Thursday, November 9, 2017

Together We Can: Uncovering the unwritten history of Cyprus...

Together We Can: Uncovering the unwritten history of Cyprus

By Mary Afxentiou – PARIKIAKI newspaper – London – 9.11.2017

A group of Greek and Turkish Cypriot relatives of missing persons, along with investigative journalist Sevgul Uludag have managed to achieve what for decades seemed impossible in Cyprus - they showed that together we can. Their non-profit and non-governmental association "Together We Can" was formed after the opening of the check-points and aims to uncover "the unwritten history of Cyprus." "I wanted to show the relatives of missing persons from both communities that the pain was the same; that they had a lot to share. Until then, Turkish and Greek Cypriot relatives of the missing never came together, never spoke and never had anything to do with each other," Sevgul Uludag told Parikiaki, when she visited our offices along with her dear friend Christina Pavlou Solomi Patsia, whose brother and father were killed and went "missing" in 1974. As they both explained, the members of the group became a symbol of friendship, and without any funding, but only goodwill and determination, are trying to heal the wounds of the past. Many remains have been found, identified and returned to the families for burial through their efforts, but as she told our paper, what they do is much deeper than that. "It is not about a bunch of bones. We are trying to uncover the unwritten history of Cyprus as we want to show that there are not just victims but also perpetrators in the two communities." She added that both communities victimise themselves and overlook what some people from their side did to the other. "They try to belittle what happened by saying that the situation was caused by a bunch of crazy guys. We need to understand that we allowed this to happen. If we don't learn from the mistakes of the past, then it will happen again and it will be worse, particularly now, when there are almost no mixed villages. Previously people used to live together, so there was also protection towards each other," she said. "Together We Can" has become a role model for the future, as it shows the communities an alternative way of doing things. Its members try to collect information and give it to the Committee of Missing Persons (CMP). Sevgul established a hotline and her readers call and share what they know which she then publishes in Turkish, Greek and English. Having no political or monetary interest, they work together in order to find out the truth, to find the fate of the missing. But as Sevgul and Christina told Parikiaki, in order to find out why these people are missing, Cypriots need to understand who was responsible, who created the conditions and what the connections are. "In Cyprus we avoid taking responsibility. We say it was the British, the Turks or the Greeks who divided us. That's half true though. We also carry a responsibility for this partition. If we saw something and we didn't speak, then we are also responsible." She gave the example of Christina, who only after a long time found out that the reason her father and brother were killed was because of EOKA B's massacre of 126 women and kids in Maratha-Sandallari-Aloa. "She now has a deeper understanding about how things are connected. And we need to show these connections. We need to connect the dots. As Steve Jobs said, 'You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.' Some people say we need to forget and move on. In order to forget, though, we need to know; you can't forget what you don't know. We only know half-truths. We need to see the whole picture, put the pieces of the puzzle together and then decide what we want to do. It is important who pulled the trigger but it's also important to know who gave the order, who created the ideological basis for them to pull the trigger comfortably, to go and bury them comfortably, to hide the burial places comfortably. If we don't all understand the real picture, then we have no future as they will continue to manipulate us." "Together We Can" were the first to ask what really happened in Cyprus. They touched a taboo topic that no one dared to talk about for years. And they succeeded, as the taboo was destroyed and information about the mass graves became available. Galatia, for instance, where Christina's brother and father were buried, was an "untouchable subject" and as Christina told our paper, the Turkish Cypriot family who gave information about their burial site put its life in real danger. For this reason Sevgul is very grateful to her readers because, as she says, they are the real and nameless heroes of Cyprus. "They have enough humanity to feel empathy and understand that it is important to do this. They come forward and they show sites, no matter what." Sevgul and Christina also pointed out that all the readers who give information, were never involved in the killings; they were just witnesses who heard, saw or knew something and then connected the dots. "Together We Can" opened the door for them, a path to pass through and tell the truth. "Killers, on the other hand, do not speak. If you hide a grave, you hide a crime and if you hide a crime, you hide a criminal", Sevgul added. Regardless of her constant efforts, Sevgul admits that this bi-communal, non-profit association did not do something dramatic; it is only because nobody did it so far that it looked exceptional. But, as she said, many do not like their job. "They hate what we do because they don't want these graves to come out. This could have been done years ago, but the two sides wanted to keep things as they were. We messed their games. With this hotline I established, we opened a path for Greek and Turkish Cypriots to speak freely to me and anonymously tell me what happened." Commenting on whether Turkey was the reason that excavations at military zones were not permitted for a long period of time, the investigative journalist said that this is not true as after the election of Mustafa Akinci as leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, they were given permission to start digging. "There were some restrictions at the beginning concerning military zones. With Akinci they started digging. They are now taking witnesses inside military