Results in identifying remains of missing persons in Cyprus will not be increasing as time passes by and witnesses pass away, taking information to their graves, Committee on Missing Persons (CMP)’s third member Paul-Henri Arni told the Cyprus News Agency.
He pointed out that 45 years after the 1974 invasion and 55 years after the events of 1963-1964, the pain of the families of the missing in Cyprus, has increased.
“The more I work on this issue, the more I realize that it is the deepest war wound of all, the only one that increases with time”, Arni told the CNA.
He said that he is not losing hope and even if the results are going down, after all these years, the Committee is doing its very best to help the families and all those who are in such pain. “We leave no stone unturned in order to serve as many families as we can. We have to be extremely resilient and never give up”, he said.
The CMP has recently benefited from the services of a senior psychology specialist from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who is contacting families of the missing persons in Cyprus who have not yet received remains of their loved ones, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, and is preparing a report to show the resilience and the depth of their suffering. This is the first time this is happening, and the results will be handed over to the authorities with recommendations.
According to Arni, the expert interviewed more than 250 families over the last four months in the north and the south of Cyprus, which is about 25% of all the concerned families. Her report is expected to be ready in April.
“We will give the report to the authorities to show them that even 55 years after the first disappearances -in the 60’s- and 45 years after 1974, there are still needs. These families have needs, maybe not administrative needs, but mostly psychological ones. This is very fresh information, she spent four hours with every family in remote villages, up in the Troodos, everywhere, and she brings back echoes…echoes of very deep suffering still today. This is very useful to know, and she will make recommendations. I It will be a joint ICRC and CMP report”, he explained.
As Arni told the CNA, from the oral presentations the psychologist is being giving them, the daily life of these families is very hard and the suffering is so deep. He expressed his gratitude to the ICRC which accepted to do this research, at CMP’s request.
“They accepted to bring their know-how and the methodology because they do it worldwide, it is called ‘family need assessment’ and they do it usually 10 or 15 years after the conflict. But it is the first time that they will have a study done today, on a very old conflict like Cyprus. This will show the resilience and the depth of the suffering”, he said.
CNA asked Arni whether he has experienced what the psychologist is now experiencing, with all the pain of the families.
“Yes, I have, and I see that the pain is still there, it is a pain that they try to cover with dignity, but as soon as you scratch, as soon as you ask them to tell the story, they start opening up, going into tears”, he said.
The CMP’s third member told us of a discussion the ICRC psychologist had with an 80-year-old Cypriot whose mother passed away a few years after the war. Her husband, the old man’s father, went missing but she continued to buy clothes for him, new suits, to carry on her life with him being gone, but present.
“The old man told the psychologist that he took his mother to the doctor thinking she was crazy and the doctor overprescribed drugs to her. The lady died a few years after this, probably because of over prescription of drugs. And he spent his entire life thinking that his mom was crazy, and suddenly this senior advisor from the ICRC comes and spends four hours with him and she explains that she was not crazy, but it was an attitude she had, a coping mechanism to defend herself and she continued to have rituals where the missing gets new clothing, in case he comes back, refusing the possibility of death”, Arni said.
He describes how this 80-year-old started crying, holding her hands into his hands and thanking her because “finally somebody came to talk to me, to tell me that my mother was not crazy”. “This is the state of pain they are into”, he pointed out.
Replying to a question, Arni said that it is unlikely that through these interviews fresh information will come up as these families have already spoken to the CMP and shared all the information they had. He explained that the aim is not to look for fresh information, but to analyze the suffering and how they cope.
“Cyprus is an island where family life is very strong and important and very central in everybody’s life. Therefore, the question of missing provokes a particular pain because of this family network and the importance of family. As a result, for families, if I think of them, yes, I do feel frustrated and I feel that we are not delivering enough, but if I look with a little bit of distance at the results…we identified and returned the remains of 927 persons, out of 2,002 in thirteen years. This is 46%, almost half, it is a good result if you compare to other countries, Argentina with less than 20% over 35 years, Lebanon, where no systematic effort has started in the last twenty-five years”, he said.
According to the third member of CMP these results are good, but they came late and too little, because for the first 25 years, from 1981-2006, the political will was not strong enough to allow the change of the mandate of the CMP into an operation, like it is today, with locating, exhuming, identifying and returning of the remains.
“For the first 25 years the leaders have given the CMP a mandate to establish the fate, but resulting in very little results in those years. And then the mandate changed and we were allowed to excavate when the political will was there and when leaders understood that families needed this closure with the ultimate proof, which is the body”, he said.
Replying to another question Arni said that only in one post-conflict situation he is aware of, in former Yugoslavia, immediate action was taken with results mainly because of the presence of foreign troops.
“They were on the ground and they started immediately. Elsewhere it takes usually one or two decades for the political will to be there so the exhumation and identification process can start. So to put it simple, I am every day, utterly conscious of how slow this process is, how every additional day is a day of suffering for the families and we try our best, but we are at a stage in the project, after 13 years, where we have natural decline of results and this is hard to understand for those who have not yet received their loved ones”, he underlined.
