Back in June, in the middle of what had already been a tumultuous day for our family, I walked into the kitchen to see my Dad sitting next to the table, staring at the ground with a grim look on his face. We exchanged a couple of quick bits of small talk, but there was clearly something else on his mind. He then informed me that he just received an email from Cyprus, and that his family had received the news they had been waiting fifty years to hear: his brother had finally been found.
* * *
Growing up, whenever I was asked about my ethnicity, I always stressed the fact that not only was I Greek on my mother’s side, but that I was Greek-Cypriot on my father’s. To some, this may seem like an arbitrary distinction, and in some ways they are more correct than they may realize; if an American was speaking to someone from Brazil, what would be the point of mentioning that one part of the family was from Missouri while the other hailed from New Hampshire? From an outsider’s perspective, what’s the difference? Greece and Cyprus share a common history and lineage, as the island has been populated by Greeks for thousands of years. How could the birthplace of Aphrodite not be Greek?
[Long history lesson forthcoming; you may skim or skip ahead]
The initial creation of the independent Republic of Cyprus was an accident of history, but its current status is the result of both inaction and malevolence. If you’re unfamiliar with its history, I’ll offer up a quick and general history. After the fall of the Byzantine Empire, Greece was occupied by the Ottomans for centuries. In 1821, the famous Greek revolution for independence began, a cause that was celebrated by many luminaries across Europe (perhaps notably by Lord Byron, who took up arms himself and whose efforts are still appreciated in Greece today). It was a struggle that lasted for years, but eventually the Greeks were successful. However, the boundaries of Greece as we know it today were not established for years after this initial triumph, and only a small section of it received independence initially; it took years of other actions for the rest of Greece to be liberated. Territory was gained gradually over the years, but Cyprus, way over in the East, was unable to join up with its Greek brethren.
Instead, Cyprus was purchased by the British from the Ottomans after the end of the Russo-Turkish War. For years, it would remain a British colony; my Dad, born a few years after the end of World War II, was born a British subject. It didn’t matter that Britain and other nations had given up colonies around the world in the wake of the War, as the principle of self-determination was being developed and upheld; hell, there were important military bases on the island to consider, and the close proximity to the Middle East was a consideration that if you’re Britain you just can’t give up that easily. Cypriots eventually decided that this situation could no longer stand, and so began to push against their colonialist overlords, and began fighting for a union with Greece (a movement known as “enosis”). The British did not appreciate this, and the Cypriots began to openly rebel; in response, one of the maneuvers that the British pulled was invoking the support of the Turkish Cypriot minority to fight against the Greeks, stoking fears that they would be persecuted if the island joined with Greece. This gambit would have lasting consequences.
After years of struggle, a compromise short of enosis was reached, and the independent nation of Cyprus was created in 1960. (For the record, Britain kept two military bases on the island, which remain to this day, and exist outside the purview of Cypriot law.) However, a faulty system of power-sharing was imposed as one of the conditions of independence, with equal representation instituted between the Greek majority (80% of the population) and a Turkish minority (less than 20%), who were given veto power in most legislative decisions. This setup would effectively prevent any hopes of effective governance on the island. Added to this were the bitter unresolved feelings from two ethnic groups who took opposite sides during the fight to overthrow British rule, which resulted in various uprisings and clashes over the next decade, but had generally settled by the early 70’s. However, this all changed in July of 1974, when an ill-advised coup backed by the ruling military junta in Greece temporarily ousted Archbishop Markarios, the President, throwing the country into chaos. It was clear though that this coup had no support to sustain itself, as the Greek junta fell immediately after the coup. However, this was enough for Turkey to launch the long-planned Operation Attila, and Cyprus was invaded on July 20, 1974. As Turkish troops pushed their way through the island, political negotiations restored constitutional order within a couple of weeks. But since they were already on the island, the Turks thought why not grab more of this for ourselves, and launched a second invasion on August 14.
The invasion resulted in the killing of thousands, the rape of thousands more, and thousands missing to this day. Ethnic cleansing resulted in the displacement of a third of the Greek population from their homes, which to this day they have been unable to return. As it stands, Turkey occupies the northern 37% of the island, with a heavily patrolled green line separating the two parts, including a section running through the only divided capital in the world, Nicosia. The occupied territory considers itself an independent nation, though it is only recognized internationally by Turkey, and several measures have been made to condemn the continued state of affairs. Officially, the Republic of Cyprus governs the entirety of the island, though the division means that a puppet state is the de facto ruler of the northern third.
