By Alexia Evripidou
Next Friday marks the tenth anniversary of one of Cyprus’ most deadly aviation disasters when 121 people died after their plane crashed into a Greek hillside.
This coming week many will pay homage to the innocent lives destroyed on that fateful Helios Airways Flight 522 on August 14, 2005.
For the family and friends of the deceased, the anniversary will reopen unhealed wounds not just over the devastating loss of their loved ones but also, for many, the cynical lack of official accountability over who was responsible.
A lack of oxygen incapacitated the crew, leading to the aircraft’s eventual crash after running out of fuel. One hundred and twenty-one lives were lost, 22 of them children, 107 Cypriots, and all of them someone’s son, daughter, father, mother, sister, brother. Most of the bodies were found, although burnt beyond recognition and funerals were orchestrated to help begin the grieving process. But many struggle to this day to attain any sense of ‘closure’.
DISY employee, Eleftheria Kimitri lost her niece, 44-year-old Nanasia, her 47-year-old husband Kyriacos and their three young children, Stella, Chrystia and Christodoulos.
“With five people dead, an entire home has shut down. All of our lives have been turned upside down,” said Kimitri. Her sister, Maro Makridou, Nanasia’s mother has all but lost herself, surviving solely for her living children. Daily trips to the cemetery and robed in black from head to toe are now her everyday reality. Ten years on, the pain and loss is still very real.
Constantia Rikki lost her sister Maria and Maria’s fiancé Barry. In 2005, Rikki was just 26 and Maria 27. The sisters were inseparable. On July 31, Maria and Barry became engaged and on August 14 they died.
“We’d only just met Barry and his family. It was a beautiful beginning which quickly turned into a nightmare. Our entire lives were turned inside out. Just two weeks previously we had a home full of engagement celebrations, then two weeks after a home full of mourners for the same people. My mother is still receiving counseling due to the depression,” said Rikki.
The real life stories of unimaginable loss and pain repeat endlessly, each as harrowing as the other: one man offered his flight ticket to his wife so he could stay with his son in Cyprus; parents who bought their young daughter a plane ticket to congratulate her on her excellent school grades. Guilt still plagues many. Children became orphans – the youngest was just 20 months old – and many once god loving people have turned their backs on religion, the way they perceive God has turned his back on them.
Some suffer with depression, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and phobias. Others have never since stepped on a plane. Few smile through the pain, but most are angry. Angry because they believe they were abandoned in their hour of need by their government.
Families of the dead filed a lawsuit against Boeing on July 2007. In early 2008, an Athens prosecutor charged six people with manslaughter. In December 2008, Helios Airways and four of its officials were charged in Cyprus with 119 counts of manslaughter and of causing death by recklessness/negligence. The case was dismissed, and the defendants acquitted December 2011. An appeal was filed by Cyprus’ attorney-general, and in December 2012 the Supreme Court set aside the acquittal and ordered a new trial. Two months later, the retrial was dropped under double jeopardy rules, as the charges had already been heard in Athens.
In December 2011, a trial began in a Greek magistrates’ court. In April 2012 all were found guilty and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment but with the option to buy out their sentence for around €75,000 each.
So ultimately no one was held responsible or accountable for the deaths of 121 people. Some compensation was eventually given to the families, but in 2013 the haircut imposed on deposits in the Bank of Cyprus and Laiki Popular Bank by international lenders took most of it away, including the orphaned children’s money.
From 2005 to the present day “we’ve had to fight for everything; fight for justice, for recognition of our loss, for communication, for accountability and now, we still fight for the orphans to get their compensation back,” said Kimitri.
Nicosia-based psychoanalytic psychotherapist and bereavement coach Sonya J Whittle explains that the blame shifting over what took place is common in such circumstances.
“That’s very difficult for the survivors as they feel no one’s taking responsibility. This instance, the government is not assuming responsibility, in effect they’re saying ‘you don’t matter to us, you’re only the minority, and we can do this to you’,” she told the Sunday Mail.
“This re-invites those feelings of powerlessness and impotence. No matter how many years on, that tragedy never fades away, it’s always there. Someone somewhere has to be blamed, so unless it’s assumed by someone or something a company, the government, an individual, it doesn’t help people to have closure, completion.”
Initially, demonstrations were staged to show that these 121 people would not be forgotten or dismissed. As court case after court case was either dismissed or ended in acquittals, these demonstrations become increasingly emotional.
“We struggled to be heard and convince parliament and the government that people should be prosecuted for this. There was no response, no communication. Over the years, this has created much anger. We just wanted to know what was going on. We couldn’t move on, couldn’t mourn and close the chapter. The situation left us hanging for years until the final court case were people came out innocent. You can’t imagine what it was like for the parents or the orphans who’d lost their family to be told that no one was responsible for this. 121 people died from neglect,” said Rikki. “Mistakes were made, things were neglected yet at the end of the day they tell us no one’s responsible for this neglect. Therefore why did 121 people die? Are they trying to tell us that it was all just bad luck? We got to the point where we were made to feel that it was our families’ fault for deciding to go on holiday.”
Stella Kyriakidou, current MP and clinical psychologist at the Mental Health Service, was actively involved with helping the bereaved from the very beginning and believes official mistakes were made.
“The reality is that there was nothing in place for something of this magnitude, to facilitate the mourning process. The ministry of health set up a mental health support team straight away. We were there 24/7 at the beginning. But this doesn’t end at the funeral; it’s afterwards when they need it more. I’ve kept in touch with them and they’ve kept in touch with me,” said Kyriakidou.
“The mourning process became more difficult due to what was generally believed as a lack of transparency and lack of honesty from the government, courts and airlines. And therefore there was a lot of anger and still is. It doesn’t allow for a natural mourning process, so they can move forward and reach closure.”
Kyriakidou said a lot of this anger and resentment could have been avoided if the investigation had been managed in a more transparent way.
“A feeling of mistrust was created. The anger coming out of the people was the unbelievable pain. They felt they had to fight for the right for justice for the people in the plane, but they shouldn’t have been made to feel this way. It wasn’t managed in an appropriate way. There was a lot of fear over who was going to take the blame. It was the first time this had happened and everyone was trying to figure out how to deal with it.”
To help support the families a committee was established of whichKimitri is a main member. A website exists which keeps the memory of the deceased alive and the committee oversees and protects this now extended family that have learnt to depend on each other. When they are together, no explanations are needed. In their pain, the families celebrate births, weddings and happier life moments. They do what they can to live normally.
“Some people thought the protests and tears were extreme at the time. I disagree,” said Kyriakidou.
“All the families did was ask for justice for their loved ones. I’ve never seen such dignity in mourning. I lived through it with them and saw that there wasn’t a time to close this switch, closure hadn’t occurred. You do not forget them and I cannot forget. I will be there for them for as long as they need.”