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A sock, a shirt and a tattered belt, relics of those unearthed as CMP races against time
CNA - Emilia Christofi - CYPRUS/Nicosia 18/02/2017 14:10

In the past ten years, 558 Greek Cypriots and 184 Turkish Cypriots missing were identified and their remains returned to their families. For their families, the wait is over. These persons have now been buried and their graves bear their names. For their loved ones, the pain has now turned to mourning. For the remaining 950 Greek Cypriots and 309 Turkish Cypriots missing, the wounds remain open. They are still unaccounted for. And time is running out.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the programme of excavation and exhumation across the island to recover the remains of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots who have been missing since the inter-communal fighting of 1963 to 1964 and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. The grim task has been undertaken by the Committee on Missing Persons.

“It’s been going on for so long, it`s such a toxic and painful issue for Cypriots. Cypriots are people who love their families and who were confronted with such violence between these two periods, 1963-64 and 1974 and so many people went missing that it has created such a trauma.” This is how the Third Member of the CMP, Paul-Henri Arni, describes this humanitarian issue.

The CMP has given permission to CNA to visit an excavation site at Turkish occupied Angastina village and the CMP Anthropological Laboratory (CAL) located in the UN Protected Area (UNPA) near the defunct Nicosia International Airport. The task of the archaeologists, geologists, anthropologists, geneticists and volunteers is not one to be taken light-heartedly. It is a humanitarian mission, one that they take pride in.

The Committee on Missing Persons represents both sides, Greek Cypriot Member Nestoras Nestoros, Turkish Cypriot Gülden Plümer Kücük and Arni, Third Member, selected by the ICRC with the agreement of both sides and appointed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

One of the few functioning institutionalized bi-communal bodies in Cyprus, the CMP`s work is carried out through the collaboration of young scientists from both Cypriot communities Over the past year, the CMP has doubled its laboratory capacity and increased the number of bone samples sent for DNA extraction. It relies on substantial donor assistance and the EU contributes 75% of the funds needed.

Outside Angastina village, behind factories and warehouses, a dirt road leads deep into the fields. In the distance, a stretch of piles of dirt and two backhoes. A group of mostly young people, mainly in their 20s and 30s, are part of the team that is digging and meticulously checking the soil. They have been working at the site since 24th November 2016 to locate four Greek Cypriots, missing since 1974.

This stage is the first of four phases in the work of the CMP to return remains of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots individuals to their families.

Greek Cypriot head of the team on the site, Yiannis Ioannou, a geologist, working with CMP since 2006, said there are two teams of archaeologists with two backhoes “and are looking for the remains of missing persons of 1974”.

“This is the second phase of excavation underway, the first phase took place in 2013 and we found the remains of three individuals and now because the new information was about seven missing in this area, the CMP decided to extend the excavation site and the area under investigation is now pretty big, to see if there are more remains”, he said.

Ioannou said they found a few remains, although not many pieces of bones “that can tell us that we have the number we are looking for”. These cases are the toughest for us, he remarks, “because there is no burial and we don`t know what happened to the remains. Even animal activity can move the bodies, cultivation, the weather, so we have to extend as much as we can”.

Turkish Cypriot head of the team Mustafa Emre, an archaeologist, working with the CMP since 2011, told CNA that they are “carrying out an archaeological search in this field, which is huge and the soil is not deep”.

“Every year the field is being cultivated and that is a big problem for us because the bones move and are scattered in the field”. He said excavation is 30 cm with a maximum of 50 cm. “We are checking with the hoe. We are looking with the eyes. The process is very slow because we are using hoes and we have to be careful. We are not looking for complete bodies. The bones have been separated. We are working very slowly and very carefully”, he remarked.

One can only wonder how they find remains, like a needle in a haystack. “All of us are in this job for many years. So our eyes are really well practised. We are specific for what we are looking for. It is very important for us. We go fast and we know what we are looking for”, says Ioannou.

Arni points out that because of the harshness of the soil, existing wells were used to dump bodies. “We found one body after six months of excavation in a well of 32 mt. The well was too fragile to go down, we had to make a ramp, we moved a mountain of soil, three machines, cost 67,000 just for one person,” he explained.

At the CAL, Theodora Eleftheriou and İstenç Engin, lead the team of forensic experts and anthropologists in the next phase of the process. It is the second stage, the anthropological phase where the unearthed remains will be washed, photographed and filed before being examined.

Eleftheriou shows the numbers on each set of remains. Each code has a special meaning – assigned by archaeologists at the time of exhumation. They tell the village, the year of excavation, the time the archaeologist visited the site. A letter next to the code signifies how the remains were found. No remains have names, she emphasises. “No one knows in advance who these people are; identity comes last. The scientist needs to work under blind analysis”.

Arni says that four of the scientists had worked on their grandfathers` remains. “Imagine if they had known”, he notes.

One sample is enough to be taken if the remains are found articulated, says Eleftheriou. “We have cases where bones are found mingled. Meaning many individuals were buried together, were disturbed. In these cases you need to start selecting many bones for sampling so you can do associations between the bones in order to create more complete remains and also to have the identity at the end of the individual,” she said.

And when there is a mix of remains, says Arni, in mass graves, then five to six DNA extracts are needed. “Each of them costs 500 dollars. So it immediately explodes our budget. That`s one of our problems”, Arni points out.

He shows us a huge pile of paper and explains that scientists analyze and measure every bone, photograph every bone, and all the data is entered into a central database. At the end of this process, they determine sex, age, trauma of the bones. Once this anthropological analysis is done, then the DNA analysis comes. Then they compare this with information provided by the family and any additional items found, like a cross, ring, something found in pockets. “That helps to bring all this information to what we call reconciliation and that`s when identification is done at 99.95%”. The cause of death is not in the CMP`s mandate. That was decided by the political leaders, he explains.