[Long history lesson complete]
A lot of my friends know that my Dad was back home in Cyprus for summer break from law school here in the States during the Turkish Invasion. He was called up to the front lines and helped try to fight off the invaders, but they were woefully outnumbered and undersupplied. Over the years, we’ve heard small details of the experience that help paint a picture of what occurred, like the fact that my Dad was grateful to have purchased a pair of cheap Keds sneakers back in the US before returning, that almost none of the soldiers actually had a weapon, and that the thing that he thought Saving Private Ryan got absolutely right about war was how LOUD it was. Many have also heard the story of how he was hit by a mortar during the war and subsequently sustained a head injury, and that it was only the result of a miracle that his helmet protected him from further damage. They also know that to this day he still has this helmet.
It’s amazing to think how close I was to never existing, if not for that helmet.
Fewer friends know the story of my grandfather. During law school, we were all required to write a thesis-like paper as a requirement for graduation; from the beginning, I was dead-set on writing about the topic of torture, something that was unfortunately a current issue due to American policies stemming from the War on Terror. When pressed why this issue was so important to me by my colleagues, even though it would have little importance to my post-law school career, I would eventually mention my grandfather. During the time of the rebellion against the British, my grandfather, a poor farmer who was also an important village leader at the time, was imprisoned by the colonial forces and held without trial for two years, and was routinely tortured during this time. I think of this, then I think of my sweet old grandfather; though we were separated by a language barrier, I often felt a deep connection with the man after whom I was named, perhaps no more strongly than when we would play quiet games of backgammon together. We were both known to be quite the talkers among our friends, but it was in these games that we revealed the other side of our personality. I never went into this much detail in my explanation; just a simple reference to my grandfather’s experience was usually enough to suffice.
I never mentioned that my Dad still suffers to this day from nightmares caused by the night he was awakened by a rifle pointed to his head by a British soldier, who demanded to know from this eight year old the location of his father.
Even fewer know the story of Antonis, my Dad’s brother. In all my life, I may have told it only once or twice; it’s not exactly something that can come up in casual conversation. I have only heard stories about him a handful of times myself, for similar reasons. In the few conversations that we’ve had, I learned that Antonis was the pride of the family, the one who was the nicest and smartest and handsomest of all the children, the one that was absolutely beloved by everyone and destined for greatness. I never was able to meet him; beyond these stories, the only thing I can remember is a black-and-white photograph from a visit to the old family home in Lythrodontas.
One day in 1964, Antonis was in Nicosia looking for replacement parts for his bike for work. He was then kidnapped. His family never heard a word about his whereabouts; for decades, the only concrete thing that they knew was that he was “missing”. My grandfather would go on daily visits to the President and Greek congressional leader, pleading for any information whatsoever. However, it wasn’t until a few years ago that our family would learn anything, when a chance encounter with a Turkish Cypriot policeman from that area finally gave us some news: he told my other uncle that “Antonis had been very brave”. My grandparents never lived to hear this.
My other uncle, Haris, has worked tirelessly for years to champion the cause of the missing, from both the 1974 invasion and the inter-communal violence of the 60’s, working with people on both sides of the ethnic divide to try and find bodies and identify their remains. Over the years, they have had many successes, and both sides have helped with the effort. But it wasn’t until last month that he finally learned what he had waited decades to hear.
My Dad told me that his brother emailed him that afternoon that the body of Antonis had been found. He told me that his body had been found among several others in a…and as my Dad searched for the term, I said “mass grave,” and yes, that was the term he was thinking of. They sent the bones to Bosnia for testing, because they unfortunately had the equipment and expertise in handling these situations. They confirmed that one of the bodies was indeed Antonis. An upcoming trip to Greece now was updated to include a visit to Cyprus, as plans were arranged and flights were booked. Finally, our family could see an end.
* * *
Last week, I had my first phone call with my Dad since his visit to Cyprus. We then talked for a long time about all the details he learned and about the funeral that they were finally able to have.
We learned a few more bits of information, helping to reveal more of what happened to Antonis. He was initially captured by Turkish Cypriot militiamen, but based on the location of his body and other facts we would uncover, he was eventually transferred to the custody of the Turkish Cypriot police. He was then held under their custody for months, where he was tortured.
In examining the body, they found injuries stemming from incidents from different times. First, the nose had been broken in and crushed. A couple of months later, there was a separate injury where the cheekbone was fractured. This injury was not severe enough to be fatal. The body was found with the hands tied behind the back. The conclusion was that based on these details, Antonis was most likely buried alive.
