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Beneath the carob trees

A book released this week shows how the Committee for Missing Persons has helped families on both sides of the island come to terms with their loss

Since 2006, the Committee of Missing Persons has excavated 1,041 secret burial sites across the island as they search for the remains of 2,001 missing Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

In that time, it has recovered, identified and returned to their relatives the remains of 499 Greek Cypriots missing since 1974 and 181 Turkish Cypriots missing mostly from the 1963-64 intercommunal troubles.

The painstaking, heart-breaking work of this bicommunal group of archaeologists, anthropologists, forensic experts and psychologists is chronicled in Beneath the Carob Trees: The Lost Lives of Cyprus, a book released this week.

Through interviews with those who have dedicated their careers to the CMP and illustrated with moving, often shocking photos, Beneath the Carob Trees describes how the CMP has helped families come to terms with their loss.

The reality of the CMP's work (Nick Danziger)
The reality of the CMP’s work (Nick Danziger)

Much work still lies ahead. The fate of the remaining 1,321 Greek and Turkish Cypriots are still unknown. Meanwhile time is rapidly running out as witnesses to events that happened over 40 and 50 years ago have grown old and died.

CMP member Paul-Henri Arni sums up the importance of the committee’s work in the book’s conclusion. “The worst wound of war… the only wound that gets worse with time is when a son, a daughter, a father, a mother, a husband or a wife does not come for dinner and simply vanishes. We humans are not designed to resist such mental torture.”

Below are excerpts taken from the book

Murat Soysal, assistant to the Turkish Cypriot member of the CMP, interviews an elderly Turkish Cypriot widow who has helped them locate the remains of Greek Cypriot missing

Beyond an industrial estate to the north of the capital stands an earthen brick and breezeblock family farm. Its half-dozen outbuildings crumble and collapse into the dust. Two scrawny sheep grazed around a century-old plough. A single chicken pecked at the legs of an armchair.

 Murat Soysal talking to a 95-year-old witness
Murat Soysal talking to a 95-year-old witness (Nick Danziger)

“On my wedding day my husband and I were given ten sheep,” remembered its 95-year-old widowed owner. “At its peak we had 500 sheep.”

In 1974 the woman had spotted newly disturbed soil at the edge of her ‘rabbit food field’. Then armed men had spotted her. They’d chased her but she’d managed to escape and hide. She had kept her secret hidden for more than four decades, until last year when Murat found her. Now he returned to the farm to pay his respects, and to thank her for helping to bring about the recovery of 20 missing Cypriots.

Murat squatted beside her. Her watery, lidless eyes gazed out from a sun-blistered face peppered with age spots. Her bone-thin arms seemed to be covered by little more than thin parchment.

As he talked the widow held her walking stick in her hands. Informants are never paid for information yet when he finished she volunteered in a voice hardly louder than a whisper, “You know, there is another mass grave…”

“I felt my hairs stand on end,” Murat said later that day, brushing his arm. “She told me about a certain dry riverbed. We had dug there before but never found the right spot. We have to work on this new information.”

Over the following weeks 16 more bodies were recovered from the new burial spot that the widow had identified.

 

Xenophon Kallis, assistant to the Greek Cypriot member of the CMP

feautre missing - Xenophon Kallis, assistant to the Greek Cypriot CMP member (Nick Danziger)
Xenophon Kallis, assistant to the Greek Cypriot CMP member (Nick Danziger)

Xenophon’s work is a calling, not a job. In many ways he is the conscience of the CMP.

“When a person goes missing, their identity is negated. They are denied both life and the right to be dead. This is barbarism. I try to convince the killers that their victims have a right to be brought back into society.”

Xenophon’s childhood was ‘filled with bloodshed’. He was born in 1951 in Dali, a mixed village close to Nicosia. He grew up in the long shadow of colonialism, not least after the British briefly imprisoned his left-wing parents. He remembers his first sight of a blue beret in 1964 – a Canadian UN peacekeeper – outside his school.

“I also remember Hussein Buba,” he volunteered. “When I was a boy in Dali there were not many cars. Our neighbour Hussein Buba was the village bus driver. He was a kind man with a big moustache and gold teeth. Lots and lots of gold teeth. In 1963 paramilitaries stopped his bus, and asked who on board were Turkish Cypriots. Hussein Buba smiled his big golden smile and was taken off the bus. He was never seen again.”

Xenophon went on, “I don’t believe in metaphysics but a few years ago some remains of Turkish Cypriots found in Nicosia couldn’t be identified. So I asked the scientists if the deceased had gold teeth. And he did. ‘This is Hussein Buba who used to drive me to school,’ I said to them. The DNA check confirmed that it was him.”

Through Xenophon’s efforts, and those of Murat Soysal and other investigators, missing Cypriots have been unearthed from under new swimming pools, in cemeteries, at the bottom of Ottoman wells, in stone-clad lime kilns and hidden vehicles and beneath wild rubbish dumps under discarded asbestos.

“Even the tiniest fragment of bone has significance because its identity enables that missing person to be reincorporated into their society,” he said.

“It helps to restore a family’s dignity. Also for me our work has created the opportunity to talk to both the Turkish Cypriots and the Greek Cypriots who were involved in the crimes, and this helps to give me hope for the future.”

 

Mehmet Zorba, a CMP digger and vehicle operator. In 1963 his grandfather went missing in Karpasia. Forty-five years later, Mehmet was operating the digger that uncovered his grandfather’s remains

In 1963 Ali Zorba set off from Famagusta on the 6o-kilometre drive for home. His cousin rode beside him in the passenger seat. Somewhere along the dark Karpas road, Ali, his cousin and the truck vanished.

