Europe’s last divided city
Cyprus, identified by the Ancient Greeks as the birthplace of Aphrodite, has long been renowned for its beauty.
But there is a darker, less widely known side to its history.
Cyprus is a divided island with a painful past.
One side of the island constitutes the Greek part, or rather Cyprus as we know it as an EU member state, while the other constitutes the Turkish part and calls itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and is solely recognised by Turkey as an independent state.
This division is the result of the long and painful conflict between Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots and Turks from the Turkish mainland.
The conflict affected Cyprus in a number of ways. However, one of the lesser known effects was the disappearance of hundreds of people during the conflict that took place in the 1960s and then in 1974 at the time of the Turkish occupation.
Almost four decades later there are still around 2,000 persons who are missing or unaccounted for – 1,500 from the Greek Cypriot side and some 500 from the Turkish Cypriot side. Most of them disappeared back in 1974 when the Turkish army invaded the island and are believed to have been killed in action or otherwise murdered.
Although many years have passed, families of the missing persons are still tortured by the uncertainty on the fate of their loved ones.
The need has therefore long been felt on the part of both communities to try to find and identify the remains of missing persons in order to return these remains to their respective families thereby helping them close this sad chapter once and for all.
It is this objective that is being sought for the first ever bi-communal initiative set up in Cyprus and led by a Committee of Missing Persons (CMP) in which both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities are represented along with a representative of the United Nations.
The initiative consists of an investigative and scientific process which entails the identification of mass graves, the exhumation of remains from the graves, the identification of the remains and the eventual handing over of the remains to the families for burial.
Mass graves or even individual burial sites of possible missing persons are normally identified on the basis of information provided by family members or survivors. Remains, which usually consist of bones and personal effects, are exhumed and taken to an anthropological laboratory situated in the UN buffer zone between the northern and southern part of Cyprus.
The remains are then sorted and bone samples are sent to a genetic laboratory where DNA tests are carried out on the bones and compared to samples of family members. If there is a match, the relevant family members are informed accordingly and the remains are passed on to them for a proper burial.
Until now this project has made possible the exhumation of about 800 remains, out of which some 300 missing people have been identified. These results are positive.
However the process requires a great deal of political cooperation and also a lot of money. The salaries of all the people involved have to be covered and the financing of the labs, among other things, has to be seen to.
Through the budgetary powers it enjoys, the European Parliament has allocated money for the process to go on over the years. Along with my Cypriot colleagues, I have personally seen to it that budgetary amendments were tabled to this end over the past years.
As time goes by, finding new people is more and more difficult. The memories of people who witnessed the atrocities and who can give clues on the whereabouts of graves are fading away as they grow older. Family members are themselves passing away without ever having learnt what happened to their beloved ones. And as known burial sites are exhausted, the project is facing difficulties because the Turkish military does not readily give access to military zones on the Turkish side for exhumation purposes.
Speaking to the families of missing persons, as I did a few days ago in Cyprus, one can sense the pain that they are still going through. During funerals of missing persons, one can see the grief of family members as they mourn their loved ones as if they died yesterday, even though they actually went missing decades ago.
Some family members of those still missing even refuse to accept that their loved ones might be dead and still harbour hope that they might actually be alive.
It is sad. But in a bizarre way, this initiative on missing persons serves as a confidence-building measure between two communities that are otherwise still at odds over their bitter division.
As Cyprus relinquishes the EU presidency, its capital, Nicosia, remains the last divided city in Europe. A sad reminder of Europe’s complexities.
A happy New Year to the editor, staff and readers.
Simon Busuttil is Nationalist Party deputy leader.