He said once again that Cyprus is rather in the category of good results, but this is not going to help the families because the families don’t care about all this, they have their emotion, their wounds.
Arni explained to CNA that natural decline is there because of the time elapsed as most of the witnesses are in their 80s and 90s, they are really getting old “and we have the last window of opportunity to find them and for them to talk to us before they die and some of them don’t want to talk, especially those with precise information”.
He also spoke of the obstacle of over construction and of an example where the teams went back near a previous excavation site where they discovered new partial remains as a hotel on the site was extended and the remains were found on the soil which was thrown to a neighboring field.
“This is very disturbing because it is not a tradition here and nowhere in the world for a construction company to call the CMP because they think ‘if we call he CMP the works are going to stop and we are going to lose money as a result of this’ and they don’t tell us. There are several cases where a small mass grave is under a building”, he said.
Arni told the CNA that these as well as some other problems of political nature, slow down CMP’s work, however the main problem is diminishing recoveries and accuracy of information.
“As of 2017 we have a new strategy where we really look into our operations with an honest look about the obstacles, ways to overcome them, objectives, specific actions and budget. The main problem is the fact that our accuracy is going down because of lack of precise information. As a result, ten years ago, in 50% of the sites we were opening, we were finding remains, now it is only 20%”, he added. In 2018 the remains of 13 persons were found, the year before 47 and before that 107.
“We are finding less people as we go and this a natural trend, this was recently confirmed by our scientific auditor, the President of the Argentinian forensic team. He was in Cyprus two months ago for an evaluation and he confirmed that we are on the right track, but the results will not increase, they will diminish year by year. But we are doing our best to make this trend last longer, so we can find the maximum of people missing”, he said.
He explained that the CMP is focusing on training its investigators, hiring new ones and buying new technology, in order to allow the superposition of old cadastral maps with new images and data about previous excavations. He added that these maps along with new maps from Google and the CMP’s information, is now being put in a single map and the goal with this new technology, is to have results whenever they dig, so they do not waste time and money.
He mentioned the case of the missing in Trachonas, where the CMP teams went a total of 11 times before they found remains. Arni added that technology does not replace witnesses, but it complements it and with the use of technology they try to be very precise on where to dig and avoid opening an entire field.
“People might come to us with information such as ‘I remember three olive trees and a crossroad’ but we go there and there are no olive trees and no crossroad”, he said.
He said that now all the information is digitized and is shared between the Greek Cypriot teams and the Turkish Cypriot teams in a common database with access by all. Arni said that this helps them to improve their investigative skills and reduce the time and cost.
“We excavated 1, 245 sites up to 31/1/2019 so over the last 13 years we excavated about 100 per year. Last year we excavated only 50 sites, we need to be careful so that this doesn’t translate into less excavations but better ones, which deliver results”, he added. The aim for this year is 75 sites/excavations mostly in the north. Eight teams work in the occupied areas and one in Strovolos.
He added that recently two senior Liverpool police officers trained the investigators in witness discussion techniques, quality of information, how to put everything in the database and grade it.
Apart from the interviews conducted by specialists, the CMP is carrying out a big study with the cooperation of two Universities, the University of Nicosia and one in the north and the involvement of families who received the remains of their loved ones. Besides, a major communication campaign is under preparation with two professional communication companies, one in Nicosia and one in occupied Kyrenia.
“We are putting a big campaign with professionals this time, not with just banners but something big, strong and systematic, the first phase starting in May about the overall issue of the missing in Cyprus, he said. Both companies are offering their expertise for free to the CMP.
The second phase, he added, will follow with initiatives at local level. “We want to localize this communication, to go to villages where we know that there are still unsolved cases, will talk to the mukhtars and the villagers. This is aimed more specifically at obtaining new information on hidden burial sites”, he said.
Arni explained that they will go to specific villages where they have good reasons to believe that there are graves around and will talk to locals. “The leaders made an appeal in 2014, the religious leaders in 2015. Now we are trying to convince these old Cypriots who are reluctant to talk, that, if they die with the information, then it is over”, he said.
With regards to the agreement with Turkey to allow excavations in military areas, he said that in November 2015 the agreement included 30 places, ten in 2016, ten in 2017, and ten in 2018.
Out of these 30 places, excavations were carried out in 27 and 3 will be done shortly. A new agreement on access to additional military sites will cover the years 2019 -2021. The request was submitted by the Turkish Cypriot member of CMP and Arni expects no problem on that.
About the access to Turkish military archives, Arni said that they expect more on that as so far only aerial pictures were shown to the CMP. “Turkey has a modern army and keeps records. They follow NATO procedures after a war, that is collection of bodies, it’s called battlefield clearance. So, they must have some reports on that”, he said.