After the disappearance, Ali’s widow – Mehmet’s grandmother – struggled to survive. She was only 32, a mother of five children, the youngest of whom was just 15 days old. She found work in the fields harvesting corn and tobacco, and shepherding neighbours’ flocks. Later she served as a hotel chambermaid. Yet some days her children ate nothing more than two slices of bread. Hence as soon as he was old enough, her eldest son – Mehmet’s father – learnt to drive. He joined the army and trained as a welder. After his release he earned enough money to buy a second-hand truck and then a JCB, transporting goods, digging foundations and fetching sand and shingle from the shore to use as building material in Kaleburnu.

In turn his son Mehmet also became a driver.

Mehmet Zorba, CMP vehicle operator (Nick Danziger)
Mehmet Zorba, CMP vehicle operator (Nick Danziger)

In 2008 an anonymous informant revealed where Mehmet’s grandfather had been buried 45 years earlier. The CMP hired Mehmet’s father’s digger, and asked him to operate it.

Dozens of villagers gathered at the site on the Famagusta-Kaleburnu road, pushing forward in their hope to be the first to spot the remains. But as the days passed their anticipation dissipated. The informants were asked for more specific information, and the search was refined, yet still nothing was found. Mehmet’s father began to lose hope, and one day after lunch he asked Mehmet to take over.

“1 didn’t have the heart to work any longer,” recalled Mousa.

Within minutes Mehmet’s scoop unearthed a thighbone.

“I knew right away that it was my grandfather,” said Mehmet.

The CMP archaeologists then secured the site and proceeded to exhume the remains. DNA testing would take another month, confirming the link between grandfather and father as well as the identity of the cousin’s skeleton, but the family needed no scientific proof.

“Did you find him today?” Mehmet’s grandmother asked him when he came home that evening.

“Yes,” Mehmet answered, and described to her the shirt, trousers and shoes that had been found in the rough grave.

“Those were his clothes. That is him,” she replied.

 

Maria-Chrystalla Kyrkimtzi, CMP anthropologist, helps identify remains of missing persons

“I was very nervous the first few times I met the bereaved,” she recalled, keeping her emotions in check. “Inevitably the return of the remains is a heartbreaking experience.”

Often during the viewing of the remains there is anger. Always there is weeping. Once a mother stood over her son’s bones and sang a lament that she’d composed over the years, bringing the gathered family and scientists to tears. But always in the end there is a silence.

Maria-Chrystalla looked down at her hands and said, “I often think that it’s in those quiet moments that people are most hurting.”

She rolled the cigarette back and forth in her long fingers, then went on, “Our work is belittled from time to time. Some critics ask why we don’t just leave the dead to lie in peace? Or say that we shouldn’t bother as there is no legal follow-up. To my mind we do it for the relatives. The relatives simply need to know – have a right to know – what happened to their loved ones all those years ago.”

CMP psychologist Liza Zamba comforts a relative at a funeral (Nick Danziger)
CMP psychologist Liza Zamba comforts a relative at a funeral (Nick Danziger)

Liza Zamba, CMP psychologist, counsels the bereaved

Across the island in cavernous Agios Yorgos, the largest church in Xylofagou, some 400 mourners gather for the funeral of Kyriakos ‘Tsiapras’ Charalampous, a local reservist soldier 40 years dead. Beneath gilded portraits of the saints, his bones lie in a cradle-size coffin, flanked by soldiers. His family weeps beside him. Politicians stand to the right of the priests, stepping forward to add their voices to the amplified liturgy. A television cameraman changes angle for a close-up.

An honour guard then escorts the coffin as it is carried down the aisle, into the blazing September sunshine and onto a National Guard light troop transporter. The mourners surge behind it, through the narrow village lanes to the cemetery. As Kyriakos’ remains are lowered back into the earth, his sisters keen themselves into hysterics, wailing in a free verse myroloi dirge:

“Every evening our mother waited for you,

Waited for you to walk up the road and come home…”

The old woman who was his mother never knew of her son’s fate, for she died two years before the discovery of his bones.

A volley is fired over the mourners’ heads and the last post is sounded.

Liza moves through the crowd to stand with the family, whispering to them, embracing them. Uniformed officers also pay their respects as the soil is eased onto the coffin, burying Kyriakos for the second time in his life.

In 1974 Kyriakos Charalampous was captured along with seven other soldiers, never to be seen alive again. His remains were found in a mass grave on the other side of the island.

“Why do I do this work?” asked Liza later that day. “Because I want to help people to resume their lives after the identification of their family member. Families of missing persons go through stages of anger, sadness, agony, but they have not grieved in all these years. We are next to them to help them to express their emotions and face their feelings through the grieving process. Our role is to help them to express all these suppressed feelings as I believe that unresolved grieving can lead to complications such as depression, anxiety and health problems.”

 

Beneath the Carob Trees: The Lost Lives of Cyprus

Text by Rory MacLean

Photographs by Nick Danziger

In Greek, Turkish and English

Available in bookshops, price €15.75

Can also be ordered online from Armida Publications www.armidabooks.com/upcoming-releases/beneaththecarobtrees-front-english

Kindle version is available from amazon.com, amazon.co.uk

In the north, the Turkish edition has been published by Galeri Kültür Yayınları and is available in bookstores there

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