By Maria Koniotou
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the work of the Committee on Missing Persons (CMP) in Cyprus since its field and lab activities have been suspended for two months now, however its members stress, in an interview with CNA, that they have been working all this time together, via teleconferences, to be ready to resume excavations and laboratory work as soon as conditions allow this to happen, aiming to catch up with the time lost.
The three members of the Committee, Greek Cypriot Leonidas Pantelides, Turkish Cypriot Gülden Plümer Kücük, and the third member (United Nations) Paul-Henri Arni, who spoke to CNA during a teleconference, elaborated on the ways the pandemic has affected CMP’s work, the difficulties the Committee has been experiencing and their planning for the future, appealing once again to witnesses, who have information that may help locating burial sites, to give it to the Committee.
According to the data published on the CMP website, this year five identifications were carried out and two individuals were exhumed until February 29. Last year 42 identifications were carried out and 24 individuals were exhumed. Out of 1510 Greek Cypriot missing persons, 700 have been identified and returned to their families, while 810 are still missing. Out of 492 Turkish Cypriot missing persons, 274 have been identified and returned to their families, while 218 are still missing.
Asked in which ways the work of the Committee has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Arni said that the work was affected in two of its essential phases. “We had to suspend excavations and laboratory work as of 16th of March. CMP is a bicommunal organization so when crossing points were closed our bicommunal teams no longer operated on both sides. We have a strategy to resume operations on the day after restrictions are lifted and crossing points are open. We have reviewed hundreds of pending cases regarding persons still missing. We are ready to resume field work and laboratory analyses immediately with protective measures for our staff,” he noted.
Invited to say which measures have been taken by CMP to address the situation and how its work will continue from now on, Pantelides noted that since the activities, which entail bicommunal physical presence, like the work at the excavations sites and the lab have been suspended, this has given them the opportunity to focus all their energy into the things that they could still do, regardless of the restrictions. “We have put our emphasis on investigation and these last two months we were able to review all the cases from older information and try to go into greatest depth in analyzing and preparing cases for excavation,” he added.
He went on to say that “we have reviewed hundreds of cases between the two offices. We are able to speak online every day, the two offices, and we have cleared up the backlog. We have also had the opportunity because we had more time to introduce the technological upgrades that we have been working on over the last year or so.”
Moreover, the Greek Cypriot member said that they have been developing a platform “that will help us synthesize all information together that is available from the two offices. So now during this time when we were restricted and we had to work from home we had the time to introduce these technological innovations that we have developed as well as to concentrate on upgrading our list of information.”
On her part, Küçük said that as soon as this situation appeared, CMP started to communicate online and members held teleconferences among themselves but also with UNDP – PFF, while also archeologists and anthropologists had their meetings through teleconferences. “But physical activities as exhumation and the anthropologist lab were affected unfortunately. But we are working to be ready the day restrictions are lifted and crossing points are open, she noted.
Asked about the priorities of the Committee and how it will pursue to achieve them, Küçük said that the Committee’s priority is always the missing persons’ families, because the Committee was established to give answers and closure to these families.
“So when we do our programming and planning we always think about the families. Yearly we have to make a budget planning for every phase of the project. Currently the members are working for the new strategic plan for three years as the strategic planning between 2017 – 2020 is coming to an end. Our biggest donor is the EU and this strategic plan is essential because it secures out three-year budget,” she noted.
Arni said on his part that their immediate priority is to resume their field and laboratory work as soon as possible. And the day we are authorized to do that, we will have a lot to catch up with and we would try to work even more than before, if possible, in order to catch up with the time that has been lost, he stressed.
Invited to say if economic recession all over the world is expected to affect CMP, Arni replied “not necessarily” while Küçük said that “the funds for CMP are already earmarked”.
Asked what other difficulties and problems, except from the situation due to the pandemic, the Committee is currently experiencing and which steps are being taken to address them, Küçük said that finding the burial sites after half a century is not that easy because of changing structures and dying witnesses.
