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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 November 2006, 10:22 GMT
Bones of Cyprus missing unearthed
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Nicosia

Marios Kouloumas, Greek Cypriot
Marios Kouloumas was 10 years old when his father disappeared
On the south side of the line that cuts through the divided capital of Cyprus there is a small exhibition.

It is a collection of photographs in memory of the Greek Cypriots still missing since 1974, when Turkey sent troops onto the island following an attempted coup backed by Athens.

"That's my mother at a demonstration of the relatives," says Marios Kouloumas, pointing out a woman holding up a photograph of her husband.

"I was there too. We are demanding to know what happened to our relatives."

Some 1,500 Greek Cypriots and 500 Turkish Cypriots are officially registered as missing on Cyprus, never seen since fighting broke out between the two communities in the 1960s.

We always ask about the fate of our people and we will never stop
Marios Kouloumas

Marios was 10 years old when his own father disappeared. He still remembers very clearly how Turkish troops entered his village in August 1974 and separated the men from the women and children. Nikos Kouloumas was taken away and never returned.

"If we don't find a solution to this problem we can never live together as before," Marios believes.

"We always ask about the fate of our people and we will never stop. If the United Nations wants a solution on Cyprus, they have to find solution to this matter first. They have to close the wound."

The UN established a Committee on Missing Persons in 1981 to investigate the fate of the disappeared. In 25 years no family has received an explanation.

Slowly all that is changing.

Partial skeletons

In a prefabricated laboratory built in the buffer zone that still divides the two communities, a team of scientists is finally searching for answers.

Bags of items discovered in the mass graves
Evidence is cross-checked with relatives before DNA testing begins

They have begun excavating mass graves all over Cyprus, led there by those who actually saw what happened.

Some of the first bones to be recovered have been reassembled into partial skeletons, laid out on white tables in the laboratory.

"We are trying to gather as much information as possible to help identify the remains," explains scientist Oran Finnegan. "That is more complicated at some sites where bodies were thrown on top of one another.

"First we have to piece the bones together, like a jigsaw. Then if we have any information about an old fracture, or dental work - we can narrow down the work of the DNA lab."

Samples will soon be sent to a separate lab for DNA testing - the final stage of identification. But first any evidence that can be gleaned from the skeletons or the grave is cross-checked against data provided by relatives.

Some files are incredibly detailed, down to the brand of a watch or the colour of someone's socks.

Frozen conflict

The team carrying out this delicate task is a combination of Greek and Turkish Cypriot scientists, working alongside international experts. It is the only official joint project on the divided island that is actually working.

"I think this project will eventually help ease things," says Anthe, a Greek Cypriot archaeologist.

Christophe Girod, UN
The need for justice is something usual and legitimate and that will have to be addressed here on the island as well
Christophe Girod, UN

"What happened on the island is not a secret so at least we are facing it now, and we are facing it together."

The exhumations are laying bare evidence of terrible violence committed by and against both communities on this island. It is a process that has been undertaken elsewhere - but the conflict on Cyprus is frozen, not resolved.

So is there a danger the scientists are unearthing fresh trouble, along with the remains?

"I think we are unearthing answers to families. Now what that can trigger, either in the legal or political arena, is rather terra incognita," admits Christophe Girod, the UN member on the Committee for Missing Persons.

Mr Girod says the scientists record all the information the bodies provide - including evidence of any injury. That data will ultimately be handed to the relatives. But his committee is not mandated to investigate the cause of death.

"We hope the bi-communalism of this project will set an example, that it triggers positive steps. But the need for justice is something usual and legitimate and that will have to be addressed here on the island as well," he explains.

DNA samples

Across the Green Line in the north of Nicosia, Emine Degirmencioglu only has one photograph of her husband Munir - a portrait of the young couple on their wedding day.

Emine Degirmencioglu and family holding wedding photos
Emine Degirmencioglu's husband disappeared in December 1963

Emine was in her early 20s when their village came under attack by Greek Cypriot fighters in December 1963. The family fled in panic.

A couple of days later Munir returned to their home to collect clothes and food for his children, and disappeared without trace.

The UN-led committee has just unearthed human remains at a site close to their village.

Emine's family has given DNA samples. Now, just like Marios in the south, Emine hopes her long wait for answers is almost over.

"I already feel a sense of relief," she says. "At least we'll be able to bring him back onto the Turkish side; to bury his bones in a proper grave, and visit and pray for him as our religion requires."

"What more can we do - now we know he is definitely not coming back alive?"

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