In another question about the lack of political will in Cyprus, Arni said that going through the archives himself, he specifically went through thousands of documents in New York and in Cyprus over the last year and he found documents of 1981 and 1982 and of the late 70’s from the negotiations leading to the creation of the CMP.
“Leaders in Cyprus were reluctant to give the CMP the task to excavate grave sites of missing persons, fearing that it would reignite violence. The CMP, with the leaders’ agreement, started its program of exhumation, identification and return of remains only in 2006. A lot of time was unfortunately lost.”
The CMP member pointed out that in the 80’s and 90’s the CMP was an investigating committee without operations, and that members were exchanging documents, a blood bank was established and a list of all the missing was mutually negotiated and agreed. These, he said, were very important prerequisites for the operations that started in the year 2006.
“The years 2006-2016 were successful years, but in 2017 the results started going down, this is when we started to recognize that we should not only look for witnesses but also for archives, so we put together a strategy , and the USA were the first to react positively and to fund the first year of a team consisting of one international archivist and two Cypriot researchers ”, he said.
Arni explained that in July 2016 an agreement was made between the members, to contact nine UN troop contributing countries and the three countries who were involved in the events of 60’s and ‘74 that is Cyprus Greece and Turkey and addressed a letter to them, asking them to initiate their own research in their Cyprus-related archives.
“This was made because no country, including my own Switzerland, would allow a foreigner to come searching into military archives. The UN and the ICRC accepted to open up their archives, including the closed ones, those who are strictly confidential, to me and my UN colleague and other archives to Cypriot researchers”, he said.
In the past year and a half, the CMP research team has been to New York and London twice (a new trip to London is scheduled in the next ten days) and to Geneva. The CMP Members went to Vienna and will also go later this year to Sweden and Finland to discuss Cyprus-related archives.
“We have researched wherever we could, ICRC, UN and UK archives we have done ourselves. The British archives related to Cyprus are now in the national archives. So for these three sets of archives we are doing it ourselves and for the rest we are depending on the will of the relevant countries. Greece has recently handed over 1974 archives to the parliament in Nicosia and they gave a copy to CMP. Turkey has given us access to some 1974 aerial pictures, which was useful”, Arni said.
He said that details in the archives make the difference and referred to an archive they found in New York dated August 1974. It is a UN police report of half page, from a Swedish unit, stating that soldiers found three bodies in a street in Famagusta and brought them to the cemetery.
“But they didn’t say in which grave but they mentioned that they wrote on a wooden cross the dates of burial. We have a witness on that, a digger driver, so we were able to match the information. The driver is still alive and we now need authorization to go in this cemetery . I went myself to request the permit to bring the witness so he can tell us exactly where he buried the bodies. It is like finding a little piece of gold in a dark coal mine and this is what we need to do, spending days and hours and months to find information and to match it”, he explained.
Αs regards the Ashia missing, remains of whom were allegedly relocated to a landfill in Dikomo, Arni said that a Portuguese expert was in Cyprus in November for an assessment and completed a report with maps and charts of the landfill which was rehabilitated and transformed into a hill with trees on top. The hill contains a network of pipelines for the methane gas of the landfill to be evacuated.
Arni explained that in the meantime, witnesses told the CMP that the bodies were dumped at the end of a dirt road crossing from the west to the east in the landfill.
“We obtained aerial pictures from 1995-1996 and they show the dirt path before the rehabilitation of the landfill. So thanks to that we could superpose today’s picture of the rehabilitated site with the pictures of the site at the time when relocation of bones took place, in order to find the exact location. Bodies might have been dumped at the end of this hill. In other words it could be safe without touching the hill, to test the excavation and do trenches to see if we are on the right path, we had a meeting last week and we decided that we still need to talk to witnesses and we hope that in a month we will be able to take a decision as to when to request the authorities to do the excavation and if we find the ancient dirt road, we will be on solid ground to carry out the bigger excavation”, he said.
According to Arni, they need to know if bodies were dumped meters away from the road or inside the hill, adding that if they need to excavate the hill, then the expert must come back to tell them how to do it, given the massive risks and dangers. “This of course costs a lot of money and we are going step by step but we are not giving up. We have met the families of Ashia several times and have explained how we want to proceed”, he added.
During the exhumations in two wells in Ashia, the CMP found 7 full bodies and 64 incomplete ones. In December 2017 the Turkish Cypriot office of CMP received fresh information from three witnesses who had allegedly relocated remains from those wells and transferred them to the landfill in Dikomo.
Asked about the situation with funding Arni said that for 2019 the needs are almost covered as the EU who is the main donor, has exceptionally increased its funding from 2,6 million euro to three million to cover an increase of genetic costs. Also, for the first time ever, China offered 10,000 euro as a first step of a cooperation that they want to develop with the CMP.
“Today, we need a little less than 200,000 euros to cover our expected expenses for this year”, he said.
CMP is still in cooperation with the specialized lab in Virginia, USA, where they send bone samples for DNA analysis.
The two labs in Cyprus deal solely with DNA samples from the families.
(Cyprus News Agency)