Graves hidden for decades could hold key to peace in Cyprus

More than 2,000 people went missing during the 1974 war in Cyprus. Archeologists are are working to find and identify the missing, and perhaps heal a divided nation, writes Nil Köksal.

Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus trying to help victims' families

Anthropologist Theodora Eleftheriou, who works with the Committee on Missing Persons (CMP), sits at a table with the remains of children killed in Cyprus. (Turgut Yeter/CBC News)

There were 84 skeletons, all in one place.

It wasn't the first, or the last, mass grave Ceren Ceraloglu would search, but the feeling of standing over that particular pit, with its staggering number of victims, has stayed with her.

A field archaeologist with the Committee on Missing Persons (CMP) in Cyprus, Ceraloglu has been sifting through the most painful parts of her island's past.

It's not the kind of work this mother of triplets imagined she'd be doing when she was studying archaeology in university. But it's become a calling.

Not just because the excavations aim to return the remains of those killed in the conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots to their families, but because scientists from both communities work side by side, every day.

There is no room for conflict here.

"We are not finding pottery. We are finding humans, we are finding bones," Ceraloglu said as she took a moment away from one of CMP's eight current dig sites on the island.

"We don't look at remains [and say] this is Turkish Cypriot, this is Greek Cypriot," said fellow field archaelogist Rousana Theokli. "For us it is a person. So there's a feeling what we're doing there's a common cause. It's not yours or mine. You don't separate these things. Never."

On an island where so much has been divided for decades, and so many secrets are still buried, their work may be crucial to forging peace.

Difficult work

These human bones, which were retrieved from hidden graves, are being analyzed by the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus. (Turgut Yeter/CBC News)

This particular site, in the northern, Turkish part of Cyprus, has been exceptionally difficult.

Witness accounts led the CMP to this field. They were told seven bodies were buried here, men who went missing in the 1974 war. They've come to dig here twice, first in 2013 and again between late 2016 and February 2017.

But Ceraloglu, Theokli and their colleagues have only been able to find bone fragments belonging to three people.

Theokli points to a spot 20 metres from where a backhoe continues to pull up soil. She says the bones they have managed to uncover "were disarticulated," or spread out.

There was no grave, she said, "no exact location." In the meantime, these fields have been continuously cultivated by farmers since 1974.

But Theokli and her team are determined. Setbacks won't derail their mission.

"We are gonna find them," she exclaimed. "They are here, they are somewhere."

Identifying the dead and missing


4 years ago
Members of the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus discuss the painstaking nature of their work to catalogue the remains of those killed or gone missing in the island's decades-long civil conflict. 1:30

The lab

Cyprus guards its secrets well. Some families have been waiting more than 50 years for answers.

Less than half of the 2,001 people the CMP says went missing on the island have been identified, and the answers emerged from a series of nondescript portables tucked into a quiet field cut off from the rest of Cyprus.

The compound sits in the UN buffer zone, the dividing line that's separated and protected the Greek Cypriot South and Turkish Cypriot North since the 1960s.

Field archaeologists with the CMP survey the soil at a site in Aslanköy, in northern Cyprus. (Nil Köksal/CBC News)

In the CMP lab, more than a dozen collapsible tables are lined up, across two of the portables, each covered in skeletal remains. Each grouping of bones is meticulously catalogued and each unidentified person assigned a number until DNA evidence can give them a name.

From excavation to finding a DNA match, the process can take up to three years.

This polyester clothing was found in hidden graves in Cyprus. (Nil Köksal/CBC News)

Anthropologist Theadora Eleftheriou carries the weight of the victims' families' feelings every day.

"Not knowing if a person is dead, just considered missing, can never allow you to grieve. So you cannot have closure," she said. "So I believe this personally changed my idea on life."

Two rooms are set aside for remains that have yet to be identified. One room also holds a stack of plain coffins. Some families will be able to bury a full-sized coffin, while others will only receive a small box.

Still waiting

The pain of outliving her son still brings Andriani Elia to tears. The 81-year-old lives in government housing in the Greek Cypriot side of the capital, Nicosia.

Andriani Elia, now 81, is still waiting to find her son Elias, who disappeared in 1974. (Nil Köksal/CBC News)

Like thousands of Cypriots on both sides of the conflict, she was forced from her home in 1974 as the island was divided in two.

Her son Elias Panayis Papapavlou was just 19, a year into his time as a conscripted soldier, when he disappeared.

"The day I was told that my son was captured, I went crazy. I lost my mind," she said, speaking through a translator. "We are still trying to find out what happened to him. They told us that the Turks captured our boys and now it's been 43 years that they are still missing."

Loss has also shaped Sevgi Alibaba's life. No matter her own accomplishments or her family's success, finding her father is the one thing still out of reach.

"I'm Hilmi's daughter," she said, "and I'm proud of that. You have everything, and then in one moment, you are nothing. I'm someone who's lived that."

Hilmi Hamit disappeared in February 1963. He is among the 2,001 people missing and believed killed in violence between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. (Hamit Family)

In 1963, when Greek Cypriots were targeting Turkish Cypriots, Alibaba says her 32-year-old father went to get medicine for the village and her family. Her mother had just given birth to her sister.

UN officials found his motorbike, his bag and ID. He hasn't been seen since.

After a decade of believing he might still be alive, the family now knows he is not.

"I'm sure I'm going to find my father's bones," she insisted, "you want to hold on to something, you want to be sure that yes, my father really was shot and killed."

A grave stone is what both women want now.

And peace.

"Greek Cypriot, Turkish Cypriot — it doesn't matter. No child should live through this," Alibaba says.

People before politics

Plagued by nationalism for decades, Cyprus holds some of the deepest divisions in the world.

After nearly two years of fresh peace talks, progress on reunification seemed possible, at least on the surface. Those talks collapsed in late February and are on hold indefinitely.

But the families of the missing and the CMP scientists have little time for politics and politicians.

The CMP team wants to give the island a kind of peace that may be more powerful than political agreements.

"It can show the people we can work together we can live together," Ceraloglu said.

"Maybe it's an example for the world."


Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey in 2018.