Eleftheriou explains that a simple case can take up to three days to analyze remains. “But then we need to get sample and send for genetic analysis – about 4 months. If everything goes well. Sometimes we don`t have DNA or no match. The relatives might be distant. If we see that there is no match with any of the missing, then the geneticist here will start looking for the reason why. Main reason is that the relatives are distant or they haven`t given sample. So CMP has to contact relatives who may be in Australia, US.” After the anthropological analysis, the small bone samples are sent to the DNA Laboratory of Bode Cellmark Forensics (Virginia, USA) that has been contracted by the CMP to carry out genetic analyses and bone profiling for the purposes of identification and association of skeletal elements. That is the third phase.

Arni says in difficult cases where the remains were all mixed up, it can take up to four-five years.
“We have remains here that have been damaged. And the remains do not allow right now to extract DNA. So we keep them. Sun and fire destroy them. And if they have been left to the surface, they do not provide good quality DNA,” he explains.

Asked if there are still people who have not given DNA, Eleftheriou explains that “there are a few. Most have given. The database is complete. Many of them are distant relatives. Sometimes the CMP may request to exhume the deceased parents”. And sometimes, if there is no good quality DNA, then the only way is to exhume the bones of the deceased father or mother and to get the DNA. And we had a few cases like these, says Arni.

At CAL, there are two storage rooms which contain remains waiting or undergoing analysis. The rooms are full of brown boxes with different codes assigned to them, Eleftheriou says. GDP is general body parts, which means the bones are mingled and were not in articulation and could belong to many individuals.

Another category, BP, means body part. The B denotes a complete body.

Sometimes there are cases which are more archaeological instead than cases of missing persons and many times we go to places and recover archaeological items but they need to be transferred here to be confirmed, she adds.

Another storage is where genetic results are awaited or cases that are waiting to be analyzed, which also includes cases for which there is no match, she explains.

In the second Laboratory lie all the difficult cases, says Arni. One table has the clothing of a woman, flowery patterns that were once bright but are now caked with a shade of brown. Shredded military belts,  probably a soldier. A single sock next to the remains, perhaps a civilian and the remains on a table of what is believed to be a young child.

Eleftheriou shows three individuals whose bones are all mixed together because there was construction in the area and the bones were disturbed. “The archaeologists recovered all the remains so we spent a lot of time doing anthropological associations, meaning that we put a group of bones potentially belonging to the same individual because of morphological or biological similarities of the bones and then we select many bones. After we created body parts, we selected few samples to cross check the associations. So at the end we managed to use anthropology and genetics to create one complete, almost complete individual”, she said, outlining the work that needs to be done.

To emphasize the complexity of the process, Eleftheriou shows a case which started in 2012 and “we now start identifying individuals and this is a case where the bodies were left unburied and we found only a few remains”. The family now will take only these (a few) pieces of bones because there were many individuals left in that grave and the bones were lost, the area was rocky, we did not recover most of the bones but the families will have back these small pieces of bones and all the individuals we manage to identify”. And this was the excavation at Pentadaktilos mountain range.

Arni is proud of the scientists` professionalism and dedication. As he says, “what is remarkable at CAL with regard to the dignity of the families is their (scientists`) capacity to reconstruct skulls. Many skulls come out broken, either due to a bullet or the harshness of the Cyprus soil. So in order for the families to have a dignified skull during the viewing, they spend up to two weeks with glue, reconstructing the skull. This is remarkable”.

When the process is complete and the remains successfully identified, the relatives are informed. This is the fourth phase, Identification and Return of Remains.

Arni says the CMP has five psychologists. “They accompany the family one month before this moment (burial) and one month after. Because this is a second trauma. You have to prepare them for this moment. The psychologist helps the wounds heal, listens to them”.

When relatives arrive at the Viewing Room, they are shown pictures of the excavation site where their loved ones were found and see the process. The necessary accessories are placed in the Viewing Room, according to the missing person`s religion, Moslem or Orthodox, for Greek Cypriots there are icons, a cross, flowers and for Turkish Cypriots the koran, pictures and flowers. The relatives can be accompanied by a priest or mufti. The remains are placed for viewing and the next day the coffin is taken to the family. A total of 1400 euro is given by the CMP to each family for the burial.

For months or years before seeing their work coming to a successful end, the scientists used to come face to face with the unnamed remains, every day. How does that affect them, we asked.

“You feel proud but at the same time it is hard. But when you come here every day, you need to get used to it. But when you are with the families, you empathize with the family”, says Elefteriou.

Archaeologist Emre has mixed feelings when finding remains on site. “We are working two communities together. But it is not important Greek or Turkish because we are looking at this job as humanitarian task. When we find these bones we know that someone will be very happy because I don`t want for any persons to have missing family. And they might want to go to the cemetery and pray for them. Sometimes I am very sad but sometimes happy”, he tells CNA.

Ioannou does not see this as a job. “The essence of our job is to find something that is important to our country. It is not a job actually, it is a humanitarian process and we feel really lucky to participate in it and is very important for us each time we find remains that we know belongs to people that lost their lives in some events in the past and their families are waiting something to take back for make a proper funeral for their loved ones”.

Archaeologist Ifet Masa says “for me to do this job is very important. I am doing this for my recent history and for my grandfather. He is not missing but he told me lots of things about these events”.

Ali Culluoglu says “I have been working since 2009 in the CMP”. Of course we are happy when we find something”. His grandfather was missing too after the Turkish invasion, in Paphos. “My grandfather was missing in Paphos in 1974 and we reached his remains three years ago in Polis, Pelathousa so I know what you feel when you find a missing person from the family. It was amazing of course”.
CNA EC/MM/2017

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