The remains of 16 Greek soldiers who died as a result of friendly fire in July 1974 were transferred to Greece on Tuesday after a 14-month procedure to identify their bodies.
At an emotionally charged memorial service at the Tomb of Makedonitisa led by Archbishop Chrysostomou, the ossuaries, wrapped in Greek and Cypriot flags with a laurel wreath and a photograph were laid out on two tables for relatives to pay their respects to before a Greek C-130 aircraft flew them back to their relatives in Greece for burial.
“Today, handing over the 16 remains… we bow down to the heroes and hand over their holy remains to their relatives,” President Nicos Anastasiades said, addressing the service.
“We should never allow a war again in this country. We should never again need people to rush in such circumstances to save the country. This is the deeper meaning of our efforts to solve the Cyprus problem. We want to finally create decent conditions of peace and safety.”
The 16 Greeks were been on board the Noratlas aircraft, part of operation Niki (victory in Greek), a secret operation to lend assistance to Cypriot forces battling invading Turkish troops on July 22, 1974.
Thirteen – out of 15 – aircraft reached Cyprus from Crete in what many described as a suicide mission.
Anastasiades said 318 men had set off from Greece to send the message they were “on our side”.
They were carrying the Commando Battalion ‘A’ whose men helped keep the Nicosia airport in Greek Cypriot hands before it was taken over by the United Nations.
But several of the planes, mistaken for a Turkish airborne assault, were fired upon by National Guard anti-aircraft batteries positioned around the airport.
Anastasiades added he was shocked to see a documentary where the only survivor of the Noratlas aircraft, Athanasios Zafiriou, who recently passed away, hugged the Cypriot fighter who had pulled the trigger of the antiaircraft which caused Noratlas’ fall.
Through ongoing talks for the Cyprus problem “we are trying to create a state of peace and wellbeing where democratic institutions, human rights and the European acquis will be exercised from one end of the island to the other,” he said.
It would be a country in which its residents – Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots – would have “the first and only word on how it will run, respecting each other,” Anastasiades said under the condition that Turkish troops withdraw and security would be based not on armed forces but democratic institutions.
Anastasiades, Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, the Archbishop, relatives and other dignitaries laid wreaths before the remains.
Anastasiades gave relatives a Medal of Excellent Contributions posthumously awarded to the soldiers as well as certificates signed by him and honourary plaques from the defence ministry.
Once the transfer protocol was handed over to Kammenos by presidential commissioner for humanitarian affairs Fotis Fotiou, there was a one minute silence followed by the national anthem.
Kammenos, who was accompanied by deputy foreign minister Ioannis Amanatides and a delegation of the Greek defence ministry said both Cyprus and Greece had a common goal “to end the Turkish occupation and reunify the island” to permanently solve the Cyprus problem.
He expressed his condolences to the relatives of the soldiers and said he was proud they gave their last breath for an idea – Hellenism.
“Cyprus’ safety is our safety too,” Kammenos added, pledging Greece would always be by the side of the island.
Fotiou said this was a difficult day for everyone, particularly for the families who for decades were unsure of the fate of their children and parents that passed away without ever finding out the whole truth.
Commending their bravery, he said when the aircraft hit the ground in flames it overturned throwing out 16 soldiers, who were buried in the Lakatamia military cemetery.
The remaining 15 were trapped in the front of the aircraft – their remains were found when excavations began at the Tomb of Makedonitisa.
The 16th soldier had been buried at the Lakatamia military cemetery and exhumed between 1979 – 1981 and mistakenly given to the wrong family in Greece. His remains were returned to Cyprus and he was identified after DNA tests.
Fotiou thanked the relatives of the victims for their patience and cooperation, saying it took 14 months for the whole procedure of excavations and identification to be completed.
He praised the relatives’ patience apologising because they had to wait for so long for a memorial that could have taken place years ago.
Another 15 remains that have not been identified will remain in Cyprus and be buried at the Tomb of Makedonitisa.