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Scientists are identifying remains of hundreds lost in Cyprus conflict

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.

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  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    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.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    That’s where Florian von Koenig and his team come in.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    These are remains of how many people?

  • FLORIAN VON KOENIG:

    30 plus remains on the tables.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: 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.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    This was an infant. Approximately how old?

  • ISTENC ENGIN:

    Three to six months.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Three to six months.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    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.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    So the hip was broken?

  • ISTENC ENGIN:

    Yes. And we are thinking it was a gunshot wound.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    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.

  • FLORIAN VON KOENIG:

    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.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    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.

  • THEODORA ELEFTHERIOU:

    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.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Including belongings, clothing?

  • THEODORA ELEFTHERIOU:

    Exactly. Including non-biological artifacts.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    So that includes in this case the soles of shoes, a house key?

  • THEODORA ELEFTHERIOU:

    Exactly.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Some spare change.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    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.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    So you found your own grandfather’s remains by chance?

  • EMINE CETINSEL:

    Yes, because we work blindly. I mean, we don’t know who they are, and once the DNA results came, it was my grandfather.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    So this is your grandfather?

  • EMINE CETINSEL:

    Yes. And he was 34 years old when he got missing.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    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.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Was it emotional?

  • EMINE CETINSEL:

    Not while I was analyzing. After I found out that it is him, the emotional part was to tell my parents about it.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    What was that like?

  • EMINE CETINSEL:

    They were finally happy that he was found and final acceptance that he is actually dead.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    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.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    How cutting edge is the work that you’re doing?

  • FLORIAN VON KOENIG:

    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.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    These Cypriots know their work will never be complete.

  • CHRIS LIVESAY:

    Do you think you will recover all of them?

  • THEODORA ELEFTHERIOU:

    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.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Nevertheless, they are not giving up.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Is this a healthy process for a country that’s trying to reunify, or does it actually have a negative effect sometimes?

  • FLORIAN VON KOENIG:

    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.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    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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