respect and values their well being, the program requires a vast amount of time and money ($3 million per year since 2006) without getting any closer to a solution for the political and ethnic conflicts. This program created change in a place that seems stuck in time; nonetheless, it has not necessarily gone far enough. The importance of the CMP cannot be underestimated. If the bicommunal workers do not use it as a means of cooperation and peacekeeping, the staff will have missed an incredible opportunity to not only give the families peace of mind, but also a more concrete peace and safety that would come with a solution to the problems.

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