Antonis was one of 16 people found in this mass grave.
It was by luck that they were even able to find the site, the result of some previously unplanned excavation as they work on improving conditions in the occupied territory. This was my Dad’s first visit to the occupied territory since his injury in 1974: it was only in recent years that travel restrictions for Greeks had been eased, when previously they were completely barred from entering. He still decided that it was better to use his American passport; he had a Turkish Cypriot guide drive him and his brother around, since Greek Cypriots cannot drive without special insurance; he had to return by the end of the day, because that is the extent of time that they are allowed to remain. Not only was he able to see the site where they found Antonis, but his guide took him to a couple of hills where he believed that he sustained his injury during the war; my Dad is unsure whether or not they found the correct spot, and is looking forward to another trip some time in the future to make certain.
Questions still remain. While the government is quick to mention the tragedy of ’74 (and rightfully so), their unwillingness to confront the awful acts that the Greek Cypriots committed during the 60’s has led to terrible delays with cases like that of Antonis. And the entire nature of his kidnapping and detention still makes us wonder who knew of his situation, when did they know, and why were we never informed.
Then there is of course the simple question: why? Antonis was an innocent, a man who had in the most unfortunate way found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. In some ways, it can be answered in an almost matter-of-fact manner: he was a victim of these awful crimes simply because of his ethnicity. But to go beyond this superficial explanation and down to the root cause, to determine the philosophical reasons of why humanity can be this cruel to one another for no reason, no one really knows. Antonis was but one case in which history has shown us countless of other examples.
I was told that the funeral was a wonderful experience, and there were many great eulogies for Antonis. In the week leading up to the funeral, Haris had been conducting interviews with local news media to push the cause of the missing and to celebrate the life of Antonis. While the facts that we learned were horrible, at least now we knew them. We could begin the process of moving forward.
In the days since we talked, I have often thought of Antonis. I try to think hard about that one photograph, so that could be my lasting memory of him. But I end up instead with an image of bound hands, and mounds of dirt. And I immediately choke up, and feel an intense pain for a man I will never be able to meet.
Before, we never talked too much about Antonis, as the pain of the events and the uncertainty of his fate were too much to bear. But now, when my Dad returns from Greece, I’m looking forward to finally learning more about his brother.
* * *
Sunday will mark the 40th anniversary of the Turkish Invasion; it will be an event that most of the world will not acknowledge. After all, five years earlier on that same day we were able to put a man on the moon; that seems much more worthy of celebration. Then again, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. We just witnessed in the past few months Russia operating from the same playbook as Turkey to invade and annex Crimea. Today, we are all glued to the news of a conflict a few hundred miles to the east in occupied territories.
Some though have taken the opportunity to look back on the events. I have seen multiple photo essays of how the abandoned occupied territories exist today. These once bustling and thriving communities are now ghost towns. But then I do something stupid and read the comments like “this again?” and “I wish everyone would just shut up and get on”–not from Cypriots, mind you, but from Brits who are disappointed at the inconvenience at looking at the devastation, ignorant of their complicity in the events. Clearly, there are many people who are unaware of how fresh these scars can be; that same day, this article was published about how a missing Greek Cypriot soldier from the ’74 invasion was finally found and put to rest. I invite the commenter above to tell the grieving family to just “get on”.
I’ll do my little part by continuing to share stories with my friends of the progress towards peace, which I understand will generally be ignored. But I hope that maybe they will understand why I get so upset when a media company prints a map of Europe declaring the last year each country was occupied by a foreign power, but failing to note that Cyprus is presently occupied. Or how I could be so incensed that a journalist could propose a solution to solve the Cypriot fiscal crisis (a situation that was largely the fault of larger European powers forcing bad Greek debt on Cyprus, and using Cyprus as a pawn in an alternative scheme to punish Russia (because of the amount of banking that Russians do on the island)), with the brilliant idea of renouncing its claim on the occupied territory; I can see how no Greek Cypriot would possibly have a problem with this.
Even so, these are larger issues that will take time to work through and solve. We can still use Antonis as an example of what we need to do in the short term. I remember reading a few years ago a complaint in the Turkish press of how the Greek Cypriots continue to use the claim of 1619 missing persons to try to keep the issue alive instead of moving on and admitting that they had died. But as our family as learned, even if we are near absolute certainty as to their final fate, it is still vitally important that we learn as much as we can about what happened, and that finding their remains will allow us to finally grieve and begin the healing process.