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Cyprus, a former British colony that became independent in 1960, has been divided since 1974, when war broke out between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, the island’s main ethnic groups. Hundreds of people disappeared in the conflict. Now, scientists in a neutral zone are trying to repair the social fabric by using DNA to identify the skeletal remains. Special correspondent Christopher Livesay reports.
Since 1974, Cyprus has been a country divided between the ethnically Greek south and Turkish north. Even today, one of the most painful aspects of the war that split the country in two is the fate of the hundreds of people on both sides who disappeared in the violence decades ago and were never found.
FLORIAN VON KOENIG:
This is our anthropological laboratory.
That's where Florian von Koenig and his team come in.
These are remains of how many people?
30 plus remains on the tables.
Von Koenig is the United Nations' Permanent Secretary to the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus. Its mission is to find and identify the remains of those missing brothers, sons, and fathers — more than 2,000 people in all — from the very old to the very young.
This was an infant. Approximately how old?
Three to six months.
The trauma on the right hip. The Committee on Missing Persons does not attempt to assign blame or establish the cause of death, although sometimes it's obvious.
So the hip was broken?
Yes. And we are thinking it was a gunshot wound.
There was a gunshot wound here, a probable gunshot wound.
The Committee is using science to bring closure to families of the missing and possibly bring the country closer to reunification. The process starts when investigators, often retired police officers, get a tip about a possible secret, unmarked burial site. They call archeologists to start digging — nine teams equally divided between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Sometimes they find the remains of one body; other times, the remains of many in a mass grave.
The more complicated things are graves like these. You have no idea how many people are here. We've had graves where we've found basically only small finger bones and knee caps and they turned out to belong to 68 people.
Remains are brought here to labs in the neutral, United Nations-controlled Green Zone in Cyprus to be cleaned and organized so identification can begin. It's a process that can take months.
The remains come here with chain of custody and with archeological reports and recovery logs, so they show us what was exhumed in each burial.
Including belongings, clothing?
Exactly. Including non-biological artifacts.
So that includes in this case the soles of shoes, a house key?
Some spare change.
Personal items, like rings, can be clues to identifying the victims. The lab also relies on victims' dental records and DNA…to compare with samples donated by relatives of the missing. The lab staff is a reflection of the island's political division and personal loss. Greek Cypriot Theodora Eleftheriou and Turkish Cypriot Emine Cetinsel both have missing relatives. Two years ago, Cetinsel discovered one of the skeletons she was analyzing belonged to her own grandfather.
So you found your own grandfather's remains by chance?
Yes, because we work blindly. I mean, we don't know who they are, and once the DNA results came, it was my grandfather.
So this is your grandfather?
Yes. And he was 34 years old when he got missing.
Her grandfather was a Turkish Cypriot civil servant who disappeared on his way home from work at a time of heightened tensions before the 1974 war. His body, found more than 50 years later, showed signs of multiple gunshot wounds.
Was it emotional?
Not while I was analyzing. After I found out that it is him, the emotional part was to tell my parents about it.
What was that like?
They were finally happy that he was found and final acceptance that he is actually dead.
It's one of the most important parts of the process – reuniting families with the remains of their loved ones, so they can have a proper burial, whether it be Christian or Muslim or non-religious. Since 2006, the Committee has identified 847 people — fewer than half of the missing. And the work being done here could help families in other conflicts around the world.
How cutting edge is the work that you're doing?
So, right now, we are, I believe, the biggest lab in the world that deals with skeletal remains of missing persons and does the anthropological analysis on it. We've started to train others. We focus on the Middle East region, so we've trained scientists from Iraq, where there are more than 500,000 people missing. We have trained scientists from Lebanon. We'll soon will be training Syrians. There is a lot of interest, because the expertise you see here is very, very specific.
These Cypriots know their work will never be complete.
Do you think you will recover all of them?
No. We know that we will not, because we know that many burials are already under roads, under buildings. So, okay, the committee tries to do the best, but we know that some remains are lost forever.
Nevertheless, they are not giving up.
Is this a healthy process for a country that's trying to reunify, or does it actually have a negative effect sometimes?
No. We strongly believe we, in a number of ways, we contribute to reconciliation, or we remove an obstacle to reconciliation, because there are thousands of families that are directly or indirectly affected, and case by case we allow families to find closure.
So, you are not just putting the bodies back together, you are putting the country back together? THEODORA ELEFTHERIOU: That's how we feel here and that's why we are proud about our work.
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