Cyprus unable to mourn its missing 40 years after war
Greek Cypriot Marios Kouloumas looks at pictures of his parents at his mother's home on February 14, 2014 in Nicosia - by Barbara Laborde
His father is one of hundreds of Greek and Turkish Cypriots who disappeared during a decade of unrest and whose fate remains an open wound across this divided Mediterranean island.
The two sides relaunched peace talks aimed at reunifying Cyprus last month after a two-year hiatus.
But several previous rounds have failed, in part because of still-raw emotions on both sides of the UN-patrolled Green Line.
"When you have someone missing, every day it's an empty seat at the table," says Kouloumas, who was 10 years old when he watched his father and five other villagers being detained, never to return.
"Every day you read in the newspaper about missing persons, every day you have to call somebody to ask about what happened."
His mother's modest house is filled with old pictures and, in keeping with local tradition, three children in the family are named Nicolas after the grandfather they will never know.
Kouloumas is certain his father is dead -- a piece of the man's skull was found in the bottom of a well in 2010 -- but the rest of the body has never been recovered, so he has not been laid to rest in accordance with Orthodox Christianity.
"The relationship with dead people is very important for us," Kouloumas says. "Every Saturday we go to the cemetary to light candles, bring flowers. If you have no one to talk to there, it's very hard."
Cyprus' lost citizens vanished during communal fighting that broke out in 1964, which culminated in a Turkish invasion ten years later after a coup engineered by Greece's military dictatorship aimed at reunifying the island.
There are 2,000 missing out of a population of less than a million and they remain an obstacle to efforts to reunify the island, a third of which is still controlled by Turkey.
The Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus (CMP), a joint initiative, has exhumed around 1,000 bodies since 2006 and identified half of them.
"It would take 10 years to finish the majority" of cases, says Paul-Henri Arni, the UN representative to the committee, which operates based on an agreed amnesty for perpetrators.
"We don't have that much time, because witnesses are dying as well as direct relatives."
- 'They had lives, families' -
At the sites of suspected mass graves, forensic teams with members from both communities painstakingly work to unearth even the tiniest remains.
"Sometimes we find personal belongings next to the remains -- and then it hits us that these people had a life, a family, maybe a wife and children that have never seen them again," says Hazar Kaba, a Turkish Cypriot who works with the CMP.
He says the grim work has helped him "to know my country better, to know my past, face my past, and respect everyone in this country".
Christiana Zenonos, a Greek Cypriot whose grandfather is among the missing, agrees.
"We are building friendship across communities," she says.
Many of the bodies are found intertwined with other corpses. Some have been exhumed and reburied by those hoping to hide them.
Dozens of skeletons are being processed in CMP's laboratory, where it takes months to reconstruct them and establish their identity using DNA testing, sometimes supported by a wallet, clothing or jewellery found with the remains.
"When a missing person is identified, the pain begins to go away little by little," says Theophilos Theophilou, who represents Greek Cypriots on the CMP.
"Seeing their bones, it's a very difficult moment, but it's also a relief," says Meryem Kasif, a Turkish Cypriot whose four brothers disappeared in 1974 and were identified in January.
Their graves are being prepared in the family's village and they will soon be laid to rest in a ceremony for dozens of other Turkish Cypriots who disappeared from the same village on the same day.
"We're going to bury them near to us so that we can visit them when we want and talk to them, and pray," she says.