“We are strengthening our investigation team not only with human resources but also with drones and other technical means, as GIS and GPS. We are testing all the possible scientific tools that we can, like ground penetrating radars, if it works for us or not. We have seven teams or sometimes eight teams that work on both sides bicommunaly. It is not possible to have 15 teams because we have a budget. When we start excavation in one place, we plan to finish it in a month, but sometimes when we start, due to geographical reasons and other reasons we have to continue five months in that area,” she noted.
“So, these are unexpected difficulties that also make us change the plans, whether conditions we cannot control as rain, or heat during the summer. But even with these, we are trying to adapt our teams to this kind of conditions. Also, when we dig at some places, we find asbestos which slows us down, because those who conduct the excavations have to wear special uniforms and special masks to continue to work, and they cannot work as quickly as when normally dressed,” she noted.
At the same time, she underlined that they don’t have any problem in working together and sharing the work. Responsibility is undertaken jointly and decisions are taken together, she added.
Invited to say if there is an adequate flow of information from people towards the Committee, as regards possible burial sites of missing persons, Pantelides said that there is a flow of information. “Of course, we are always interested in more information. So, we are organizing a communication campaign in the form of an appeal to the public to come forward and give us information that they may have of possible burial sites,” he added.
He went on to say that they will try to simplify things, by having the same telephone number in both offices, so that people can call the same three-digit number. “We will try to encourage the public and we will try to make it easier for the public to come with more information. But there is already a lot of information in the two offices that has been gathered over the years. What is equally important now, as securing new information, is understanding and analyzing well the information that we already have, so that we can have good results,” he added.
He noted that their success rate in digging is about one in five, which means approximately 20%. “So there is room to improve these results, to improve our efficiency and this depends on the quality of information that we have, securing good information, reliable information and understanding and analyzing it correctly, being able to use aerial imagery, maps, so that when we go and dig we actually find something. There were a lot of digs in the past that we did not have results. Since 2006 we have about 200 cases of digs that did not give results. We are looking into these old cases as well. We have to make sure that the information is utilized in such a way so that we actually find remains. Because we had a lot of cases where we thought we had good information and we were not able to locate remains,” he said.
Küçük noted on her part that CMP success depends on the information inflow from people from both sides. “Up to now we exhumed more than 1000 people because we received information from both sides and we have to thank people for helping and trusting CMP. This is very important,” she noted.
Asked if excavations will continue to take place in military zones in the northern part of the island, Arni recalled that an agreement was reached in June 2019 with the Turkish army that gives them access to 30 new military areas.
“We have so far excavated seven of them. We found one set of remains and the agreement stands, so that means as soon as restrictions are lifted, we will resume excavations in military areas,” he said.
He noted that results so far are not very encouraging, however, “we hope that in the next 23 sites, that we will dig as soon as conditions permit, we will find more people.”
On her part, Küçük said that they have approximately the same rate of success in military locations as in civilian areas.
Asked about their message to the people all over the island, Arni said that they need the help of everyone, but particularly the elder generations. “We also need the help of community leaders/mukhtars on both sides of the divide to help convincing the witnesses of this tragic events who do not want to speak yet. That requires a lot of convincing,” he noted.
Pantelides said that they are not police investigators and are not looking into the circumstances of death and who is responsible. “What we do with the information we receive is go and try to find the remains of the person who may be buried there so that we can give the remains to the family so that they can have a dignified burial and closure. We don’t expose any of our witnesses,” he underlined.
On her part Küçük sent the message: “Help CMP to help the families please. Share your information with us, this is very-very important.”
The CMP was established in April 1981 by agreement between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities under the auspices of the United Nations. Over the next two decades, work on both sides focused on conducting investigations to establish the fate of the missing and negotiate a common official list of all those who disappeared.
In 2006, the climate was ripe for the CMP to begin excavations and exhumations on both sides of the island. In order to provide the required expertise, archaeologists and anthropologists from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) were brought in to coordinate and train a bi-communal team of Cypriot scientists involved in exhumations and anthropological analysis. An anthropological laboratory was set-up in the United Nations Protected Area in Nicosia.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkish troops invaded and occupied 37% of its territory.