- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 31, 2010

SOTIRA, Cyprus | The bones of Pvt. Christofis Anastasi lay in a small coffin in the back of an army jeep. His aged mother sobbed. His father, white-haired and clothed in black, gazed at the coffin and spoke in a whisper.

“I’ve waited 36 years to bury you,” he said.

Yet, mournful though it was, the tableau that unfolded in this village in Cyprus on a hazy Sunday early this month represented a glimmer of hope on a Mediterranean island that was cut in half in a 1974 coup and war and remains incapable of reuniting itself.

The man being buried was 20 when he was killed in action with Greek Cypriot forces on the first day of the Turkish invasion. His father, Panayiotis Anastasi, is 82; his mother, Stavrini, is 80, and they might never have gotten to bury their son but for an unusual partnership of forensic experts drawn from the island’s Greek and Turkish communities.

Those 40 mostly young men and women are digging up and identifying islanders on both sides of the divide — soldiers and civilians who vanished decades ago in violence whose memory still haunts Cyprus and makes intercommunal cooperation a rarity.

The missing, about 2,000 in all, are from both communities, Greek and Turkish. Most vanished in 1974, a tumultuous year in which supporters of union with Greece staged a coup and Turkish forces invaded the north of Cyprus in response, resulting in a lasting division of the island.

Then, in 2003, came a thaw. The two sides opened gates in the U.N. buffer zone dividing the island, allowing thousands from each side to visit the other. Three years later, the Committee on Missing Persons was able to start working in earnest, its staff moving freely across the divide.

About 1,500 Greek Cypriots vanished in 1974. About 500 Turkish Cypriots also are missing, some since the war, some since intercommunal violence in the 1960s.

Highly praised by the Argentine experts who helped train them, the committee’s searchers have recovered 630 sets of remains, have returned the remains of 217 persons to their families and are still working to identify the rest while doggedly looking for more.

“We don’t care if we’re looking for Greek Cypriots or Turkish Cypriots. For us, it’s the same,” said anthropologist Andri Palla, a 29-year-old Greek Cypriot, as she stood in a muddy field said to be a mass grave on the Turkish Cypriot side of Nicosia, the main city.

“Families say ‘Thank you’ to us. For that, we feel good,” said Evren Korkmaz, her 27-year-old Turkish Cypriot colleague.

While the latest round of talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders has made little progress in 19 months, they clearly recognize the importance of keeping the painful issue free of politics, which encumbered the committee’s work in the past.

Both sides fund the committee’s work, along with foreign donors including Turkey, Greece, Britain, the European Union and the U.S.

“There is political backing from both sides, and we’re getting that cooperation,” says Christophe Girod, the United Nations’ representative on the committee.

Political progress is urgently needed, says Hugh Pope, an analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank, and the bigger picture explains why.

The dispute over the little island of 1 million people feeds historical distrust between two powerful neighbors and breeds anomalies. Cyprus belongs to the 27-nation European Union, as does Greece, but only the Greek side of the island enjoys the benefits of EU membership. At the same time, Greece and Turkey both belong to NATO.

For the EU, Mr. Pope said in an interview, the stalemate threatens instability on the bloc’s southeastern flank, difficulties meshing with NATO, “while its relations with the leading Muslim country of Turkey will be poisoned.”

The scientists deliberately sidestep these issues by focusing on their humanitarian mission. Many are like forensic archaeologist George Hadjithomas, a 28-year-old Greek Cypriot who has never known a united Cyprus.

“We’re not going to solve the political problem,” he said, “and besides, it’s not part of the job description.”

His job right now is to scour the ground near a brook outside the village of Alambra, about 12 miles south of Nicosia, for the remains of two Turkish Cypriots who witnesses say are buried there.

His four-member team sifts through mounds of dirt with sieves and trowels for the tiniest bone fragment. It’s a laborious and often frustrating process — more than half of the 300 sites the committee has investigated were empty.

To encourage witnesses to come forward, the committee stresses that it doesn’t seek to identify killers. “Laying blame is not important anymore; it’s about finding bodies … and bringing relief to relatives,” Ms. Palla said.

Some skulls have bullet holes, and Anastasi’s remains were found in a grave with 38 others. There are eyewitness accounts of executions on both sides, but the scientists avoid getting into such questions and refuse to theorize, viewing their task as simply to bring closure to the bereaved.

In the field in north Nicosia, an excavator scraped layers of soil while Ms. Palla and Mr. Korkmaz looked for clues. These could be a cigarette case, a wallet’s frayed contents, a wedding band inscribed with a spouse’s name.

It’s emotionally taxing work. “When you see their clothes and personal effects and realize that these were people much like your parents were, that’s shocking,” Ms. Palla said.

Remains are brought to a lab inside the buffer zone and tested against a database of DNA taken from relatives.

Personal items can be critical. In Anastasi’s case, his younger brother Adamos’ memory of his comb proved invaluable.

He was 11 when he last saw Christofis alive “and I remembered that he always carried a comb with him. When I saw that comb, I recognized it right away. I said, ‘That’s his comb.’”

Christofis was the Anastasis’ eldest son, found in the mass grave near the north coast spot where the first invading Turkish troops landed.

Dozens of black-clad family and friends followed his coffin to the village church for a funeral service, then buried him with full military honors.

Adamos said he was bitter that it took so long, but he didn’t blame the scientists.

“You have to go see it for yourself to understand why it takes so long,” he said. “It was skeletons piled on top of one another.”

Many still wait. At the Association of Martyrs’ Families and War Veterans, on the Turkish side of Nicosia, Emine Deymencioglu talks of her husband, Munur Yusuf. He vanished in 1963 in a northern suburb of Nicosia at a time when tensions were high and tit-for-tat killings were common, though the reason for his disappearance was never known. He was 27 and left his widow to raise three children on her own. She never remarried.

She doesn’t think finding his body will help. “They’ll give me his remains in a little box, but it won’t make me feel better,” she said.

Yet she frequently visits the association’s office. Its walls are lined with pictures of missing Turkish Cypriots. Among them is a grainy photo of her husband.

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