- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

NICOSIA, CYPRUS (AP) - An executioner’s bullet left a coin-sized hole in the skull of Huseyin Mehmet Buba, a Turkish Cypriot army private whose remains were found in a well two years ago, a generation after his death.

“They put the gun on his cheek and they fired, and the bullet hole is on top of his head,” said Buba’s son, Omer Huseyin. A caterer living in London, he flew to Cyprus last month and shoveled damp soil onto his father’s coffin at a military funeral that followed a lengthy identification process, including DNA analysis.

A violent past cloaks Cyprus, a Mediterranean island known to tourists for sun and sand. But after years of inactivity, one of the island’s only institutions that includes both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots is alleviating some of the pain of grieving relatives.

The U.N.-backed Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus has made gradual progress in locating and identifying the remains of nearly 2,000 Cypriots, three-quarters of them ethnic Greeks, who disappeared in the chaos long ago.

Buba, 40, was dressed in civilian clothes when he vanished after getting off a bus near Nicosia General Hospital in December 1963. A power-sharing deal in the former British colony had collapsed and fighting had erupted between the ethnic Greek majority, comprising 80 percent of the population, and the ethnic Turkish minority.

Most of the victims in the early violence were Turkish Cypriots, but Greek Cypriots suffered more casualties when Turkey invaded in the summer of 1974 and seized part of the island after a failed coup intended to unite Cyprus politically with Greece. There were widespread allegations of summary executions by both sides.

Giorgios Hadjiyiannis, a 34-year-old Greek Cypriot reservist and builder by trade, was in a group of fighters that was cut off by advancing Turkish forces in the Turkish Cypriot village of Chatos. His remains were exhumed in late 2007.

His only child, Maria Georgiou, was a baby when he vanished. Nearly 35 years later, she ladled soil onto his casket at a memorial service that took place in the Greek Cypriot southern part of Nicosia a few hours after Buba’s burial in the northern, Turkish Cypriot sector of the divided capital.

“For a long time, I waited to say the word ‘father’ to you,” Georgiou said in a speech that drew sobs from black-clad women at the service. “For other children it was natural to say the word, but not for me. I didn’t have the fortune to meet you, but I know you very well. My mother explained everything to me.”

Georgiou said she believed her father was killed by an artillery shell.

The missing persons panel includes geneticists, archaeologists and anthropologists from northern Cyprus, controlled by ethnic Turks, and the southern, Greek Cypriot-controlled part. Better contacts and access to suspected burial sites helped the work of the committee, which has returned the remains of 135 people to families since 2007; a total of 486 sets of remains have been exhumed.

Greek Cypriots have downplayed the abductions and killings of Turkish Cypriots in 1963-64, and they rallied international criticism of Turkey for the upheaval their people endured in 1974. The Turkish government, which still keeps troops in northern Cyprus, denied allegations that some of the missing were held in captivity in Turkey after the war.

Turkish Cypriot authorities have begun to open up after years of urging their own people to simply accept that their missing had died as “martyrs.”

“Nobody knew what the word ‘missing’ meant” in northern Cyprus, said Sevgul Uludag, a Turkish Cypriot journalist who has written investigative stories about the missing in Yeni Duzen, a Turkish Cypriot newspaper. “It was a pain they kept locked up alone, inside themselves.”

Uludag’s work, also published weekly in Politis, a Greek Cypriot newspaper, has helped to solve cases and erase the taboo surrounding the issue. She has received some threats, and sources usually remain anonymous because they sometimes talk about killings by people they know.

“If you live in a village and you speak out, they would make life very miserable for you because the killers are alive,” said Uludag, who relates basic details about missing people in hopes of jogging the memory of readers who might know their whereabouts. Her book, “Oysters with the Missing Pearls,” includes the account of Maria Georgiadou, whose parents, brother and sister were believed to have been killed in north Cyprus in 1974.

“My father Andreas Orphanidou used to have animals, sheep and lambs, and used to produce halloumi (cheese) together with my grandfather,” recounts Georgiadou, a Greek Cypriot. “My mother Christalla, until I was about 12, used to work in the village, going to different houses and helping the collection of olives, of wheat.”

In 2003, travel restrictions between the north and south relaxed, and Georgiadou returned to her home village of Kythrea for the first time in nearly 30 years. An excavation in the yard behind her old house, now occupied by Turkish Cypriots, failed to uncover remains.

United by loss, Georgiadou and Sevilay Berk, a Turkish Cypriot whose parents went missing in 1964, became close friends. In 2004, Berk said, a developer found bones in a well where her parents may have been buried and gave them to Turkish Cypriot police, but she could not find out what happened to the remains.

“I feel as though they were lost for a second time,” said Berk, who sat with Georgiadou in a shopping center on Ledra Street in downtown Nicosia, where a crossing between the north and south opened last year in a gesture of reconciliation.

Although Greek Cypriots have demanded a full accounting of the missing, at least two factors weigh against getting to the truth in all cases.

The Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus does not have the mandate to treat a burial site as a “crime scene,” explained Christophe Girod, the committee’s U.N.-appointed member. Investigations also would need impartial cooperation on sensitive allegations of human rights violations even as the two sides are still arguing about how to unify the island.

The negotiations are snared in disputes over a joint government, the Turkish troop presence and ownership of property abandoned by fleeing civilians. Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, but only the south gets its benefits.

At the funerals of Buba and Hadjiyiannis, honor guards fired three-volley salutes, and coffins were just 3 feet long and a foot wide, custom-made to hold the recovered bones. A Muslim cleric led prayers for the Turkish Cypriot in a subdued, open-air ceremony; the Greek Cypriot’s service was a grander affair in a packed church with chandeliers.

At Hadjiyiannis’ grave, relatives opened the casket to sprinkle flowers on the wrapped bones, and leaned in to kiss what appeared to be the skull. At Buba’s grave, the coffin stayed shut.

“I can’t say I hate 100 percent of the people” in Greek Cyprus, said Buba’s son, Huseyin. “But I’m angry at the people who caused this.”


Associated Press Writer Menelaos Hadjicostis contributed to this report.

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