zones to show the burial sites. Perhaps the CMP should have more freedom on the military zones; this is true. There should be no restrictions to the investigations and the CMP should have access to files with all relevant authorities concerning military zones." However, she does not think this is the main issue. "The main thing is that whoever is ruling the two sides is holding back information. I am a simple journalist, I don't have a team or money and just with the help of my readers, I could find so much information. If I can, why can't they? There was a cover-up. This is so clear." She referred to the case of five-year old Christakis, who was wounded in Palekythro and taken to Sahara Hospital in Dikomo. When he died, he was buried in Bogazi. Sevgul was the one who found the person who buried him, not the authorities, but because dramatic changes have been made at the military cemetery since 1974, the person who buried him was bit confused. She then found other people who saw the remains of the child when they were building a wall there and she connected the dots. And as she said, there are many cases like this. She also gave the example of the killing of Turkish Cypriots in Nicosia in 1963. As she recalled, Greek Cypriots collected the bodies of some Turkish Cypriots who had been killed and put them in the morgue in Nicosia General Hospital. They tried to identify them; for some they managed, for others they said unknown. Sevgul explained that they made a list, which they then sent to the Turkish Cypriot authorities with the Red Cross and asked them "to come and pick them up." They didn't. Greek Cypriots buried them en masse outside a cemetery in Ai Vasili. Ten days later, the Turkish Cypriots went there with some British soldiers, opened the mass graves, took the bodies out and transferred them to a hospital where they tried to do an autopsy and photographed them. They didn't tell the families about this and buried them in Tekke cemetery in Nicosia without a name. They just said there was a massacre in Ai Vasili. There was indeed a massacre in Ai Vasili, they killed nine Turkish Cypriots and buried them there. But these were nine, not 21 as the list stated. What happened is that when the Greek Cypriots realised that the Turkish Cypriots would open this mass grave, they went the night before them, opened it and removed nine bodies. As the list said 21, and they had killed an additional nine earlier, which would bring the total to 30, they removed nine bodies and took them elsewhere to cover it up. The location of those is unknown. "What does this show? The police had reports, Turkish Cypriot police had photos from the autopsy, and some doctors wrote autopsy reports. This means if you want to find information you have to go through the files. But if you cover it up, you can't find anything," she said. After a ten-year struggle to get access to the Tekke cemetery, they finally got there last year. Thirty-five bodies were taken out and Sevgul and Christina, along with other members of their group, will be attending their funerals. "This is why I believe both sides covered things up. They say that they are running out of information and that witnesses are dying. This is a lie. Both sides have enough information, if they look in their files and check everything. If they want to do a proper investigation then there is enough information for every single case. I am not talking about the Cyprus Missing Persons Committee, I am talking about the ruling authorities on both sides of the island", she added. Asked whether it's easier for the relatives of the missing than those who did not suffer this loss to realise that both communities bear responsibility, Christina Pavlou Solomi Patsia, said this is firstly a matter of education. "There is a lot to be done in any situation and especially in education. The teachers need to be educated first, so that they can go forward and educate the kids. Opposition mostly comes from the Greek-Cypriot teachers. This has been the problem for many years and it hasn't changed because they haven't done anything about it." Sevgul underlined the need for a new culture of peace in Cyprus; "a new culture of understanding the world in Cyprus," as she put it. "This is not just about the missing, but about everything. We need to face our history and our present." Who are "Together We Can" and their future: The first relatives to come together after the check-points opened were Sevilay Berk from Pervolia-Trikomo, who lost her mother and father in 1964, and Maria Georgiadou from Kythrea, who lost her mother, father, sister and brother in 1974. The two of them became a symbol of friendship. Christos Efthimiou, who also lost his brother in 1974, recommended they should set up an organisation for the relatives to be together. They all helped for this to happen and the association has now about 50 members. "Together We Can" members were awarded several times in the past years. Last August Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot political parties, under the auspices of the Slovak Embassy, honoured the members of the association for their work. They have now built a relationship with them and "Together We Can" proposed to arrange a big gathering for all the members, where they will arrange a presentation and workshop. They are also working with Hannes Siebert, who was part of the team on Nelson Mandela in South Africa during the truth and reconciliation process. He is not in Cyprus all the time but visits occasionally so they are planning some steps forward with him. They also collaborate with Christalla Yakinthou; they want to train themselves on restorative justice and how it can be used in Cyprus, and are also planning some workshops in Canada with Anna Agathangelou, who teaches in York University. They also want to work with Israeli and Palestinian Parents Circle; a group similar to "Together We Can". These are the ones who lost loved ones in the conflict, missing or killed and they come together to share their stories. As Christina and Sevgul told Parikiaki, they want to find a way to connect with them, so that they can learn from each other while sharing their experiences. (By Mary Afxentiou – PARIKIAKI newspaper – London – 9.11.2017)

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